'The Last Race' review: Riverhead Raceway documentary runs on all cylinders

By Rafer Guzmán

PLOT A documentary on Riverhead Raceway, the last of Long Island’s stock-car racing venues.

PLAYING AT Area theaters and video-on-demand.

BOTTOM LINE An unorthodox but often mesmerizing portrait of a gritty local institution.

Documentaries have a format: Observe and interview. Whether the subject is agriculture, crime, music or what have you, we expect to spend time with characters and be drawn into their story.

That isn’t quite the approach first-time filmmaker Michael Dweck takes in “The Last Race,” a study of Riverhead Raceway, the last of Long Island’s NASCAR speedways. His movie is probably the better for it. A photographer by trade, the Bellmore-raised Dweck creates a kind of virtual-reality portrait of the raceway and its many moving components, both cars and humans. Using inventive camerawork and audio techniques, Dweck turns what could have been a standard-issue documentary into something like installation art — a near-physical, full-immersion experience.

Clocking in at a swift 75 minutes, “The Last Race” is packed with visually and aurally arresting moments. Cameras mounted on cars (Dweck welded them to nearly every possible perch) put us right in the middle of the action, often at harrowingly low angles. Cars speed toward us and smash our faces; someone’s tire goes flying; we slow to a stop and stare helplessly at the sky. Microphones mounted in tailpipes capture the roaring and booming, but a plaintive symphonic score sometimes adds an unexpected emotional depth to the sight of these stock-car chariots. Fans get into fistfights, drivers trade insults, a winner weeps with gratitude in the driver’s seat.

“The Last Race” is less compelling when it makes concessions to traditional documentary methods. Dweck captures a few people speaking here and there, notably Jim and Barbara Cromarty, who ran the Riverhead Raceway for nearly 40 years before selling it in 2015. The conversations we hear are somewhat superficial, but it’s possible Dweck just wants to capture these people’s sounds, the same way he captured the cars’. One local realtor provides helpful context about Riverhead and its rising land prices, making the Cromartys’ yearslong refusal to sell even more impressive.

Much credit for the film’s smooth, artful feel goes to the brilliant editing by Charlotte Munch Bengtsen and Peter Albrechtsen’s sophisticated sound design. In the seemingly artless and unpretty Riverhead Raceway, “The Last Race” finds real beauty.

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