By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 15, 2023)
What is “neo-noir”, as opposed to “film noir”? The easiest explanation? Most of your film scholar types generally define the “classic film noir cycle” as cynical, dark, and moody B&W crime dramas produced between 1940 and 1959; consequently, any similar entries going forward automatically get tossed into the “neo” noir bin. Now, there are those who would say (with a certain air of haughtiness) “actually, that’s an oversimplification” (yes, I hear you).
But I’m a simple kind of man. I take my time; I don’t live too fast. Troubles will come, and they will pass. So, for the purposes of this study (and to spare you further Lynyrd Skynyrd quotes) I’m just going to dive in with my picks for the top 10 neo-noirs of the new millennium (so far) …suitable for late night viewing, with a stiff shot of your favorite adult beverage on standby.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – It’s a testament to the late director Sidney Lumet’s gift that his final film (which he made in 2007, at age 82) was just as vital and affecting as any of his best work over a long career. Recalling The King of Marvin Gardens, it’s a nightmarish noir-cum Greek tragedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out businessman with bad debts and very bad habits, which leads him to take desperate measures. He enlists his not-so-bright brother (Ethan Hawke) into helping him pull an ill-advised heist of a jewelry store owned by their elderly parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Also with Marisa Tomei, Michael Shannon, and Amy Ryan. Great ensemble work, with a taut screenplay by Kelly Masterson.
Collateral – Tom Cruise is unarguably the most popular movie star on the planet; in fact so synonymous with market-tested box-office mega-product that he seems more of a “brand” than a human being…which is why I’m always blind-sided when he occasionally reminds me that he can still act (when he wants to). One case in point: Michael Mann’s 2004 film.
Cruise disappears into his role as a suave sociopath, a contract killer who enlists an unsuspecting L.A. cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to be his wheel man as he coolly checks off his “to do” list for the evening. Equal parts neo-noir, hostage drama, and psychological thriller; incredibly tense. Brilliant cinematography by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron captures the vibe of L.A. at night in unique fashion (nice little unexpected touches, like a glimpse of a coyote sauntering across a downtown street). The populous supporting cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Debi Mazar, Peter Berg, and Javier Bardem. Stuart Beattie wrote the screenplay.
Drive – Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances to date as a Hollywood stuntman by day, a wheelman-for-hire by night in this richly atmospheric, top-notch 2011 crime thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding (with a screenplay by Hossein Amini and James Sallis). Paradoxically (and in true Steve McQueen fashion) Gosling is technically giving more of a non-performance; he is not quite all there, yet he is wholly present (i.e. the less he “does”, the more intriguing he becomes).
From a purely cinematic standpoint, the director proves himself to be on a par with masters of modern noir like Michael Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type (don’t expect Albert to be the “ ha-ha” kind of clown in this outing; more like the John Wayne Gacy kind of clown). (Full review)
The Guilty – Essentially a chamber piece set in a police station call center, this 2018 thriller is a “one night in the life of…” character study of a Danish cop (Jakob Cedergren) who has been busted down to emergency dispatcher. Demonstratively glum about pulling administrative duties, the tightly wound officer resigns himself to another dull shift manning the phones.
However, if he was hoping for something exciting to break the monotony, he’s about to fulfill the old adage “be careful what you wish for” once he takes a call from a frantic woman who has been kidnapped. Before he gets enough details to pinpoint her location, she hangs up. As he’s no longer authorized to respond in person, he resolves to redeem himself with his superiors by MacGyvering a way to save her as he races a ticking clock.
Considering the “action” is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, writer-director Gustav Möller and his star perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies. Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. I haven’t seen the 2021 U.S. remake…but I don’t see how you could improve on perfection. (Full review)
Killer Joe – This 2012 film is a blackly funny and deliriously nasty piece of work from veteran director William Friedkin. Jim Thompson meets Sam Shepherd (with a whiff of Tennessee Williams) in this dysfunctional trailer trash-strewn tale of avarice, perversion and murder-for-hire, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his own play. While the noir tropes in the narrative holds few surprises, the squeamish are forewarned that the 76 year-old Friedkin still has a formidable ability to startle unsuspecting viewers; proving you’re never too old to earn an NC-17 rating. How startling? The real litmus test occurs during the film’s climactic scene, which is so Grand Guignol that (depending on your sense of humor) you’ll either cringe and cover your eyes…or laugh yourself sick. (Full review)
Man on the Train –There are a only a handful of films I have become emotionally attached to, usually for reasons I can’t completely fathom. This 2002 drama is one of them. Best described as an “existential noir”, Patrice LeConte’s relatively simple tale of two men in their twilight years with disparate life paths (a retired poetry teacher and a career felon) forming an unexpected deep bond turns into a transcendent film experience. French pop star Johnny Hallyday and screen veteran Jean Rochefort deliver mesmerizing performances. There apparently was a 2011 remake; but as in the case of The Guilty (above)…I don’t see the point.
Memories of Murder –Buoyed by its artful production and knockout performances, this visceral and ultimately haunting 2003 police procedural from director Joon-ho Bong (Parasite) really gets under your skin. Based on the true story of South Korea’s first known serial killer, it follows a pair of rural homicide investigators as they search for a prime suspect.
Initially, they seem bent on instilling more fear into the local citizenry than the lurking killer, as they proceed to violate every civil liberty known to man. Soon, however, the team’s dynamic is tempered by the addition of a more cool-headed detective from Seoul, who takes the profiler approach. The film doubles as a fascinating glimpse into modern South Korean society and culture.
No Country For Old Men – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully constructed 2007 neo-noir (which earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.
The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the aftermath of a shootout. As this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).
The cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, yet menacing, made all the more unsettling by his Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are standouts as well. Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated for his cinematography, but his work on this film ranks among his best. (Full review)
Rampart – In a published interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy once said of his (typical) protagonists “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.” Later in the interview, Ellroy confided that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling 2011 film (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts.
If you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Not unlike one of those classic 1970s character studies, this film just sort of…starts, shit happens, and then it sort of…stops. But don’t let that put you off-it’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Woody Harrelson, so good here as a bad, bad, bad, bad L.A. cop. (Full review)
Whelm – Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, writer-director Skyler Lawson’s 2021 debut feature centers on two brothers: Reed (Dylan Grunn) and August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. Desperate for money, the siblings get in over their heads with a suave, charismatic but felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran).
Equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy. A handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. The film evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. (Full review)