The seeds for this renaissance were planted in 2007 when films that could not be categorized outright as neo-noir but were still “dark as hell” in theme and style (i.e. the dueling banjos that were There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men) left the most indelible impressions, if not on mass audiences, then on fellow filmmakers lurking in the shadows. In my yearly wrap-up, I specifically looked at the grim melodramas not nominated for Best Picture when I said, “Flicks like Zodiac, Eastern Promises, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Gone Baby Gone point towards a film movement not unlike the film noir of the 1940′s that mirrors America’s anxiety towards the chaotic outside world inward against the intimate settings of neighborhoods and families in stylish and unsettling ways.” But it wasn’t until 2010 that those seeds planted in 2007 bloomed.
It started in February, the coldest and most obscure of months — a time of year that is usually an artistic black-hole for film. Yet it was on the same weekend when two of filmdom’s greatest living masters delivered what appeared to be larks - two darkly playful films that were spins on Hitchcock, the man who evolved from film noir to create his own sub-genre of thriller named for himself. Martin Scorsese gave us his take on old Hitch with his thrilling, nerve-shattering, and heart-wrenching Shutter Island, which was an adaptation of the best-selling Dennis Lehane novel. Meanwhile, on no less disturbed shores, but more quietly and subtly, Roman Polanski spun a Hitchcockian tale (also a book to film adaptation) with his classy, snarky, and erudite The Ghost Writer. Here we witnessed two cinematic stalwarts play with their audience, riff on neo-noir conventions and deliver their most unabashedly entertaining films in years.
Flash forward to the summer and to the time of year audiences gorge themselves on unimaginative and regurgitated pulp. Against all odds, the new vanguard of auteurs put their stamp on neo-noir. In June, writer/director Debra Granik slipped Winter’s Bone under the skin, and it left a splinter in the minds of film buffs. In her tale of young Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence in a star-making role), the girl from the Ozarks searching for the truth behind her crank-cookin’ daddy’s disappearance, Granik took what could’ve easily become an exploitative piece of poverty-porn (ala the trite Slumdog Millionaire or appalling Precious) and wrapped it in a neat little box of neo-noir conventions. In doing so, Granik created a minor miracle as the film rises above its neo-noir narrative framework to deliver a little sliver of hope.
Then in mid-July, the movie EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT finally arrived on screens courtesy of the one and only Christopher Nolan, the auteur some have hailed as a latter-day Hitchcock and whose Memento re-wrote the book on neo-noir nearly ten years ago. Inception couldn’t be more different from Winter’s Bone on the surface, yet at its core, it revels in the same neo-noir narrative framework. Together, the summer’s best independent film and the best mainstream blockbuster represent the peak of the current neo-noir cycle.
They operate at violently opposite ends of the generic spectrum. Winter’s Bone is Person-Centered Theory, grit, intimacy and female empowerment while Inception is Gestalt Theory, polish, big ideas and male guilt. Yet they are both near perfect examples of what neo-noir can achieve, and how as a genre it can tap into the cultural zeitgeist.
In a world of insane political extremes, corporations and governments unable to think outside the box and get shit done, and a mass of people sedated with recycled entertainment, is it any wonder that a film like Inception would take our imaginations hostage? When it comes to neo-noir, the grand sages (Scorsese and Polanski) may have refined and polished those old ideas…but it’s the empowered woman (Granik) who has dressed them up in new garb, and the new high priest (Nolan) who has pulled back the curtain and has not struck oil, but found alternative fuel. The world is a dark and scary place; filmmakers have always known this and held up a mirror. But we can’t always fall back on what worked or entertained us in the past. Sometimes we have to pass through that mirror. Neo-noir can now incorporate some fresh ideas, and the message to the world is clear…it’s time to dream bigger.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Below you will find my photographic evidence through classic film stills of the Film Noir evolution that culminates in this Neo-Noir Renaissance of 2010:
EXHIBIT ZERO: Proto-Noir – Fritz Lang’s M (1931)
EXHIBIT 1: Classic Film Noir – Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945)
EXHIBIT 2: Neo-Noir – Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)
EXHIBIT 3: Modern Melodrama (Not quite Neo-Noir) – Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
EXHIBITS 4 through 7: The Neo-Noir Renaissance of 2010 from Shutter Island to Inception