Tag Archives: neo-noir

Alice in Underland


by Hope Madden

Femme fatales. Hitmen. Disjointed timelines. Neon.

Sin City was interesting in 2005.

Vaughn Stein’s debut as a feature film writer/director, after many years assisting, borrows heavily from the Tarantino explosion of the Nineties and early 2000s. He drops us into a metropolitan underworld where danger intersects with madness and borrowed style tries desperately to draw attention away from lack of substance.

He does have Margot Robbie, though, so that’s a start. Robbie plays the aforementioned femme fatale in a hulking underbelly of a soundstage meant to look like a cross between a wee-hours train terminal, an insane asylum and Wonderland—all with that vacant, neon emptiness of a neo-noir.

Robbie’s Annie is a hitman masquerading as a waitress in the terminals all-night diner. There’s a hidden mastermind, a mysterious cripple, a couple of contract killers and a teacher who needs a little nudge before he’s ready to off himself.

Vaughn immediately brings Sin City to mind with his splashy comic book noirisms. It’s hard for that to feel fresh at this stage in filmdom, and his tired hodge-podging of hyper-dramatic tropes doesn’t breathe any new life into the story.

In fact, the story is the problem. It’s an awful lot of nothing, truth be told, with nary a surprise and loads of letdowns.

There is a bit in the diner that’s worth a watch. An excellent Simon Pegg waits for a train and chit chats with a borderline insane waitress (Robbie). Their chemistry is odd and welcome, and Pegg’s delivery is particularly impeccable. In these scenes, Vaughn’s writing suddenly feels engaging and unpredictable.

The core story about two killers Annie is playing against each other peters out blandly, and though the answer to any other surprise has long ago been telegraphed in, still we sit through an intolerable backstory.

Robbie does what she can, though she leans a bit too heavily on her Harley Quinn character to sell Annie’s mental state. She’s mad as a hatter, you see. We know that because she told us so in an opening voiceover narration.

The film isn’t awful, but it isn’t good. Mainly, there is just nothing new to see here.

Scrape it Off your Shoes

Sweet Virginia

by Hope Madden

Which is a better death—a bullet, or a broken heart? Aah, the neo-noir, always trodding that lonesome, masculine road.

Director Jamie Dagg’s latest effort, the brooding Sweet Virginia, contemplates many of the same bruised musings in many of the old, familiar ways. But between Benjamin and Paul China’s taut script and an ensemble’s powerful performances, you won’t mind.

Jon Bernthal leads the cast as Sam, former rodeo star and current proprietor of small town motel Sweet Virginia. It’s the kind of place where a drifter (Christopher Abbott) might stay, a high school kid (Odessa Young) might take a part-time job, a new widow (Rosemary DeWitt) might find comfort or a femme fatale (Imogen Poots) might find danger.

Bernthal charms playing against type and spilling over with tenderness. His every moment onscreen is abundant with warmth, a curious choice for a hillbilly noir’s male lead, but it pays off immeasurably.

Abbott is his fascinating opposite. Both dark and imposing, Abbott’s Elwood festers and stews, a pot of simmering violence waiting to bubble over. Like Bernthal, Abbott chooses an approach to his character that is nonstandard and, in both instances, carving such believable and unusual men in such a familiar environment gives Sweet Virginia more staying power than it probably deserves.

DeWitt reminds us again of her skill with a character, embracing Bernie’s brittleness and resilience to craft an authentic presence. More impressive, though, is Poots in an aching performance.

Daggs shows confidence in his script and his performers, siding with atmosphere over exposition and letting scenes breathe. His string-heavy score and fixation with reflections and the spare light cast by a lonely street lamp create a mood that is familiar, yes, but fitting and welcome.

This is Coen territory, and where the Brothers can always find texture in even the most threadbare of material, Daggs’s film feels superficial. It holds your attention and repays you for the effort with a series of finely drawn and beautifully delivered characters, not to mention a script that invests in clever callbacks as well as character.

It’s a gripping film that lacks substance, a well-told reiteration on the same theme.

Change of Direction


by Hope Madden

Brit filmmaker Christopher Smith has some tricks up his sleeve.

The director/sometimes writer is willing to try most anything in the genre – from medical horror (2004’s Creep) to period horror (2010’s Black Death) to brilliant, blistering and woefully underseen horror comedy (2006’s Severance).

But he takes a harder left than usual with his latest, Detour – a noir-esque road picture with revenge on its mind.

Well-cast and enjoyably pulpy, the film follows Harper (Tye Sheridan) – law student and all around good kid – as he spins a dangerous web. He blames his stepdad (Stephen Moyer) for his mother’s coma, backing himself into a deal with local no-goodnicks Johnny Ray and Cherry (Emory Cohen and Bel Powley, respectively).

Twice the film winks toward the great Paul Newman neo-noir Harper as well as Strangers on a Train, then pulls more blatantly from Edgar Ulmer’s 1945 noir Detour. But Smith’s Detour feels more like style over substance than it does hard boiled or twisty.

Sheridan cuts a believably innocent figure, and Harper’s drunken ramblings are a hoot. Cohen – such a peach in last year’s Brooklyn – finely articulates the hot-headed, coked-out but ultimately wounded Johnny, while Powley manages to bring more than just a rosy pout to her under-developed but intriguing character.

Detour also litters the dusty road trip from Cali to Vegas with some weirdly compelling characters, chief among them Frank (John Lynch – so creepy!).

But Smith just does better when he’s working with another writer.

At a pivotal moment in Harper’s story, Smith brings in the split screen, drawing attention to a conversation – a little anecdote about conscience – Harper and Johnny Ray shared over loads of liquor the evening before.

Here’s where Smith’s directing outshines his writing.

With the split screen comes the mystery and the provocative notion that Smith is building then rebuilding the story. But the story can’t keep up, and in the end the split screen is little more than a gimmick – a great looking one, but a gimmick nonetheless.

Early clues are too tidy, later choices far sloppier, the resolution neither cynical nor satisfying enough to tie things up.

That’s not to say Detour is a total miss, just that it doesn’t live up to its potential.


Raising Cain

He Never Died

by Hope Madden

With a funny shuffle step and a blank stare, Henry Rollins announces Jack, anti-hero of the new indie noir/horror mash up He Never Died, as an odd sort.

Jack, you see, has kind of always been here. The here in question at the moment is a dodgy one bedroom, walking distance from the diner where he eats and the church where he plays bingo. An exciting existence, no doubt, but this mindlessness is disturbed by a series of events: an unexpected visit, a needed ally with an unfortunate bookie run in, and a possible love connection with a waitress.

Even if this sounds vaguely familiar, rest assured. This theologically confused but utterly entertaining tale of moral ambiguity, blood thirst, and eternity plays unlike any other film centered on an immortal.

Writer/director Jason Krawczyk’s screenplay drops us in a middling criminal world populated by unimpressive thugs. Jack’s environment is refreshingly and entirely lacking glamour, Krawczyk’s concept uniquely quirky and low key.

From the word go, He Never Died teems with deadpan humor and unexpected irony. Casting Rollins in the lead, for instance, suggests something the film actively avoids: energy. The star never seethes, and even his rare hollers are muted, less full of anger than primal necessity.

Jack’s battle is not with the goons at his door, but with something higher and more confusing to him. This day to day bloodbath he perceives more as a nuisance, although there’s a tale of redemption bobbing just below the surface of all this blood. Krawczyk should be congratulated not only for the light touch he gives this thematic thread, but for the unexpected turns the film takes before embracing it.

Rollins’s performance is strong, offering Jack as a solitary figure who clings to all things mind numbing as a way to pass the time without complication or human interaction. As a survival mechanism, he’s all but forgotten how to behave around humanity, a species he regards without needless sentimentality.

While Rollins is the showcase, the supporting players around him add nice touches of eccentricity (Steven Ogg), resignation (Scott Edgecombe), and energy (Jordan Todosey). Particularly good is Kate Greenhouse as the film’s disgusted, completely frustrated conscience, Cara.

It’s an unusual mix worth checking out. Plus, who hasn’t always wanted to see Henry Rollins eat a man’s larynx?


Read Hopes Q&A with Henry Rollins HERE.