The Men Who Weren’t There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir
This essay asks how first person narration in the genre of neo-noir affects the audience’s perception of reality, particularly in the films Memento and American Psycho. In both films, the narrator plays a pivotal role in influencing the structure of the story. With a brief examination of film noir, its aesthetic origins, (the classic cycle beginning with The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), and the transition to neo-noir. I then examine the films Memento and American Psycho and briefly justify their place in the neo-noir canon.
Memento’s protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and his inability to create new memories thrusts the film’s structure into a uniquely non-linear format. Writer/director Christopher Nolan employs a technique where the film is told in reverse, while the protagonist attempts to make sense of the world around him, identify himself as a person, and find his wife’s killer, and all the while narrating his own tragic story. American Psycho’s protagonist is a product of his environment, where decadence and greed reign supreme. Unable to withstand the pressures of the yuppie society, his insanity leads him to murder. The protagonist’s self-awareness presents a nihilistic narrator, whose insanity skews every event in the film to an extent where the audience cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The essay then compares the two protagonists, both in their style of narration and their awareness of their flaws. A certain amount of psychoanalysis is applied to examine the two characters. Through analysis of key scenes in each film and quotations from their screenplays, this essay asserts that first person narration in neo-noir is the driving force in how the audience perceives the way the story unravels and that there is a clear manipulation and exploitation of events within it.
“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are” (Nolan 226). The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.
What is Film Noir?
The cyclical nature of the debates about film noir’s classification within cinema history and its nature as a style or otherwise is as maddening and perplexing as the noir films themselves. Their inherent cynicism and narrative complexity are what make these films fascinating. The very argument, as simplistic as it seems, is whether noir is a style, genre, or movement. “Film noir [….] is a fabrication” (Bould 2), its very existence an enigmatic odyssey into the bleakness of the American soul. Because much of the debate around noir is whether or not it qualifies as a genre, it is best that genre be defined within a cinematic context. Genre is defined as “semantic approaches that catalogue ‘common traits, attitudes, characters, shots locations, […]’” (Bould 6, Altman 1999:219). Trying to define noir may be futile, as Bould concludes: “Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always out of reach” (Bould 13). Regardless of what noir actually is, its elements are instantly recognizable.
Coming from the term Série noire, a series of Marcel Duhamel crime novels from 1945, noir was coined to describe these kinds of hardboiled novels in pre-WWII France in “right wing press vs. left wing culture” periodicals (Bould 15). This term would then be used to describe the novels of Dashiell Hammett, used by Nono Frank in 1946. The first film critic to use the term film noir was Jean–Pierre Chartier, labeling Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945)) as film noirs. He described them as “pessimistic, misanthropic US films” that were “driven by a logic of sexual desire that the public simultaneously required them to suppress” (Bould 15).
The genre’s aesthetic roots are in the German Expressionism movement with The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (Wiene, 1919) (Bould 26) with its tilted angles, oneiric set design and chiaroscuro and its realism taken from the French, from such films as La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1945), where “poetic realism diffuses such energy […]” (Bould 35). Its sinister stories are taken from the hardboiled crime novels and Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930’s. In essence, aesthetically and stylistically, noir is an amalgam of established genres that revitalized certain elements to wipe off the shiny veneer of truth and sanity in American cinema and culture.
While noir began with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the last film of the noir cycle is Touch of Evil (Welles, 1956). Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963), would launch the sub-genre of neo-noir. The clearest difference between classic noir and neo-noir is that the latter is completely self-aware and self-reflexive in its nature. However, the classic elements noir have made classifying a film as neo-noir overly simplistic. While there would be more authentic neo-noir films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), other films would be too easily defined as neo-noir when they were only distantly related to the genre, like Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003).
Neo-noir takes the themes established by classic noir and builds upon them, exemplifying post-modernism. In classic noir, there is the protagonist that suffers from the problem of identity. Neo-noir adds a twist, like a temporal memory problem, making the character deeper and, in a way, more representational of the American male in the modern world. With neo-noir, the same American nihilism that was prevalent in classic noir is thrust into the contemporary culture filled with materialism, consumerism, technology, and a post-modern use of the styles that influenced today’s cinema. Neo-noir literally means new blackness, the kind of darkness audiences cannot help but explore.
Memento: Telling the Story Backwards
Christopher Nolan’s Memento revolves around a man in search for his wife’s rapist and murderer. However, when the film begins, it seems that he has already found the perpetrator. The immediate beginning, however, reveals the unique and iconic structure of the film. The protagonist, thus far unnamed, is holding a photograph as it undevelops and fades into bleak whiteness. His environment rolls backwards, as if the film were played in reverse. With this minimal amount of information, the audience begins its journey to truth and the murky state of what is real with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).
The film cuts to Leonard sitting on his bed in a hotel room. Unlike the previous scene, which was in color, this scene is saturated black and white. It is in this scene that the narration begins and Leonard starts to establish himself and, less reliably, identify himself as a person. With noir and neo-noir’s themes of identity, Nolan’s protagonist, it seems, must start from scratch, as he begins, “So, where are you? You’re in some motel room” (Nolan 106). This is not explained, keeping the viewer in the dark as to why Leonard must explain and establish himself with such anonymity. The anonymity of the person is articulated metaphorically when Leonard says, in respect to the room, “It’s just some anonymous room” (Nolan 109). Leonard then begins to explicitly speak of himself: “You know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself” (Nolan 2:37).
This abstruseness in structure and narration makes this film qualify as neo-noir. The film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from a condition where he is unable to make new memories called anterograde amnesia, this having been caused by the same assailants guilty of his wife’s murder. There are now two factors that skew the way the story unfolds, as told subjectively from Leonard’s perspective: first, the story is subjectively told from Leonard’s point of view, and second, he has the “condition” he refers to innumerable times. However, Nolan utilizes another element: Memento is told in reverse. Memento is iconic for its unique non-linear narrative, in that all of the color sequences are edited in reverse with the black and white sequences working as interstitials. Similarly from Leonard’s perspective, the black and white sequences are seen in a linear format. With these three obstacles, astute attention paid to the film is paramount.
While a subjective and non-linear/linear narrative is uncommon, the viewer is not distanced from Leonard at all. Leonard’s narration makes the film a personal diary for himself. The narration brings in the audience closer to the character and the film, making it so that his journey to self-identification and exploration into his wife’s murder is just as much our passage.
The narration is not always present, but is included in key moments. For a while it is included primarily in the black and white scenes, but once Leonard begins speaking on the phone with someone shrouded in anonymity, that conversation narrates his background for us, explaining who Sammy Jenkis is. Thus, the narration switches to that of the uncertain temporality and is called into action when an instinct berates Leonard’s consciousness during the color sequences. When he reads the back of a Polaroid photograph (which acts as a clue) it is as if he is reading this evidence to himself. The film’s climax is technically its beginning, and just before Leonard kills the man he thinks killed his wife, he tries to make sure he is right by reading the back of the polaroid of the man is he is about to kill: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him” (Nolan 107). The cold tonality of those words reflects the complete conviction of Leonard, who does not always understand he cannot trust himself. Nor can he trust anyone else, including the film’s femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), who uses Leonard for her own bidding. He cannot remember, even when she is perfectly explicit about her intentions. He cannot trust anyone, not even himself.
The film’s real climax is where it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife’s death, and that Teddy, the most suspicious man in the film, is actually a cop. Narration plays a critical role in this climax. Teddy tells Leonard his entire history, that Sammy Jenkis never existed, that his wife’s assailants were caught, and that he has been going around town killing other people because Teddy is a corrupt cop who pitied him, and decided, with Leonard’s condition, he could make some money on it. Leonard is shocked, and in his madness, writes on the photograph of the man who just told him the truth: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him”. He slumps into denial, and Leonard performs his monologue:
“I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?! Yes. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” (Nolan 225-226).
This monologue is critical, as it explores the ideas of identity and its main purpose in the film noir genre. It taps into the existential layers of the genre, deconstructing the American antihero in a species of film which is known for its crimes and misdemeanors. The film’s philosophical aspect relates to Locke’s Problem of Identity, or whether memories actively create a person (Smith 2007, 35-44). Because Leonard is only left with the memory of his wife, he has transformed into a monster. Every time he closes his eyes, it will be as if he has to wake up from something else, with no memory of what just occurred. Leonard, as much as he knows that “we all need mirrors”, has no mirror he can use.
The way the film unfurls, the story’s structure is reliant on Leonard. Though the narration may flow in and out, the audience is always at his bidding. Nolan compared the narrative structure to a “Mobius strip”, the impossible shape that twists and turns in a serpentine way, with no discernible beginning (Spicer 2007, 59). Like the Mobius strip, Leonard cannot discern his own beginning; only what he thinks is his inception. His narration, personable\ and worthy of empathy, seems to be completely responsible for the audience’s trust in him. Even at the genesis of the film, while he is narrating a montage of his routine, he says, “You kinda have to learn to trust your own handwriting” (Nolan 110). He says this as a way to establish a system, some sort of semblance of sanity. But he cannot. He cannot even trust his own handwriting.
American Psycho: Vanity and Insanity
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the equally divisive American Psycho does not immediately strike one as neo-noir. It is less of a noir pastiche compared to Nolan’s Memento, but the film is able to attain a certain naturalistic feeling of film noir without the distracting self-awareness. American Psycho is deadly satirical of the yuppie consumerist culture of the 1980s. Instead of the Red Scare being the source of social anxiety, it is rather failure and alienation in yuppie culture. The social anxiety is less of a political motivation, but the motivation of a generation to be greedy, vain, and self-indulgent. This consumerist point of view is stressed throughout the film, and mirrors the American nihilism and apathy the same way that classic noir did, but with the appropriation of materialism. Its dark, cunning protagonist would make this film classified as “criminal noir”.
Patrick Bateman is a man who, underneath the layers of “Valentino Couture”, “water-activated gel cleanser” and “exfoliating gel scrub” is no human being (Harron/Turner 8). He is a mad man, one whose insanity drives the entire film and its plot. His internal monologue shares his apathetic and vain personality, revealing the paltry depth of his humanity.
A product of the 1980’s culture, Patrick Bateman is fully aware of his “flaws”. He fully admits that he may or may not be sane. Over a montage of his daily routine, focused on physical beauty, he says, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you […] I simply am not there” (Harron/Turner 8). With this in mind, the film progresses, with Bateman intermittently commenting on his life, like a stream of consciousness.
The method of introduction, sentient of his insanity, obtrudes the viewer into a world where there is no strict dichotomy of reality and fantasy. The viewer thus shares the inability to discern reality with Bateman. Only in a few moments is there a hint of some boundary between reality and fantasy that is demonstrated to the audience. While at a night club, Bateman tries to pay for a drink with a ticket, but the bartender says that they are not valid anymore and asks him to pay the price for his beverage. When she turns away, Bateman, talking to her but facing a mirror, he says, “You are a fucking ugly bitch, I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood” (Harron/Turner 8). She does not notice this and it is as if the disclosure had never happened. However, in terms of definite contrasts into Bateman’s ability to perceive reality, this is the only pronounced indication that the audience is given until the end of the film.
The comments that Bateman makes about his coworkers and life are the same kind of mundane and pedestrian remarks others make. From being deathly envious of a coworker and his ability to get reservations at an expensive restaurant to his irritation at his betrothed’s insistence on getting married, Bateman’s internal monologue epitomizes the subjectivity of narrative storytelling. Everything he says is from his perspective and influences the way the audience perceives the world around him.
Bateman, though, seems to show some vulnerability in the film, which suggests a social commentary relevant to the era. Already driven by madness, the pressures of society seem to drive him insane. When asked by his fiancée why he cannot simply quit his job, he answers honestly, not only for himself, but for everyone around him: “I… want… to… fit… in” (Harron/Turner 13). His vain mentality is explained by the culture that surrounds him, in that the standards and expectations are unattainable without extreme stress.
American Psycho is not a proto-typical neo-noir, and seems more characteristic of horror, with its sadistic violence and generous amount of gore. However, the film’s inherent pessimism, satirical cynicism towards yuppie culture, and fatalism for its protagonist makes it a veritable qualifier for the sub-genre. After murdering Paul Allen, Bateman goes to his apartment to create his alibi. The narration in the scene begins like the archetypal criminal in classic noir. However, it regresses to Bateman’s typically narcissistic thought process. He says, “When I get to Paul Allen’s place, I use the keys I took from his pocket before the disposing of the body. There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and it’s obviously more expensive than mine” (Harron/Turner 30:14). Bateman is so blinded by greed that he can barely keep his focus on the murder. His purblind attitude towards everything is essential to understanding the plot of the entire film.
Patrick Bateman has not killed anyone. He has not even killed Paul Allen. It was all in his imagination. That does not mean he is sane. He manifests his blood lust in books with drawings of the murders he thinks he has committed. His sanguineous fantasies are just as much as ours as they are his. His blood lust is an addiction one that layers itself so that Bateman’s world is then deemed incomprehensible.
The morbidity of the film is one defined by the world that the protagonist lives in, an amalgamation of fear, desire, lust, and greed. Bateman’s awareness of his mental state is clear from his formal introduction, making his apathy for it all the more terrifying. Even if the film works as a confession, he admits “[…] there is no catharsis” (Harron/Turner 94). His entire perspective is non-compos mentis, poisoned to where he is unable to discern between reality and fantasy. This juxtaposition of self-awareness and lack of awareness of one’s environment deliberately misleads the audience’s understanding of what is happening. Bateman’s character is illustrated with complexity; his madness is imbued with every frame of the film. After all the events of the film, even he admits, “I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Harron/Turner 94). Everything that has happened has only opened a door into his mind, even though, it really has not happened at all.
Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems
Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different. While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).
Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.
However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.
The medium of film has always been able to reflect social atmosphere through characters and stories, film noir and neo-noir often acting exemplary models. The genres reflect the seedy darkness of American humanity. However, what make noir and neo-noir unique is the ambiguity that illustrates the classic archetypes: the antihero, femme fatale, and villain. Often, no character is the de facto good guy. As classic noir transitioned to neo-noir, the ambiguity was intensified with more graphic depictions of the sinister stratum of fear and loathing in the United States. The films Memento and American Psycho continue the neo-noir aesthetic and utilize voiceover to critically affect the narrative structure. The films exploit the subjectivity of the narrator with the interpretation of events. With Memento, the film’s protagonist is unable to create new memories, thrusting the viewer into a spiral as the film is told in reverse. This narrator is unlike any other, one who cannot even trust himself. In American Psycho, a film satirizing yuppie culture, Patrick Bateman views the world in a deathly nihilistic lens. His narration is able to portray his abilities to see the world in both an objective way, in observing his culture, as well as one blinded by madness and consumerism, the culture he so astutely observes. Narration is the driving force of both films, shaping the audience’s perception so that each film is understood as entirely subjective from the protagonist’s point of view, thus shaping the audience’s perception of reality. There seems to be no clear dichotomy between fantasy and reality, especially when both narrative styles seem to be a stream of consciousness. What is critical to both of these films is the audience’s ability to separate reality from fiction. Narration adds a very personal element to the films, in that the audience can never truly distance themselves from the characters. Thus, trusting the protagonist is vital, but proves almost foolhardy by the end.
While one character may inspire empathy, the other inspires repulsion. Yet both of these characters, holding the audience at their mercy, reflect the nihilistic American soul, presenting an unsatisfied and disturbed persona of a post-WWII people, all executed with a sinister framework.. In neo-noir, there is no light; there is only darkness.
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I believe in “Intelligent Design”, which is to say I am somewhat a proponent of the Auteur Theory. (Holla, Andrew Sarris!) And when one becomes a semi-proponent of such a theory, they are often inclined to fall in love with the director as much as the work itself. Even if it’s only after one film, if one is so enamored by the precise style, the instantly recognize camera movements, even the name itself, Lord knows said cinephile will be in line for the next film by whatever director they’ve fallen in love with. Such was the case with Andrew Dominik, whose incredible film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford left me intoxicated. But what happens when that director, well, shall we say, seems to lose his mind in a bizarre mash-up of unclear ideas, hack-y visuality, and heavy handedness? Uh, well, you seem to get Dominik’s extremely disappointing Killing Them Softly, or, as I thought of it, I Have No Idea What I Want to Say or How to Say It.
In Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, follows a hit man (Brad Pitt), as he follows a couple of people who turned over a card game and made it look like another guy did it (said fellow played by Ray Liotta, which makes one wonder where he’s been all these years). Meanwhile, as Pitt’s hit man talks with various people in bars and cars about the approach, the reason, and the morality of the hits, the two fellows who committed the crime, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), try, seemingly half heartedly, to avoid the new price on their heads.
I do not believe I have ever watched a film that was so incredibly heavy handed and yet had no idea what it was saying or how to say it. Prior to the official release of the film in the United States, back when it prancing around Cannes and competing for the Palme d’Or, Dominik and his team, whoever they are, decided on a fairly overt Americana theme. This Americana theme, which was not, however, very present in the trailers for the film, seems to try to set up some sort of thematic arc or thesis for the film, but, just as the film itself, it seems to be only vaguely related to the film. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of some political figure on a TV or disembodied voice on the radio, whether it is McCain, Obama, or even W. Bush, talking about the economy. So, here lies the first problem: Less of a lesson or exercise in self reflexivity, Dominick goes for the heavy handedness outside of the direct dialogue (with the exception of certain scenes and certain pieces of dialogue), and feeds it to the audience in a very strange way. He feeds us his badly constructed lesson like a third party. A part of me would have preferred a Godardian lesson through the characters (knock on wood) as opposed to a fairly lazy attempt at chastising the American people. But, as often as these little sound bites from various political speeches featured on CNN and C-SPAN are there, and as often as they use buzz words like “Economy!” and “Fiscal” and “Community!” and “People!”, Dominik doesn’t really say anything about this. There are vague hints about why he’s trying to say something, with the hit man once or twice tip-toeing towards pontification about America being “a business” and the state of the country, but like an essay without an outline or any real thesis, the heavy handedness just seems loud, obnoxious, and vague. In a way, Killing Them Softly is like Andrew Dominik’s economically aimed, loosely neo-noir version of Dogville (whose thesis is far more clear cut, and yet excellently articulated cinematically). There’s some sort of attempt at juxtaposition in the film, with the gritty and slummy landscape of the gangsters (?) and the immaculate, expensive setting for the hit men. But, again, that try at visual cues does not translate well or effectively. There’s a hint of libertarianism, which left me sitting in the theater wondering, “Did Ayn Rand’s ghost possess Dominik or something?”
I was hoping that if the story was lackluster and all over the place, that at least the visual style would be interesting. And I guess you could call it interesting. Interesting in that it is a train wreck. While The Assassination of Jesse James’ style was refined, gorgeous, and purposefully shot (by Roger Deakins, no less), Killing Them Softly’s cinematography felt like the bastard child of J.J. Abrams, Julian Schnabel, and Guy Ritchie. Granted, some of the scenes do look good, but there is, by no means at all, any kind of consistency to the images on the screen. Nothing seems coherently placed together, its editing just as lackluster. Yes, the slow motion scene where Brad Pitt shoots someone looks pretty great (reminiscent of some of the finer scenes in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline pumped reboot of Sherlock Holmes), but… why? With Russell’s heroin addict, some of his scenes are straight out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, OH THE LENS FLARE! It’s ironic that so many of the scenes should be dictated less by any real action or purpose or even character and more by music and sound, because a short film I recently made (which you can watch here) had just that as its thesis: editing has changed, and when used poorly, can send a film into jeopardy. There’s no purpose to this visual style. There’s no reason. There’s no perspective. It’s just messy. The incoherent mess of a political allegory paired with the hodgepodge visual style… gosh, that’s two strikes.
Stylistically, regarding the plot, we hit another bump in the road. A lot of it, I assume intentionally, feels like a neo-noir. But that tonality of the film shifts, fluctuates, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a switch to something grittier, which under normal circumstances would not be inherently bad. The switch seems to be nodding to films like GoodFellas (which is sort of ironic), where the realism of the violence takes the center stage, disillusioning the audience of the romanticism they became familiar with two decades prior with The Godfather. That would be fine, you know, if it stayed that way. There’s another shift to something talkier, less noir and more “I don’t know what style I’m working with, so this is like an interstitial”. There’s some dark comedy in there for, like, two scenes. If the film had been sliced and diced into a series of vignettes, each short dedicated to its own kind of style and tone, maybe the film would work. But, as is, we get something confused. Excited, probably, but unable to know its own pace and something easily confused.
My last hope would be performances. Richard Jenkins, as a man (named Driver, for the record) who has long conversations with Pitt’s hit man, is good. Brad Pitt is fine. James Gandolfini is not very good. Ray Liotta is pretty good. Scoot McNairy is the only one who gives an enthralling performance, primarily within the first 15 minutes of the film. But no one really seems to bring their A-game. Pitt’s hit man, with his “inconsistent” moral views (he kills people, and yet criticizes the United States) make his character more pseudo-enigmatic rather than one of true depth. There’s no real good study of any of the characters, when this kind of film from this kind of director would definitely call for it. Its script, as well, is all over the place, with big chunks of dialogue and monologue fairly unnecessary and doing nothing to a) illustrate the character in a more detailed way or b) articulate and elaborate on whatever thesis it may or may not have. But, hey, Brad Pitt looks good in sunglasses.
Killing Them Softly is a confused film: stylistically, thematically, and in a narrative sense as well. With little rhyme or reason for many of the creative decisions made, little attempt to give meaty and interesting characters, and a severe allegory that inexplicably doesn’t have any idea how to articulate its thesis well, what is their left to say? What is there left to comment? I haven’t seen Chopper, but Dominik doesn’t really establish a precise and clear voice like he did with Jesse James. It looks like Dominik, maybe trying his hand at post-modernism, spent less time killing them softly and more time killing his audience haphazardly.
The main point that my English teacher has been making while we study Emily Bronte’s seminal novel Wuthering Heights is that choices and repercussions have a very cyclical nature. They are of the sort to affect us, whether in a microscopic way or not, and everyone else forever. The choices made, we are learning, even have the power to effect generations. While the generational aspect may not be exactly the same as in Wuthering Heights, the cycle of choices is indeed a common parallel and thesis in Rian Johnson’s new film Looper, one of the smartest, hippest, most emotionally wrenching neo-noirs to come along since… well, Johnson’s debut feature, Brick. Though, let us not ghettoize the film to simply neo-noir or even sci-fi; Rian Johnson’s third film is just good period.
About thirty-two years in the future, time travel has not been invented, as the gruff voice of Joe (Joseph=Gordon Levitt) will tell you. The only people who do use it are the ones living thirty years from that future, although it is strictly illegal. These people are gangsters and thugs, and when they use it, they use it to get rid of any trace of someone by sending them back in time to a hit man, who immediately shoots them and then collects their payment. These hit men are called “Loopers”, a name that gives way to theoretical concepts of time and space (e.g. the cyclical cycle of life being a loop). When the looper’s contract is up, the gangsters send back the older version of themselves, to be terminated upon arrival. When one person called the “Rain Man” begins cutting contracts short all around the country, Joe must face a difficult decision: killing his future self.
That is the general, trailer and hype version of the story, but the film has less to do with Present Joe (Gordon Levitt) and Future Joe (Bruce Willis) going at it for two hours then one might be led to believe. Instead, the film becomes an interesting exploration on the theme of choices. Both Present Joe and Future Joe must make decisions that will mark and affect their present and future forever. Instead of boiling it down to a reductive, silly Back to the Future thesis of decision making, the decisions in this film have a bigger impact and more relevance on the present. The choices the characters must make are about who they will become, in all seriousness, and what kind of future they will have. Johnson throws in another curveball by making it so the decisions to be made will essentially affect the futuristic society as a whole.
There is an extended conversation scene in a diner between Present Joe and Future Joe that is very reminiscent of an extended conversation scene between a philosopher and a tragic heroine played by Anna Karina in the film Vivre sa Vie. When breaking down and synthesizing theoretical and philosophical concepts, you essentially have three camps of exposition: Vivre sa Vie, which is a lecture in dialogue form; The Matrix, which is a lot of exposition in an effort to synthesize dense concepts in dialogue form; and Inception; which is, if not exactly the most fluid dialogue on earth, at least the most accessible. Looper, strangely enough, becomes a category all its own. Yes, the concepts of making choices and the consequences of those choices on the future and other people are made, but it is written with such breadth and clarity that it hardly seems like synthesis at all. Johnson is a whiz at dialogue, whether he’s recreating and copying a certain hardboiled style seen both in Brick as well as in Looper, or telling a heist story much like The Sting or Paper Moon in The Brothers Bloom. Johnson is able to get his ideas, styles, and themes across to the audience pretty effortlessly. The conversation, therefore, should be fairly accessible to anyone who maybe didn’t love or understand Inception.
Johnson’s style is not only written all over the dialogue, but in the style of the film itself. Its locales are a combination of rural Kansas and a futuristic Metropolis. Its technology transitions smoothly between the present (as in 2012) and the future (as in 2044).Apparently, Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom is described as a “post-modern heist movie”, and if that it is so, it is because of its quirky way of appropriating very classic settings and elements and appropriating them within a very modern context. It’s a layering of the old and the new. Looper does the same thing, making the future not so far away, combing the essences of contemporary technologies and the newness of futuristic tech. It makes it so that it does not feel like a sci-fi film as much as, say, Blade Runner. Its feet are rooted to the present in many ways, and this smooth transition and appropriation of style is fascinating.
Thrilling again stylistically, Johnson returns to neo-noir, with first person narration and all! Plenty of fascinating archetypes to go around, but what is different here is the optimistic quality of the film. Neo-noir is typically filled with a nihilistic state of mind, but, good or bad, the film seems to be filled with hope.
The performances are all around superb, with Gordon-Levitt, underneath layers of makeup to make him look more like Willis, getting that gritty, existential quality of the perfect noir anti-hero. Willis, of course, kicks ass, but with both of them playing the “same role”, there an interesting dynamism about the character that has one actor complement the other in terms of manifestations of vulnerability and masculinity. Gordon-Levitt is the boy; Willis is the man. The relationship dynamic of each trying to prove to the other that they’re better is a highlight of the film. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, slips into (and infrequently out of) a Southern drawl for a hardworking belle whose son holds the key to the Joes’ existences. (A note: the kid who plays Sara’s son gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from someone under the age of 21. It does not seem like a 7 year old trying to act alongside heavyweights, it feels like a 7 year old giving the heavyweights a run for their money. He is literally better than Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and on par with Anna Paquin in The Piano.)
The film does have a sizable flaw: its pace. Its first hour, no matter how many gunshots are fired, is slow and drags on for a bit. The meat of the story and emotion is in the latter half, and while it’s fine getting there, the tone and pace fly around a bit, almost unsure of itself. It isn’t that the film keeps talking about things, but it just seems to take a long time to where it wanted to really begin. It feels as if the key moments in the first half are Present Joe explaining himself, Present Joe meeting Future Joe, and Present Joe meeting Emily Blunt’s Sarah. The moments in between those seem, while not totally unnecessary, not as well written. There’s more passion and pathos in scenes with Joe, which is the danger of balancing large concepts and several characters and using it as a framework around a few key characters. Luckily, it is not enough to mar the experience of seeing the film.
Rian Johnson has, with only three films under his belt, become one of the preeminent visionaries of independent filmmaking. Brick is his masterpiece, but Looper is an excellent film that drags the viewer in to examine choices, both theirs and the characters’. Its unique, post-modern style has now become a trademark for Johnson’s work, while its accessibility with regard to heady concepts and ability to retain all of the film’s intelligence will please audiences. Both Gordon-Levitt and Willis are awesome powerhouses, and while the pace can occasionally lag, the film is quite the thrilling experience. In terms of cycles, I can’t wait to experience all over again.
I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.
Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.
What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.
Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.
The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.
Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.
Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.
Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.