As I got older, of course, I began to see that, like anything else, noir can be blighted by cliches -- that for all its emphasis on seeking and questioning, this genre can be just as beholden to audience expectations as those pathetic rom-coms that always seem to include an unexpected pregnancy or a slobbery dog. Look, there's the hooker with the heart of gold, the obligatory ominous limo/"you're in over your head" scene. Yet I still find myself drawn to noir, sometimes despite myself, and for that reason, in the last week, I've seen not one but two recent noir movies: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. Both of these films focus on corrupt detectives who use their badges as permission slips for a whole range of scandalous behaviors; both films include grisly murders, elaborate cover-ups, and true love with a noble prostie. But my reactions to the two films couldn't have been more diametrically opposed.
Bad Lieutenant is like a cross between Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Richard Loncraine's Richard III, and a session of Grand Theft Auto played by a particularly testosterone-flooded fourteen-year-old boy. Which is to say it fuckin rocks. In one scene that I think represents the brilliance of the whole, Nicholas Cage emerges from behind a door, inexplicably shaving with an electric razor, to strongarm two grandmas into giving up information. He pulls the oxygen tubes from one old lady's nose, threatens the other with his pistol, and snarls, "You're what's wrong with this country!" The film is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but whatever political subtext can be gleaned from this exchange is only discoverable once the viewer has stopped laughing, which is not for a long, long time.
Sex, drugs, and well -- you know.
Not so with The Killer Inside Me. Despite its title, this movie does not spend much time inside any of its characters, least of all its protagonist, a murderous small-town cop named Ford (played by Casey Affleck, who seems to have a knack for murderous small-town Fords). Although we're privy to Ford's private memories, these flashbacks confuse more than they clarify. One of the film's creepiest scenes shows us Ford as a tween, confronted with a woman who reveals her bruises to him, seemingly as erotic enticement: "This is what your father did to me; I liked it," she tells him. Edgy stuff -- only no one in the group I saw the picture with could figure out who the hell she was. I assumed it was his mom, perhaps just before her untimely death; another viewer thought it was his sister; a third person (the only one who had read the Jim Thompson novel on which this film is based) seemed to remember she was supposed to be a housekeeper, or maybe a stepmom. Yet surely Ford himself knows -- surely these scenarios are not all equivalent to him. By showing us this scene without the context we need to render it meaningful on a specific, personal level, the filmmakers satisfy our curiosity about Ford in a rote way (bad childhood) while still holding him at an artificial distance.
Now, here's the problem. If the other cops didn't suspect Ford, why did they tell him his prostie g.f. was dead when she wasn't? And if the other cops did suspect Ford, why did they help him kill that guy? Jeepers, I don't know! It's a twist!
The Killer Inside Me is boring and illogical, sure, but that's not really what bothers me about it. In the end, I'm much more bummed that a movie this unafraid of explicit violence and sexuality doesn't harness their power in service of story. What makes great noir films truly subversive isn't just that they depict crime and perversion: it's their ability to make criminals and perverts intensely interesting to us -- sometimes even as mirrors of ourselves. It may take guts to put this stuff on screen, but it takes talent to make it awesome.