Film noir, the shadowy, psychologically loaded cycle of crime movies that flourished in Hollywood from World War II through the 1950s, holds a special place in the twisted hearts of filmmakers.
Neo-noir revivals have broken out periodically since the mid-20th century. “Chinatown” in 1974, the Coen brothers' debut “Blood Simple” a decade later and the ironic approach Quentin Tarantino spearheaded in the 1990s all placed then-contemporary spins on the noir themes of paranoia, betrayal, obsession and corruption.
We're now in the midst of another great noir renaissance, although you may not have noticed it. Low-budget, American indie films such as “Blue Ruin” (opening in select theaters Friday), “Cheap Thrills,” “Perfect Sisters,” “Cold Comes the Night,” “Better Living Through Chemistry,” “Cold in July” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” have been wowing audiences on the festival circuit and Video on Demand, as well as the lucky few astute enough to catch some of their limited, commercial theatrical releases.
As a group, they deserve wider recognition. Although quality, of course, varies from film to film, these indie noirs cannily update classic tropes and themes and, almost to a one, do smart and startling new things within the nightmarish crime framework — and do so with a stirring indie spirit.
An unusually high percentage of them are just plain great, too.
“It's refreshing for audiences — and it's fun — because you don't know just where it's going to go,” says Jeremy Saulnier, writer-director of “Blue Ruin,” which charts a drifting loser's bungling efforts to take out his parents' killer. “When I was writing it, I didn't know where it was going to go.”
Twists abound in the new indie noirs. In “Blue Ruin,” Dwight (played by Macon Blair, Saulnier's best friend from their Alexandria, Va., youth) is unable to secure the proper weapon for the job or even target the right person. In “Cold Comes the Night,” Alice Eve's problem-plagued single mom finds herself held hostage by Bryan Cranston's Russian mobster while he searches for a cache of stolen money; rather than wallowing in victimhood, she opts for empowerment.
The pitch-black comedy “Cheap Thrills” sees two financially strapped old friends (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) willingly subject themselves to increasingly alarming acts for the paying amusement of a wealthy, amoral couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton).
In “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the life of Sam Rockwell's frustrated, small-town pharmacist changes for the better, maybe, when he meets Olivia Wilde's zonked-out femme fatale. But could the cheating couple actually be bad enough to carry out a “Double Indemnity”-style scheme?
“Perfect Sisters,” based on a true story, details the efforts of loving teen siblings Abigail Breslin and Georgie Henley to rid themselves of the alcoholic mother (Mira Sorvino) who's ruining their lives. It becomes a kind of high school project, with modern social media playing a crucial part in the planning and unraveling of the plot.
Bored Texas teens are similarly at the center of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” in which money stolen for a party weekend in Corpus Christi leads to treachery and violence.
And in “Cold in July,” another mild-mannered Texan, played by “Dexter's” Michael C. Hall, becomes increasingly disoriented after killing an intruder in his home, and then discovers that the police charged with protecting his family may not be as trustworthy as the dead man's revenge-seeking father (Sam Shepard).
That's just one of the twists in “July,” which was adapted from Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 novel and hits theaters and VOD May 23.
“This has elements of Westerns and Korean revenge thrillers to it,” the film's director, Jim Mickle, confesses. “I love stories of guys who are put under immense pressure and put in really violent situations they're not accustomed to, and see how they respond.”
“Cold in July” was accepted this week into the Directors' Fortnight section of next month's Cannes Film Festival.
According to “Perfect Sisters” director Stanley M. Brooks, the noir essentials are eternal, and naturally accommodate new wrinkles that emerge in culture and society.
“One of the interesting things about trying to update the noir genre was trying to find the most contemporary core of it, and obviously, communication between teenagers has changed dramatically,” Brooks notes. “I had the benefit of the real story to fall back on, and in fact, they were texting each other all the time. And when they were committing the murder, a friend called and one of the sisters actually said on the cellphone, ‘This is not a good time!'
“Noir is a genre that will never go away because it's character-based,” Brooks continues. “It's about putting people in the darkest situation and seeing how they'll try to get out of it. No matter where we are in the world, there will always be people who use violence as a way out.”
It'll probably be awhile though — if it ever happens — before Hollywood starts emulating the wild, perverse and imaginative approach exemplified by the current crop of indie noirs.
“There seems to be the freedom in indies to defy the typical Hollywood product,” observes Jacqueline Fitzgerald, founder and editor of the genre-focused website Film Noir Blonde. “They're trying to be less formulaic and less cliche.
“Traditional films noir were usually lower budget, and that sort of worked in their favor,” she adds. “They had more freedom than the big-budget, A-list films, so they could take more risks and be subversive. In some ways, I wonder if those guys back in the '40s were really the first indie directors. They were often topical and critical of the system, and I wonder if that appeals to today's indie directors.”
At the very least, today's indie filmmakers can probably relate to the lack of budgetary love that classic noir directors like Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer had to work with.
Mickle, who has made three well-received indie horror films (“We Are What We Are” most recently), had a devil of a time getting “Cold in July” financed since he optioned the book in 2007.
“All the things that I liked about it were things that financiers wanted nothing to do with,” Mickle reveals. “They want to be able to pitch a film in four words and get a sale, but this landed in a middle ground where it wasn't a high-concept movie and it wasn't an art movie that could survive on awards bait possibilities.”
Brooks, who has produced more than 60 films and television shows, chose “Perfect Sisters” for his directing debut after frustrating efforts to tell the story on cable.
“It was just far too dark, and every script draft that we did for Lifetime just watered it down,” Brooks recalls. “They thought there was too much teenage alcoholism, too much teenage drug use ... the one part they would do was teenage murder. So I asked for this script back; it was the dark, film noir piece that I always wanted to do.”
Aware that his budget would barely exceed $1 million, Saulnier not only called on friends like Blair to help him make “Blue Ruin,” but actually used his and their families' properties for many shooting locations.
“It was important for us to not pretend that we had millions of dollars at our disposal,” Saulnier says. “We just had to embrace what we had. It was this amazing pool of talent and resources that were available to us for relatively little cost. I wasn't going to get a top Hollywood action star, so I cast an unlikely person — my best friend who would be more invested than any human on Earth in this project and who is as talented as anyone I know.”
“Blue Ruin” won an International Federation of Film Critics prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival and took the second-place Audience Award at Los Angeles' AFI Fest last fall.
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