The Neo-Noir Renaissance

Thanks to the slow, cold burn of  Winter’s Bone and the mass-appeal of Inception, 2010 has become the year of the Neo-Noir Renaissance.       

An Idea not spinning out of control...


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)       

Fritz Lang's M


EXHIBIT 1: Classic Film Noir – Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945)       



EXHIBIT 2:  Neo-Noir – Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)       

Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN


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       

Martin Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND


Roman Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER


Debra Granik's WINTER'S BONE


Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION



  1. I saw Inception earlier this week. What a mind-bending ride. Though I felt beaten down by the end, I feel I need to see it again to sort through the layers of the dream world.

    And concerning the reflection of global angst in 2010, these current neo noir movies remind me of the sci fi movies of the 1950s that reflected Cold War anxieties.

    Dianne – ah, interesting thought. –DHS

  2. “has not struck oil, but found alternative fuel”

    Like that!

    “Winter’s Bone” is not on the radar for an Irish release yet, so I am having to ignore 50% of your output these days. Fortunately, the other 50% is “Inception”, so I can read that! 🙂

    To be serious, though, have you seen “The Killer Inside Me” yet? I ask as it is a novel from the “noir era” and then translated to cinema screens in this “neo noir era”.

    Also, given what you say above about the time that we live in, do you have any thoughts on Werner Herzog setting his version of the “Bad Lieutenant” in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina?

    The latter is also a pretty good example of the imaginative takes on this genre currently being offered up!

    Longman, I have not seen The Killer Inside Me yet, but it is on my radar for sure. You make an excellent suggestion with Herzog’s BLt:PoCNO! I loved that film, and it certainly fits into this current neo-noir cycle. The New Orleans setting in that film was genius, as the battered landscape perfectly mirrored the battered persona of Nicolas Cage’s titular cop. Here was my take on the film last year: –DHS

  3. Just popping in to say hello. and to ask, I’m curious, how many times now you have gone to see Inception? I wonder if you liked it more, the same, or less. I went to go see it a second time last week. Hope you are doing well. -the Sp1der

    I’ve seen it twice – and that will probably be it until it comes out on DVD – I’ve never been a huge “repeat” viewer in theaters unless it is something really special like this. I thought it held up very well the second time around. What did you think? –DHS

  4. I think you’re right, but I think the neo-noir movement has been slowly gathering steam through the nineties, starting out with indies like The Usual Suspects to period pieces like LA Confidential to the point where audiences are familiar enough with the genre for them to become credible major releases in their own right. Shutter Island had the biggest opening numbers of Scorsese’s career and Inception wasn’t exactly a box office dud (and hopefully it’ll continue to earn over the long haul as well).

    Darren – good point. There have always been neo-noir standouts scattered about, but I think this current cycle is the peak in terms of critical acceptance and box-office clout. — DHS

  5. If ever there was validation for repeat viewing, David, INCEPTION would be the dictionary definition. I am not all surprised you’ve already seen it twice, and I know down the road they’ll be milage on that DVD you purchase. On reflection I’ve warmed up even more to it, though I do see WINTER’S BONE as a purer, less cryptic work that resonates even more on an emotional level. I like the neo-noir theme here and how you connected the dots. We are on the same page through and through.

    Sam, yup! Winter’s Bone certainly resonates more on an emotional level. Inception is almost all cerebral (though I would argue not without some emotion). Both are great films! –DHS

  6. Great piece David. I like how you begin with 2007, as that really was an important year for the new revival of neo noir. So many dark films were released and got attention at that time. It was the best year of the decade for me by far. Winter’s Bone along with True Grit is the best thing to hit American cinema in 2010, in my opinion. Inception I found to be lacking, as it handled the Memento/The Prestige type narrative well, but was sunk by the summer blockbuster budget with James Bond like action sequences. I still think those other two Nolan’s are far greater.

    As for other neo noirs in 2010…. I think The Killer Inside Me was awful. You should see it as a fan of the genre but I wouldn’t be surprised if you are disappointed. It wasn’t very good and my reservations of Winterbottom directing were warranted. Shutter Island was merely okay. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or mind blowing. Scorsese has done much better. I would say the same for Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.

    Maurizio – I totally agree with you on 2007 – it was a watershed year for film. I did eventually catch up with The Killer Inside Me, and I actually dozed off in the middle. I liked the look of it – but narratively it was completely inert, and the ending was abominable. The other films I liked a bit more than you, though I agree Scorsese and Polanski have both done much better…but I found both films to be very entertaining larks. –DHS

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