Everybody’s Got a Secret, Sonny: The Year in Film Noir

Side Effects

When Steven Soderbergh released ‘Side Effects’ on February 8th, 2013, most of the critical and journalistic chatter surrounded his retirement from theatrical cinema more than the actual film that he went out with.  Publicly, ‘Side Effects’ confused people because no one really knew what the hell it was. The trailers showed some kind of drama with Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum, basically untested young stars of modest hits that had little to do with their names, some talk about prescription medication, and Jude Law hanging out being Jude Law. Not a major box office draw.

But the marketing for ‘Side Effects’ was a bit of sleight of hand, as the movie only starts revealing its true nature about half way through. Which is unfortunate, because it would not hurt one’s enjoyment of the film to know going in that it’s a lean, nasty, twisty film noir that would slap a smirk on the mouth of ol’ James Cain himself. It’s terrific, one of the best February releases that I’ve seen, and the first of the handful of great, (mostly) under-appreciated gems that make up 2013’s film noir revival.

Like several of the movies discussed here, Side Effects begins in one genre and ends in another. It seems, at first, that we’re in for a domestic drama about a woman’s struggle with depression following her husband’s release from prison. Crushed dreams, bad sex, and a dreamy psychiatrist suggest that perhaps we are in for some kind of love triangle. And in a way, we are, but certainly not the one that Soderbergh and his badass writer Scott Z. Burns (‘The Informant,’ ‘Contagion,’ and the upcoming ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’) want us to expect. Channing and Rooney will have their differences, their fights, affairs, addictions, and it will all resolve with them getting back together or breaking up. Until about 30 minutes in, when an incredible scene involving a model sailboat, a butcher’s knife, and a dead fucking spouse throws everything on its ear in a storytelling somersault that doesn’t stop until the credits roll. Soderbergh keeps his RED camera, with that beautiful shallow-focus that’s defined his work in the last few years, still and clear as the characters careen violently off one another, our allegiances shifting more than once as questions are asked and answered (it adores Cain’s Double Indemnity and Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as Lawrence Kasdan’s awesome homage Body Heat). And as the razor blade of a screenplay twists deeper towards its destination, we are treated to an unexpected acting showdown between Law and Mara that is thrilling to watch. No one is who we thought they were. It’s a dark-chocolate sugar rush of a movie.


The spring (April in the USA) brought Danny Boyle’s return to the big screen with Trance. Unlike Soderbergh’s film, ‘Trance’ seems proud of its pedigree as a heist-noir from the get go, opening the movie with a voice-over and the kind of kinetic theft that the genre normally spends 2 acts building towards (in classics like Bob Le Flambuer, Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Thief), before our hero’s inevitable downfall. ‘Trance’ spends nearly it’s full running time reveling in the literally hypnotic aftermath (the plot surrounds the use of hypnotism to find a stolen painting). And, very much like ‘Side Effects,’ it pulls the neat trick of revolving protagonists and gives the feeling, in the end, that the movie we watched is not the least bit the movie we expected.

‘Trance’ throttles forward mercilessly on the strength of 4 people: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, and Danny Boyle. These people are fucking stars, and the actors explode off the screen with the same feverish edge as the director’s imagery, packed with odd ticks and hallucinations in every corner. McAvoy gets his hands dirtier than usual, Dawson exploits her likability and sexuality (especially in a close-up unseen before in R-rated films) perfectly as the hypno-therapist femme fatale, and Cassel emerges as the unlikely MVP, just behind Boyle as the engine that makes it all run. It’s another true visual stunner from the ‘Sunshine’ genius. Unfortunately, Boyle and his cast are let down a bit by the script from John Hodge (who wrote Boyle’s career-making masterworks, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), which overexplains the twists that seem a bit sillier the more the characters talk them through. If Hodge (probably with much input from his director) had left more for the audience to piece together on their own, we would be dealing with another show-stopper from the duo. As it stands, they brought us a fun, erotic, bold work, very much for adults, and very much a welcome member of this 2013 class noir.

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives. A declaration supported by the amount of forgiveness exercised in this movie (where God does not exist). A lot of people anticipated this re-team from Drive bromancers Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. When it received a day-and-date digital release with a tiny art house run, it became apparent that this was not the same kind of crowd pleaser as the last noir from these two. Which is saying a lot, since ‘Drive’ left a lot of movie goers scratching their heads, with its long stretches of silence and lack of driving. But ‘Only God Forgives’ is almost all silence (aside from the haunted house score by Cliff Martinez), no driving,  no SoCal sun, and no ass-kicking from Gosling. He does, however, get his own bloody ass thoroughly handed to him in the brief scene that justifies the funding for the “Thai Boxing” movie that Refn promised his French financiers.

This is the blackest of noirs. Only bad things happen. Horrible things. Disgusting things. Things that you see coming and cringe for minutes on end hoping that they won’t. But they do. Unlike the mysteries that define most films of the genre, this is a tragedy of inevitability. “Time to meet the Devil,” a character says to Gosling in one of the movie’s first lines. The Devil is not a character (although several make a run at it), the Devil is this movie, a stroll through the Thailand underworld as colored in with deep, dark beauty by the mind of Refn (who describes it, and all his films, as a distillation of his own fetishes). Despite a poisonous critical reception, it played for 3 weeks of nightly, packed shows at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago (which typically keeps films for a week), followed by a regular series of midnight screenings.

Vithaya Pansringarm plays the film’s hero. He uses a machete to sever limbs and sticks foot-long pins in men’s ears and eyes. The screenplay calls him “the Angel of Death.” It’s that kind of film noir. I’m not sure the sub-genre has another entry (although Sam Fuller’s Crimson Kimono equals it in bizarre East-Meets-West noir hopelessness, nothing approaches its outright savagery).


One of the more heart-warming films in this revival is Prisoners, a movie about child abduction, murder, and brutal torture. It boasts an A-list cast and production team (including Roger Deakins changing lenses on the Arri digital cameras that he used so iconically in ‘Skyfall’) and material straight out of the pulpiest mystery novels. It’s an odd combination, but one that makes for a much more memorable film than either element would provide on its own.

Roger Deakins told American Cinematographer Magazine that he wanted to work with director Denis Villenueve based on his film ‘Incendies,’ liked the script (with it’s philosophical and political rumination on torture and justice), but was not interested in some of the sillier, more “gothic” elements. The director, Deakins said, promised him that those elements would be cut out of the final film. Based on the sheer amount of snakes present, though, I have to think that the gothic elements made it into the movie unscathed.  And they are glorious, lending a deep hook to a dour drama in desperate need of one (lest it end up an anonymous knock-off of instant-classic Dennis Lehane adaptations Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone). Jake Gyllenhaal does great work as a relentless, tatted up detective that echoes his Zodiac performance (he really should get his own series), but his engrossing investigation and Hugh Jackman’s less-engaging torture polemic are not the stuff of box-office gold. This movie needed boxes full of snakes. It got them. And it (unlike every other movie in this discussion) made a lot of fucking money for a grimy, brandless, R-rated mystery drama based not on a bestseller but on a bizarre spec script from a nearly-novice writer. It’s those gothic elements that make ‘Prisoners’ great, clearing the plate for a killer ending straight from the most cynical heart of noir.


The final week of October saw the release and swift dismissal of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s collaboration, The Counselor, which I praised in my previous post. The film wears its noir influences on its sleeve, an affection shared by its chief creative  officers (Scott has excelled in the genre with Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Matchstick Men, McCarthy has dabbled, with No Country For Old Men, though its genre conventions appear more readily in the Coen brothers film).

It’s pleasing, given the comparisons often made between the prose of McCarthy and his literary ancestor William Faulkner, that he would choose to explore noir whole-heartedly on the screen, just as Faulkner did with his Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep, one of those Bogart potboilers that defined film noir. ‘The Counselor’ feels much more like a follow up to ‘No Country for Old Men,’ both as a film and as a written screenplay, than anything new. But it’s an interesting direction for McCarthy to take, given that book and film’s positions as fulcrums in the aged author’s career. Certain genre elements (the foiled drug deal, a man in over his head, dark forces in hot pursuit, unbearable tension), eccentric Javier Bardem performances, and a southwestern setting unite the two. But ‘The Counselor’ engages one more key noir trope untouched by ‘No Country’: the Femme Fatale, played with varying levels of success (depending on who you ask) but with undeniable gusto by Cameron Diaz.

The Femme Fatale, one of noir’s most prominent and notorious elements, finds its way, to varying degrees, into every one of these films. And it’s an interesting point of discussion for films noir made in 2013. What place is there for the cunning, dastardly woman as villain and temptress? Each film handles the idea differently, none in a very progressive sense (although ‘Prisoners’ has an interesting angle, and ‘Only God Forgives’ gives us Kristen Scott Thomas as more Oedipal monster than seductive schemer). Where is the woman detective (which Robert Altman’s Gosford Park used so delightfully) or the female anti-hero? These women are smart, proactive, and powerful over men, yes. But it’s an old archetype that was none-too-flattering in the first place, with biblical misogyny at its root.

The other constant among all these films, to varying degrees, is malicious brutality. Double crosses, murders, shadowy dealings: these are the things that have defined the genre since its birth. While the term film noir, or “black film,” was meant to describe the shadowy black-and-white photography of the old pictures, it applied equally the dark, beating hearts at the center of the stories. And while film noir has grown beyond the black-and-white corners of John Huston and Herman Melville, its dark heart has only degraded with time, reaching new levels of depravity. The goal of these films was always to shock us, to expose the underbelly, the back alley dealings, the death that hides beneath our noses. The darkness of the film noir has only deepened, and these new films revel in it, to our delight.


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