Tag Archives: Neo-Noir

A Marxist Reading of Fargo (1996)

Fargo Film

A Homespun Murder Story

Marxist Literary Criticism isn’t so much concerned with how the proletariat is represented in a particular work, but with how plot, theme, and character are a product of a specific period of history. The Fargo movie from the Coen siblings showed up during the neo-noir resurgence in the early to mid ’90s (on the heels of such classics as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)). And as a piece of neo-noir fiction, it’s wonderfully entertaining though a bit enigmatic; it lacks a femme fatale. Thus my normal structuralist approach disintegrates by my third bullet-point. But, in pondering this missing element (which appeared to be gross error), I discovered that although no ‘fatal woman’ appears in the credits, there was a leading lady after all; money.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:10 KJV

Americans have always had a strange affair with lucre. We worship an ideology of hope called ‘The American Dream’ which states that anyone in this country can be a ‘self-made man’– anyone can become wealthy if they roll up their sleeves and do the work. As beautiful as this ideology may be, it has a slimy underbelly of assumptions that come along with it. We assume that the poor are poor because they’re lazy or stupid, while simultaneously believing the opposite– the rich are rich because they’re intelligent and hard working. Unfortunately, the reasons for wealth and poverty are never so straight forward.

How does this relate to Fargo?

Fargo (1996) challenges the ideology of The American Dream and the love affair that Americans have with money. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a cheery car salesmen who has accrued a great deal of debt. He devises a way to get the money to pay off said debt as well as amass a small fortune of his own. He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife so that he can extort ransom money from his rich father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) (who would NEVER give him money otherwise) but quickly loses control of events.

Jerry Lundegaard and Wade Gustafson

Jerry and Wade

Jerry is a fascinating character because he is equally pitiable and detestable. We sympathize with him because of the pressure his debts have placed on him and the demeaning way his father-in-law treats him, but we hate Jerry because he has put his innocent wife in danger for such selfish reasons. But we mustn’t forget that Jerry presents Wade with two options during the course of the film; the first being a legitimate business deal, and the second being the ransom of his daughter.

We ache for Jerry when Wade and his business associate Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg) take Jerry’s investment opportunity away from him, essentially stealing the deal for themselves. Sure, they’ll offer him a ‘finders fee’ but they are cutting him out of all future revenues. In this scene, Jerry is the everyday man, the average American trying to create opportunity for himself– and the existing socioeconomic power structure squashes him. With his only legitimate option defeated, he is forced to work outside the law for a means of acquiring his fortune.

Later, when the ransom money has been counted and bagged, Wade again takes the power out of Jerry’s hands– refusing to allow Jerry to take the money to the kidnappers. Jerry is emasculated by his father-in-law, by the kidnappers, and eventually by the police; as Wade takes the money to the swap, we see Jerry sitting by his front door in his coat and boots, impotent. Wade makes the exchange and is killed in the process, refusing to let go of his money until he ‘sees his daughter.’

Fargo in the Marxist sense appears to be progressive because it rails against the established socioeconomic structure– A structure represented in the film by Wade Gustafson and Stan Grossman because of the monetary might they are able to wield. But, à mon avis, the story is repressive because it reinforces the existing structure by punishing those who attempt to escape it (or to climb within its rungs). The American Dream is the fantasy, the religion of hope that keeps men vying for wealth– and in this film it kills them in the process.

POSTSCRIPT: I neglected to mention one of my favorite scenes where the commodification of Wade’s daughter is most apparent. Jerry tells Wade that the kidnappers want a million bucks for her, and Wade asks if they’ll take $500,000. Unreal.


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Crime Movies | Looper (2012)

Crime Movies Looper 2012

Looper (2012) (via terrymalloysnose.tumblr.com)

I attended the 8:20 pm showing of Looper (2012) last night with friends, and after hearing so many positive remarks about the film, I was filled with lusty anticipation. Near the 20 minute mark I was sold, already plotting how I would swing the cash to get it on blu-ray release day. Looper is an instant cross-genre classic– finely weaving my beloved neo-noir/crime movie genre with science fiction thriller. The story was fresh, the dialogue nearly free of eye-rolling dramatics, and the solid acting carried me breathless past the finish line.

The trailer for the film does it a great disservice, for it makes the story seem more bizarre than needful, fails to highlight each member of the wonderful cast, and doesn’t play to the strong cinematics and cool vibe that permeates the picture. Meaning, when I saw the preview some months ago I thought it looked interesting, but it failed to arrest my attention. I didn’t even know it had such strong noir elements. The only reason I attended Looper at all was due to the flood of positive word-of-mouth reviews; So I’ll add mine to the stack.

In 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet. But, in 30 years, when it finally becomes a reality– it’s quickly outlawed because of the messy consequences associated with such an event. Future gangsters, illegally using time travel, send people back to 2044 to be killed and disposed of by ‘Loopers.’ The Loopers are well-compensated for their service, but eventually each Looper knows that the Mob will ‘close their loop’–meaning, they’ll kill their future selves. This results in a big pay day, a discharge from the service of the mob, and 30 years to live on their earnings. When Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to close his loop, he must battle wits with his future self (Bruce Willis) to save his life.

Noir Definition breakdown:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The setting of Looper is a filthy future Kansas– The city is overrun with garbage, ramshackle vehicles, brothels, and vagrants. The farming communities nearby are wholesome snapshots of the past, though frequently threatened by hungry homeless and other unsavory pilgrims from the city. The present frontier of an ever encroaching evil world.

2) The Anti-Hero

Joe the younger and Joe the elder are completely different characters; Although the same individual, time and a wealth of experiences separate them. Young Joe is a junkie– He’s making a good bit of cash as a Looper, and spending as much of it as he can on drugs, women, and any other pleasure he can purchase. He’s a stoic pessimist with no loyalty for anyone other than himself. Old Joe is filled with regrets– He is completely consumed by the desire to return to his wife in the future, the woman who cleaned him up and saved his live, at any cost. He’s a brutal realist, a violent veteran, and a grateful though irrationally desperate human being. They both monologue beautifully at different points in the film– TOTAL noir.

Neo Noir Emily Blunt Looper

Emily Blunt as Sara (via heyadamlooney.tumblr.com)

3) The Femme Fatale

Sara (Emily Blunt) is the femme fatale in Looper. Without dropping too many spoilers, she creates the right amount of tension and desire to conflict Young Joe. She’s at the crux of many important choices in the story, each of them deadly, which is prerequisite for any true femme fatale.

4) Misogyny

Looper does a fair job portraying female characters as proud and independent while simultaneously making them damsels in distress. So even though the script isn’t blatantly misogynistic, classic themes of the ‘helpless woman’ pepper the tale.

Crime Movies Piper Parabo Looper

Piper Parabo as Suzie doing some very NOIR burlesque (via digitalspy.com)

5) Redemption

The film is bursting with redemptive themes– Young Joe wanting to close his loop and redeem his failure, Old Joe trying to reconcile the future with the present, Sara haunted by past missteps– Loads of intellectual and spiritual redemption happening in Looper. 

6) Eroticism

Okay, this is where I was a bit peeved. Piper Parabo’s character Suzie indulges the audience in some pointless nudity (breasts). The prolonged scene was strange and uncomfortable, nothing arousing/erotic about it. I applauded the fact that Sara has a scene later without nudity, but it still wasn’t very erotic- it felt clunky. This is one of the only points of the definition that I felt Looper missed the mark.Each sexual encounter was lacking the finesse found in a typical neo-noir/film noir picture.

Neo Noir Jeff Daniels Looper

Jeff Daniels as Abe, the Mob Boss (via flix66.com)

7) The Loss of Innocence

The loss of innocence theme was POWERFUL in Looper. The more you learn of each character’s past, the more you hurt for them– the more you endorse their destructive behaviors. Childhood innocence is a recurring theme, and how it must be protected to prevent tragedy in the future. Also, there was a fairly disturbing scene towards the beginning of the film, where a broken loop is enticed to stop running; He hadn’t considered what could happen to him if his past self was captured by the mob…

8 ) Smoke

I was delighted by the homage to film noir in Looper— smoke and cigarette integral throughout. My favorite moment was when a quiet Sara, sitting upon her porch, pretended to pull out a cigarette, light and smoke it. Even though the cigarette was absent from the scene, you could see the implicated themes of addiction, control, and temptation playing across her features.

Crime Movies Noah Segan Looper

Noah Segan as Kid Blue (via hiddlestonismon.tumblr.com)

9) Immasculation

Can we all just root for Kid Blue (Noah Segan)? The poor guy can’t catch a break. He’s a goon for the mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels), and it seems like he completely botches every assignment he’s given. By the end of the film, I was actively cheering for him– so do me a favor and pull for Kid Blue when you see Looper.

I can’t wait to own this film on blu-ray– It’s noir elements were executed so beautifully that I kinda hate Rian Johnson (the writer/director) for thinking of it first.

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Crime Movies | Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Crime Movies Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) (via impawards.com)

I discovered Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) by accident. I was drowning one day in my Tumblr dashboard, and I spotted a .gif image of Robert Downey, Jr. crouched in a bathroom on a cell phone in panic. The caption read vaguely about “peeing on a corpse,” and he was worried that the police could trace it back to him. When I finished laughing, I spent the next few hours tracking down which film the clip was snagged from–Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. 

Harry: I peed on it.
Perry: What? You peed on what?
Harry: I peed on the corpse. Can they do, like, ID from that?
Perry: I’m sorry, you peed on…?
Harry: On the corpse. My question is…
Perry: No, my question, I get to go first: Why in pluperfect hell would you pee on a corpse?
Harry: I didn’t intend to! It’s not like I did it for kicks!

The film is a happy blend of neo-noir, dark comedy, and the crime movie genres. It reflects each in a ‘fingers-crossed’ behind its back sort-of-way, never committing to any seriously while simultaneously paying homage to all. The plot is a ball of yarn you’re tangled in, and when you think you’ve raveled it, the ball rolls down the stairs. Its sober moments are defused by frequently adjacent hilarity, pitch-perfect dialogue, and magnificent parody.

Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer

Gay Perry and Harry (via nogoodsharks.tumblr.com)

[Mild Spoilers Below]

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.), narrates the film, which begins with a bungled burglary. When Harry’s friend is killed as they’re fleeing, he evades police pursuit in a random building. Auditions for an upcoming film are being held in the room he happens upon, and the script seems to resemble the tragic events of his current situation. His moving (real) performance is mistaken for ‘method-acting,’ and the impressed producers book him as a potential actor for the part. At a pre-screen test party in Hollywood, he meets “Gay” Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer), a Private Investigator, who has been hired by the producers of the film to help Harry research his role. When a corpse and a childhood crush make a sudden appearance in Harry’s life, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang quickly becomes a crime film worth watching.

Neo-Noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Perry and Harry finding a body (via cinemagreat.tumblr.com)

Lets discuss its noir merits with the noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The setting of the film is primarily the Los Angeles and Hollywood areas near Christmas time; Posh parties, swanky mansions, and luxury hotel rooms serve as the backdrop for devious deeds.

2) The Anti-Hero

Harry and Perry are explosive onscreen. Their chemistry is contagious, and their timing and delivery is an ode to a lost era of film (Neil Simon, Murder by Death). Typical “buddy cop” movie cliches are addressed then destroyed, and I was left rolling in the aftermath. At his core, Harry is a romantic, but he’s also a man chewed-up by his previous marriage. When the opportunity arrives to impress his childhood sweetheart, Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), he creates a lie that could work. 

3) The Femme Fatale

Harmony plays the femme fatale in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She’s the dame that Harry will risk everything for, and the audience knows it, but she’s oblivious. Her history is complicated, her stake is great, and the odds are bad–but Harry knows she’s a damsel he’ll save.

Michelle Monaghan Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Harmony Faith Lane (via misswinterbell.tumblr.com)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2005

Harmony and Harry (via cuorerivelatore.tumblr.com)

4) Misogyny

The film had an interesting angle of misogyny that I hadn’t expected because it was aimed at Gay Perry. Because of his sexual orientation, the men in the supporting cast are threatened by him (except Harry). The threat causes them to attack and react harshly in many scenarios, pushing Perry back or relegating him socially. I was fascinated to see that misogynists struggle to define a homosexual; they don’t want to treat him like a woman or a man, so they don’t treat him like a human being.

5) Redemption

A central motive for Harry is the lost chance he had for romance as children with Harmony. It drives him to lie to her about his vocation. He tells her that he’s a private eye like Perry in order to close the gap between them. He hopes to ignite something in her that he’s been sheltering for years. If she’ll share the flame, he’ll be redeemed.

6) Eroticism

Most of the eroticism in the film is snuffed by situational comedy–not that I’m complaining, but there isn’t a lot of it. I felt that the most compelling moments of the film were when Harry’s feelings for Harmony were transparent. You ache for him because he really loves her, and it’s beyond the selfish reach of simple lust.

7) Loss of Innocence

[SPOILER] Harry shoots and kills a goon named Mustard, and his reaction is surprising because of its authenticity. He’s deeply affected by it. Main characters in films rarely react to killing ‘a bad guy’ anymore. I was refreshed by RDjr’s treatment of the event– he made it real, and he brought us along with him.[END SPOILER] [.gifs (via mandawins.tumblr.com)]

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Crime Movie

Hey Perry, I shot a guy.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Neo-Noir

I never did that before.

8 ) Smoke

I honestly can’t remember if there was cigarette smoking in the film or not. I’m assuming yes, because everything else was there. The relic of old noir that was most apparent was the narration style. Harry recounts the events of the story as they’re happening, and he hangs grim metaphors on each.

9) Immasculation

I’ve gotta go back to Gay Perry. He’s actually the least immasculated character in the film, even though he’s threatened with it incessantly. He’s collected and confident, a well-dressed man who’s self possessed in a way that renders him immune to verbal assault. Perry is the immasculator, not the immasculated.

I know that every noir lover will do one thing after they see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang–you’ll look online for the “Johnny Gossamer” books. Tragically, they are a fake book series created for the film. Robert McGinnis lent his fabulous talent for the risque pulp covers– you can see them here. (NSFW). SOMEONE MAKE THEM REAL, PLEASE.

Please watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), it’s a particularly delicious neo-noir crime movie.

Why not sign up for the LOVEFiLM free trial. You can watch free movies online including many of the classics of the film noir genre as well as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang!


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Crime Movies | Drive (2011)

Crime Movies Drive 2011

Drive (2011) Film Poster (via blogs.metrotimes.com)

“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own. Do you understand?”

As far as crime movies go, Drive (2011) is a terrific neo-noir thriller. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, and Ron Perlman to name a few, the film was an absolute delight. The first thing I noticed was the lack of dialogue; Drive is intersected by periods of silence, varying in length and intensity. Some of these periods of quiet are unsettling, some beautiful, some tragic, but it’s in these moments that the story is told. The soundtrack can be easily divided into two categories: first, the primal throb of powerful engines and second, a handful of vintage songs. Both were perfectly suited to the film (I bet that most people googled the soundtrack while walking out of the theater, it’s that striking).

The second thing that struck me was the subtlety of Ryan Gosling’s take on his character (who is never given a name other than “Driver”). He and Carey Mulligan did a superb job relaying emotion through the smallest means possible. Nothing was “over-acted” and each of their characters appear completely genuine. I felt that the apparent lack of effort made them more believable, and ultimately relateable.

Drive Ryan Gosling

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) Scorpion Jacket (via andoooo.tumblr.com)

I’ll attempt to relay the plot in as few sentences as possible, I know that lengthy synopsis can become tiresome: The Driver is a auto mechanic by day, an infrequent stuntman, and a wheelman in the criminal underworld. He develops feelings for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is raising a son on her own because her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in jail. Their romance is cut short by Standard’s premature release from the penitentiary. Irene doesn’t know that her man is in deep with the mafia, and when the Driver learns that she’s potentially in danger he volunteers to help Standard out. The lone wheelman bites off more than he can chew.

Carey Mulligan Drive 2011

Irene (Carey Mulligan) (via movies.about.com)

Here’s my homebrew noir definition rundown:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Hollywood. A pizzeria, a garage, a greasy motel, the back room of a strip-club, and miles of road weave a vivid neo-noir backdrop.

2) The Anti-Hero

The Driver doesn’t want to be a hero, but is, and that’s what we like about him. He’s quiet without the shyness, and when he’s angry he becomes a frightening potential we can identify within ourselves, and it scares the hell out of us.

3) The Femme Fatale

Irene is the clueless femme fatale. She’s unaware of the danger she’s in and the sacrifice that the Driver is making for her until nearly the end of the film. She’s truly a femme fatale because it’s because of her that the Driver is willing to place himself in the line of fire. Blanche (Christina Hendricks) is also a femme fatale thematically, for reasons that I won’t spoil here.

Christina Hendricks Drive 2011

Blanche (Christina Hendricks) (via wegotthiscovered.com)

4) Misogyny

The misogyny in the film feels formulaic; Irene’s oblivious to her situation and simultaneously helpless, it’s a classic ‘damsel in distress’ formula- but it’s insulting to women because it type-casts them as victims. Additionally, one scene takes place in the back of a strip-club for no other reason than to objectify the women in the scene and characterize the villain who is lurking there. I only like this scene because it’s designed to be misogynistic, it makes us feel no remorse for the man who runs the club.

5) Redemption

Redemption is a definite theme in the film. Standard craves redemption for his colored past and the Driver craves redemption for feeling the way he does about a married woman. Also, Irene and her son must be redeemed from the mob who wishes them harm, redemption that can only come through Standard and the Driver.

“A lot of guys mess around with married women, but you’re the only one I know who robs a joint just to pay back the husband. Crazy.”

6) Eroticism

Drive is permeated by the unfulfilled promise of eroticism. There are no sex scenes, and the only nudity occurs in the back room of the strip-club (which is simultaneously the most violent scene in the film, so…not sexy). The most erotic moment is when Irene and the Driver share a kiss in an elevator, moments before an act of horrifying violence. It’s a great moment, and honestly I was grateful that the film was so tame. Because we never see them consummate their love, we truly feel like outsiders– and this makes their relationship seem even more beautiful.

Drive 2011 Elevator Kiss Drive 2011 Elevator Kiss
Drive Elevator Kiss Scene Drive Elevator Kiss Scene

(GIF images from onscreenkisses.tumblr.com)

7) Loss of Innocence

Irene’s son, Benicio, undergoes the biggest loss of innocence when he sees his father brutally beaten by mob muscle. Before they leave, they give him a bullet and tell him to hang on to it because the next time they come back they’re going to use it. What a horrible thing to do to a little boy.

8) Emasculation

Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is the most emasculated character in the film. He acts as a surrogate father to the Driver, but he’s constantly being driven under the heel of the mafia. His broken pelvis and permanent limp are witness to a history as peppered with risk and heartbreak as the Driver’s future. Shannon’s a shell of a man.

9) Smoke

The Driver doesn’t smoke. I felt that making sure the audience knew this was a conscious decision to break with the film noir genre while simultaneously paying homage to it. Shannon says to the Driver early in the film:

“You look like a zombie, kid. You getting any sleep? Can I offer you some benzedrine, dexedrine, caffeine, nicotine? Oh, you don’t smoke. That’s right. Better off.”

It’s as if Shannon knows that when you smoke, you’re doomed for a tragic noir ending. Guess it didn’t matter, right?

Drive (2011) is textbook neo-noir. Oddly enough, several times during the film, I felt it had a Memento (2000) vibe– I think I’m going to stage a little double feature at my place, any takers?

One word of caution: Drive is EXTREMELY violent at points. Some of the most brutal/bloody images I’ve ever seen. It’s not a film for the faint of heart.

Drive Ryan Gosling Stunt Mask

Ryan Gosling in Stunt Mask (via filmdrunk.uproxx.com)

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Noir Definition | Film Noir vs. Crime Movies

A recent discussion with a noir-loving friend from Liverpool, UK (Hi Hobnob!) has inspired me to make some changes here on noirWhale.com. We were discussing Scarface, and he was asking me how I can justify defining it as a film noir. The answer is, I can’t. Even though the film has many noir aspects, and can easily fit into the noir definition that I have crafted, it still isn’t inherently film noir. The piece of my definition that is missing is the stylistic element of film noir. The light, shadow, and dramatic cinematography is just as vital as any other component present in a completed noir work.

Film Noir

(via mistercrew.com)

This style, coupled with the noir definition, separates a film noir from a crime movie. Now, this is not to say that crime films are not noir. Quite the opposite actually, as crime films have their ancestral roots in the golden era of film noir. And the same is true vice versa. Some film noir pieces are crime movies, some are not. But there must be a division, a line drawn in the sand.

Going forward, I’ll be dividing the films that I review into two distinct categories, Crime Movies and Film Noir. The Crime Movies category will be home to the noir-inspired works that aren’t quite film noir, and the Film Noir category will be home to the stylistic masterpieces of the genre.

Here is a list of the film reviews I’ve done so far, reassigned to their appropriate categories:

Film Noir

The Third Man (1949)

Night and the City (1950)

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Crime Movies/ Neo-Noir

Chinatown (1974)

Scarface (1983)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Sin City (2005)

Max Payne (2008)

*Thank you Nicolas from Mugre Y Sangre for the further clarification between Film Noir, Crime Movies, and Neo-Noir. I truly appreciate the correction. Thanks for helping to make noirWhale.com great.

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Filed under Crime Movies, Film Noir, Noir Definition