Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Elisa Lasowski
Opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014, Hyena divided opinion, though most were favourably impressed by its moody, pounding soundtrack by The The. Since director Gerard Johnson is brother of that band’s frontman Matt (really the only consistent member, as well as the songwriter), it makes sense that film and score are such a good fit. Albums such as Infected and Soul Bomb covered a similar territory: male angst and self-laceration, violence and bodily fluids.
The film benefits from boasting very few familiar faces, so its hyped-up, steroidal realism is unimpeded by recognition. Peter Ferdinando is suitably tortured as a corrupt drug squad cop whose covert deals and coke habit start him on a road to destruction when he comes under investigation, and a pair of psychopathic Albanian brothers move violently into his turf.
Admittedly, the story boasts plot holes its fat sweaty coppers could march through four abreast: at one point, plot points are revealed by a tape recorder on which an enemy has recorded things that, for some reason incriminate himself; and scenes in which a man taunts somebody training a pistol on him never really convince me. But part of what I like about the movie is the way it bursts the constraints of realism in favour of a gross, emotive and infernal feeling of nightmare.
Unlike a lot of commercial crime films, Hyena doesn’t try to be ingratiating: when it errs, it does so by being too stridently unpleasant. For the first half of the film, Ferdinando is in every scene, except for a few cutaways showing a woman being abused. They didn’t need to be there for narrative reasons, since what happens to her is recapped later. And they dilute the first-person tunnel-vision quality of the rest of the filmmaking. In particular, an explicit rape scene with the woman unconscious seeks to gross us out with a hairy and overweight (and swarthy) assailant, in a manner not seen since Michael Winner’s Dirty Weekend. It’s offensive not because of his visible erection, but because it’s using his less-than-ideal body shape to disgust us. Since the victim is unconscious, what he looks like is irrelevant. It’s her powerlessness that should be the source of our discomfort.
If you can forgive the film the excesses that don’t work, the excesses that do work make for a pretty pungent experience. You may need a shower afterwards.
Writers: Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu
Cast: Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung
Original title:Du zhan
China, Hong Kong 2012
Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.
Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.
The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.
For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.
Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.
It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.
A train station in Italy. Two small children receive a furtive send off before boarding a train alone with their mother. Their father, a fugitive gangster, has decided that it’s time for the family to return home to France after ten years in hiding, but to finance the move, Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) needs to pull off one last job, a brazen theft in broad daylight in Milan. Of course, that theft only increases the unwanted attention from the police, and Davos’s flight to the border, and eventually to Paris, is a dramatic, dangerous and ultimately tragic grasp at freedom, which underpins Claude Sautet’s fantastic thriller about a once-powerful man now struggling for his survival.
Based on a novel by José Giovanni, written after the author’s release from jail, Classe tous risques (Consider all Risks) gets off to a dynamic start, with Davos’s getaway from Milan relayed in a terrific action sequence, involving cars, motorbikes and a boat landing on the French shore under the cover of night. But when the worst happens, Davos finds he must turn to his former partners-in-crime for help. His ‘friends’ in Paris now live more respectable lives, safe only because he took the fall for their misdeeds in the past, culminating in his exile. But now, years later, they are reluctant to pay their debts. Instead of becoming personally involved, they send Eric Starck, a young man-on-the-make (played by a terrific Jean-Paul Belmondo) to pick up Davos in the south of France and bring him back to Paris.
Davos, who should be more concerned with the welfare of his family, is quietly furious and turns to plotting his revenge, seeking payback for this latest betrayal – with the help of Eric, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect Davos and his children. From this point on, despite clear indications of the brutality that lurks below the gangster’s charismatic exterior, Sautet sets up a blend of moral ambiguities and dilemmas, making it almost impossible not to empathise with Davos – even if his actions can’t be condoned.
Classe tous risques is released in the UK as a BFI Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition on 24 February 2014.
Classe tous risques is a taut, original gangster film told with simplicity and a compelling directness, with bare-bones exposition and a neorealist touch. But there are also deeper, more thoughtful issues in play with Sautet’s no-punches-pulled exploration of the conflicts between loyalty and family, and the code of honour among thieves. The result is a tour de force, which is rounded out by a soundtrack by Georges Delerue and beautifully composed cinematography from Ghislain Cloquet. In one memorable shot, a woman that Davos and Eric encounter, having only just realised that she might be in the company of criminals, is caught between Eric in the background, while in the foreground, a telephone – a link to the cops – is separated from her by a pane of glass. Her moment of hesitation as she decides between right and wrong is exquisite.
It’s only a shame that Classe tous risques was utterly eclipsed on its original release by Belmondo’s other film, Breathless, coming out in the same year, and the ensuing excitement over the French New Wave. But the real mystery lies in why Sautet rarely returned to the underworld of gangsters and criminals during his career, choosing instead to focus on dramas set in the world of the bourgeoisie – films which, admittedly, brought him more success than this overlooked, but rich contribution to the genre.
Based on the book The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer by: Anthony Brun
Cast: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta
A hulk of a man with a soft spot for sadistic murder, Polish-born American Richard Kuklinski gained fame in the mid-1980s as the The Iceman, a highly professional Mafia hit man who is alleged to have ruthlessly killed more than 100 men (sparing women and children by rule), while living a sham life as a banker and devoted Catholic family man, with a wife and two loving daughters, in suburban New Jersey. History suggests he received his nickname for hiding a body in an ice-cream-truck freezer, but watching Arial Vromen’s chilly thriller about the notorious contract killer, that only vaguely hints at the subtle ingenuity with which Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) dispatched his numerous victims for the mob over the course of more than a decade.
Plotted and paced as a character study rather than a full-blown action movie, the film starts with Richie as a well-mannered, if somewhat unwieldy, young man out on a date with the girl (Winona Ryder) destined to become the love of his life. He clearly has the physical strength to kill, but a romantic at heart, he manages to pull off his stone-faced charm in his favour. However, soon after a short period of conjugal bliss, Richie’s focus begins to shift dramatically as he becomes involved with troubled local mob boss Roy (Ray Liotta), who gives him the opportunity to make full use of his vicious, barbaric potential.
On paper, this may sound like a solid enough premise to make for an enjoyable ride. The performances are strong throughout, in particular Ray Liotta, but also Ryder as Kuklinski’s trusting wife, who didn’t have a clue what her caring, if increasingly abusive, husband was up to when he left home every day. But even a strong cast lead by an outstanding actor such as Shannon (Take Shelter) can’t diminish the feeling that there is something wrong with Vromen’s film from the outset. And this doesn’t necessarily apply only to the standard criminal biopic plot, which feels a little clumsy and heavy-handed in places. What ultimately makes The Iceman a rather underwhelming experience is the over-stylised period look, which tries too hard to re-vive the cool grittiness, low-tech feel and cliché of the classic American gangster and crime movies that ruled the 1970s, while throwing in a touch of film noir and some explicit violence for good measure. However, instead of daring to move further into darker and more mysterious horror territory, Vroman seems more interested in exploring the tragic duality of Kuklinski’s life as the proud, loving family man who killed for fun, for money, to cover up his own crimes, and to satisfy his inner rage. Yet, the calculated, episodic structure Vroman applies to ratchet up this high body count doesn’t quite keep up enough narrative momentum to carry the audience along.
In the end, The Iceman seems like a missed opportunity, as Shannon’s authority as the lead is undeniably tantalising. His performance is finely tuned and powerful as ever, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character. Kuklinski, it seems, was a man as much at war with himself as with the world that surrounded him, and Shannon, with his unnerving charisma and emotionless, beady eyes, resembles that intelligent, cruel, animal energy required to maintain a two-fisted façade that never revealed the true killer inside, until his arrest in 1986.
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendolsohn, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan
For everyone who wasn’t into Derek Cianfrance’s eccentric, love and break-up story Blue Valentine (2010), the director’s latest offering starts off as a more thrilling, tense and ambiguous piece of work, not least in terms of making use of a fast-paced, crime-drama plot to explore the troubled mindset of his lead character, who finds himself confronted with his own actions and liabilities. Yet whether an abrupt genre twist in the second half of the film, and the decision to cast another of Hollywood’s currently most-wanted male actors as a co-lead, pays off to everyone’s satisfaction, may be the cause of some argument.
Ryan Gosling is Luke, a stunt-bike rider who learns that he has a son by one of his ex-lovers, Romina (Eva Mendes). All ready to man up, he instantly decides to swap his life riding the Cage of Death at funfairs for some time with his accidentally found family. Problem is, Luke doesn’t have the money to support the family in the way he feels he should, so it doesn’t take much for his new boss and drinking chum Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to convince him that, instead of sticking to a decent, if underpaid, job as a mechanic, they are better off robbing banks, using Luke’s motorcycle and vicious driving skills to dupe the police. But soon Luke can’t get enough, a raid goes terribly wrong, and then that’s that. In a quarter of a second, the focus shifts to seemingly mild-minded but zealous street cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who has his very own agenda, yet his life and Luke’s become inevitably entwined. After being injured during the raid, Avery plunges into a crisis that sees him dangerously caught in the system, while Cianfrance spares no effort pulling his new front man through every plot twist and turn that could possibly come out of such a premise, until all of the characters have finally revealed their true connections and colours.
Although the story becomes increasingly heavy-handed in places, and at times a little too clichéd, The Place Beyond the Pines benefits in no small part from Gosling’s contribution, delivering yet another convincing performance in a nuanced study of audacity and vulnerability. As long as he sets the pace, the film dazzles, surprises and amazes if, ultimately, it turns into a moody, meandering thriller-drama that falls slightly short of the mark and its bold, epic ambitions.
Michael R. Roskam’s unique and harrowing crime melodrama Bullhead is a dark, classic tale of friendship and betrayal against one of the most original backdrops ever utilized in a gangster picture. Hallmarks of the genre – double crosses, filthy brute force, intimidation of the worst kind – are transplanted to Belgium, with Goodfellas-styled hoods in the roles of two-fisted laconic farmers, veterinarians and feed suppliers.
It’s film noir crossed with a sprawling, operatic, Visconti-like virtuosity, yet tinged with the earthy stench of cow shit mixed with the sour metallic odour of blood.
A super-buff stud works out maniacally in the dark after plunging steroids into his firm, sleek buttocks.
A cow’s belly is sliced open without painkiller. A calf is ripped from the gaping cavity of viscous fluids. The dazed newborn, covered with glistening viscera, is tossed violently into a filthy metal tub.
An ecstasy-and-booze-filled ladies’ man is dragged out of the glare of a lone street lamp and hauled into the shadows of night, so viciously beaten he’ll live the rest of his life as a vegetable.
Covert dinner meetings between thugs – fuelled by booze and sumptuously prepared steaks – occur surreptitiously on farms, in barns and within feed warehouses. Deals, deliveries and alliances are discussed as forks and knives dig savagely into slabs of meat on platters garnished with little more than boiled potatoes – soaking up pools of blood and fat that ooze from the steroid-enhanced comestibles.
Bucolic Belgian farmlands at dusk and twilight mask an evil criminal world of organized steroid users and purveyors – peddling livestock pumped to the max with growth-and-fat-enhancing drugs.
A brick lifted high in the air, touching the heavens before slamming down repeatedly, smashing a pair of testicles to a pulp – forcing the owner of the mashed potato nuts to begin a life that’s an uphill Sisyphean climb.
Bullhead is one great and original gangster picture.
From the innocence of childhood to the corruption-tarnished cusp between youth and middle age, writer-director Michael R. Roskam charts the friendship between Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). As kids they are groomed for a life in illicit meat manufacturing and their lives are as inextricably linked as they are estranged after an early tragedy results in a dizzying criminal ascension and a downward-spiralling fate.
Roskam’s screenplay brilliantly lays out a myriad of crooked relationships, complex and virtually impenetrable ‘business deals’ and friendships that are as intense as they are fraught with guilt mixed with immoral layers. The ins and outs of the ‘mysteries’ become as obtuse as those in The Big Sleep. At times, we think we have a grasp on what’s happening, but the layers of plot are ultimately too thick to follow. It almost doesn’t matter. What we know for certain is that bad shit is coming down. That’s all we really need to know.
Through it all is the staggering performance of Matthias Schoenaerts – brooding, physical and steeped in humanity. His eyes are extraordinary – shifting in one moment from soulful to dead like a shark.
Roskam’s mise en scène is first rate. His compositions are painterly and the cinematography manages to capture a sense of dreariness so that it’s positively exciting – etching night exteriors like masterly impressionist paintings and dramatic picture compositions that are as thrilling as they’re simplistically evocative in terms of both spatial geography and the ever-shifting dynamics of the characters. The pace weirdly evokes country life – it’s slow, but never lugubrious. Roskam hooks us like a master and leads us where he needs to and wants to – on HIS terms and those that the story demands.
Early in the film, we hear a life manifesto that boils down to one thing:
‘Everything is fucked!’
And so it is in Bullhead. It’s gloriously, deliriously and viciously fucked – an amoral, cynical, nihilistic and narcissistic 70s style of nastiness brought miraculously to life in a contemporary world of cow shit and gangsters.
We even get some redemption, but a steep price is paid for it.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Martin McDonagh is one of the most talented wordsmiths working today, as well as a very accomplished director with an uncanny sense of framing. His previous film, In Bruges, was a modern masterpiece: funny, intelligent, moving and violent, its script was of a calibre we don’t see very often nowadays. So to say expectations were high for his follow-up would be a massive understatement.
To an extent, Seven Psychopaths is a true wonder. Focusing on struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who is stuck in an eternal writer’s block and drinks heavily, the film tells the story of his involvement with an assortment of oddball characters. After his seemingly inept friend Billy (a terrific performance from Sam Rockwell) and his associate Hans (Christopher Walken, underplaying it beautifully), decide to kidnap the shih tzu of violent mobster Charlie for ransom, events escalate and get out of control, which might give Marty just the inspiration he needs…
As per his previous work , McDonagh’s strength are his characters: he is blessed with the ability to write funny, authentic dialogue that fleshes out this assortment of murderers, madmen and alcoholics. However, Seven Psychopaths lacks the structure of his previous work and wanders off in all directions. Instead of the story tightening its focus, the audience is treated to ever more growing digressions, which hurts the film because there simply is not enough time to bring all the loose ends together in a sensible fashion. The meta elements of the script constantly threaten to derail the film, especially in the third act – there’s a point in the last quarter where the self-conscious cleverness becomes almost too much to bear.
Perhaps the problem is with the unholy amount of characters that McDonagh tries to put on the screen. His desire to give each one enough screen time is to be applauded; however, with an ever-increasing number of flashbacks and stories, the film begins to feel more like a sketch show and less like a coherent story.
The film is set in America and it’s hard not to wonder whether this change of location may play some part in the sprawling script: McDonagh tries to bring in almost every cliché about L.A. to then turn them swiftly upside down. It’s as if he feels the need to settle into this new location by levelling it down and then re-building it as his own. A commendable attempt perhaps, but not one that works completely.
However, these can be considered minor complaints about a film that stands head and shoulders above most of what Hollywood can produce. McDonagh proves time and time again that it is his characters that matter to him, and through them draws the audience into his weird universe where almost anything can and will happen.
Seven Psychopaths is worth a watch if only to see McDonagh bring his magic touch to the strange deserts of America – a weird and whacked-out journey from which nothing and no one can emerge as expected.
Writers: Baran bo Odar, Alex Ross, Richard Shakocius
Based on the novel by: Jan Costin Wagner
Original title:Das letze Schweigen
Cast:Ulrich Thomsen, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Katrin Saß, Burghart Klaußner, Sebastian Blomberg
When a young girl is murdered in circumstances identical to a crime that took place two decades previously, the police rush to investigate. Gradually we see, through flashbacks, how a friendship between two men led to the first killing. This debut film from director Baran bo Odar expands the form of the police procedural, granting moments of pathos to all characters concerned, telling their stories, while never straying too far from the film’s roots in the thriller genre.
Rather than go for the easy Gothic feel of a wintry murder story set in Mitteleuropa (dark red stains tainting driven snow) the film is set during a heatwave. The simmering temperature is palpable, creating a clammy, fractious tension that befits the film’s subject matter. The Silence puts one in the uncomfortable position of almost rooting for Timo, the sweaty-palmed accomplice to the crime, yet this is not a provocation, but comes from the film’s insistence on the humanity of all the characters. A perverse sense of dramatic irony descends in the film’s second half, as Timo attempts to apologise covertly to the victim’s mother for his part in the crime. Another chilling moment shows two child murderers standing in an awkwardly held medium shot, as a young boy overhears them and innocently asks if he can join them in watching a film.
Actors’ past roles bring a ghostly presence to their current ones, and there is an awkward pathos in seeing the abuse victim from Festen (1998) turned abuser. In his current guise, Ulrich Thomsen resembles a kind of haggard, Nordic Colin Firth. He portrays the killer as an inadequate, rather than a cackling, serial killer, although we understand he is part of something even more disturbing than what we see on screen. The police characters are fully rounded too. The inclusion of a pregnant detective has been called a Fargo reference but, in fact, the actress signed up for the role before becoming aware of her condition. In a film about the impact of lives being snatched away, the inclusion of a life not yet lived adds a thematic counterweight. The film’s most intriguing performance, though, is Claudia Michelsen’s. Her presence is a distinct mixture of elegance and burned-out discomfort well-suited to her role as the wife of the weak-willed accomplice.
There are some signs that this is a debut feature. The score is too conventional for such an intense story, coming across as generic ‘murder mystery’ music at times. The scene in which several characters are cross-cut as they find out about the copycat murder would be more effective were it not marred by dissonant industrial noise swelling on the soundtrack. Shots of the murdered girl’s stuffed toys and paintings seem like too obvious a tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately though, this is a confidently paced film with a taut script that allows characterisation to develop with the performances rather than the dialogue. The Silence presents no convenient resolution and offers no easy answers.
That filmmakers should be drawn again and again to the work of American crime novelist Jim Thompson is not surprising. Thompson’s dark gems are tightly written, brutally compelling and as psychologically complex as they are morally ambivalent. It would be great then if those directors made the effort to read Thompson properly, if they did not oversimplify and often entirely miss the point of the novels. Indeed it is rather frustrating that, with a few exceptions, Thompson’s remarkable body of work should have led to so many disappointing offerings, and Michael Winterbottom’s new adaptation of The Killer inside Me is a particularly deplorable entry into the canon.
The British director’s film, co-scripted by John Curran, is the second screen version of what is often considered one of Thompson’s finest works (the first was Burt Kennedy’s 1976 film, with Stacey Keach in the lead). It stars Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, the outwardly sweet-natured but dim-witted Deputy Sheriff of a small Texas town, who under his Southern good manners hides a frightening intelligence and psychopathic impulses. When naí¯ve rich boy Elmer (Jay R Ferguson) falls for Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute who has set up shop on the edge of town, his father, local big shot Chester Conway (Ned Beatty), asks Lou to move her on. But Lou instead gets involved with Joyce and decides to use the situation to seek revenge for past misdeeds. His plan does not quite work out and Lou increasingly struggles to keep control of events, a situation that is further complicated by his relationship to girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson).
This story of deceit and death is the occasion for scenes of extreme violence, which has already generated heated controversy. There are two particularly grisly murder scenes, in which the women are subjected to extended brutality and degradation. The issue here is not the graphic violence per se, but its presentation and context. There is a tremendous sense of indulgence in the beautifully shot murder scenes, and the copious amount of gratuitous sex adds to the sensational aspect of the film and the objectification of the women. The characterisation of the main female characters is indeed spectacularly reductive: always seen half-naked and in bed, they are both stunningly gorgeous and like rough sex… This, coupled with the fact that they only appear in scenes of sex or violence, gives the film a rather nasty whiff of unredeemed misogyny.
Winterbottom has said in interviews that he wanted to be ‘faithful’ to the source novel, and this has served to justify the violent excesses of the film. He is most probably not misogynistic, but his incredibly unsophisticated literal approach is particularly unsuited to capturing a novel as ambiguous as The Killer inside Me: Winterbottom scrupulously follows to the letter a book that actually requires reading between the lines (could literalness be one of Winterbottom’s defining directorial traits? Real migrants in In This World, real sex in 9 Songs…). Crucially, the film fails to coherently convey the fact that Lou is an unreliable narrator and that what he tells us might not be true, something that would help explain the characterisation of the women and distance the film from his view of them. This is particularly important in the murder of the second woman. In the book, Lou teases the reader, making us wait for the full narrative, possibly because what he has done has triggered strong emotions in him, possibly because he likes to play games, probably for both reasons and more. That section is a key moment in the book: it explores hidden nuances in the main characters, reveals the complexity of Lou’s psychology and of his relationship to Amy, and confirms that the reality described by Lou is a fictional construct. This, if translated into the screen version in some form, would have given a much better understanding of the violence and made it far less dubious.
This is something that Alain Corneau and his co-scriptwriter, Oulipo novelist George Perec, successfully managed to do in Série noire, their adaptation of Thompson’s A Hell of a Woman (1979), which, like The Killer inside Me, features an unreliable, murderous narrator. The brilliant opening sequence shows Patrick Dewaere’s Franck Poupart role-playing in the middle of a wasteland, shadow-boxing in the rain before dancing to Duke Ellington while holding his small radio, entirely in a world of his own creation. This prepares us for Poupart’s endless re-positioning of himself and his constant reconstruction of an unsatisfactory reality, and most disturbingly of all, for his remarkable ability to actually believe in his warped version of events.
Paradoxically, by relocating the story to a drab Parisian suburb, and making Poupart a hopeless door-to-door salesman, Corneau and Perec convey more of Thompson’s spirit than Winterbottom’s ‘faithful’ version. They understood one crucial thing: Thompson’s psychotic men are losers and misfits who are uncomfortable in the confines of their insular, petty-minded surroundings. Winterbottom does not get it: he channels Thompson’s savage view of humanity through memories of glamorous Hollywood noir cinema; the women look like stars, not like provincial beauties; the cars are desirable curvy objects straight out of 50s advertising; the cinematography is as flawless and slick as the women. But his noir pastiche completely misses the seedy side of the evil described by Thompson, the mediocrity of the hypocrisy, decay, immorality and viciousness, the small-town-ness of it all, present even in the most disturbing acts of malevolence.
This profound understanding of Thompson’s world makes Corneau’s Série noire one of the best adaptations of the novelist’s work on screen by far. The other exceptionally good Thompson adaptation happens to be another French film: Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon (1981) takes one of Thompson’s most accomplished novels, Pop. 1280, and transposes it to colonial Africa, a setting that not only perfectly suits, but also intensifies, the climate of corruption of the original novel and its uncompromising vision of the rotting human soul. Clearly, Tavernier and his co-scriptwriter Jean Aurenche, like Corneau and Perec before them, had made the effort to read the book closely. Shame Winterbottom’s literary sensibilities are not quite as developed.
A sun-drenched film noir set in the Palm Springs desert, After Dark, My Sweet drips with tension and a brooding sensuality as two desperate people, a disgraced ex-cop and a struggling widow, ensnare a vulnerable and disturbed drifter in their scheme to kidnap a wealthy family’s son for ransom. Based on the 1955 novel by Jim Thompson and directed by James Foley, the film captures the sinister, yet morally ambiguous tone of the author’s pulp fiction.
Jason Patric, then a teen heartthrob who had last appeared in The Lost Boys, stars alongside 80s pin-up Rachel Ward, who spends much of the film dressed in a pair of cut-off jean shorts, showing off her impossibly long legs. Patric plays ex-boxer ‘Kid’ Collins, who is on the run from a mental institution when he meets Ward’s Fay in an empty bar. Black and white flashbacks to his vicious final bout hint at the reason for his confinement, and it’s easy to assume that too many beatings have made the boxer dim-witted. He even shuffles along as if he’s still in the ring, itching for a fight.
Given a menial job by Fay, and a home in a trailer parked on her land, Kid is soon introduced to Uncle Bud, played by Bruce Dern at his sleaziest, with long white hair and a procession of Hawaii shirts. Blinded by his attraction to Fay, and despite her half-hearted warning to stay away, Kid finds himself entangled in their plot to kidnap the town’s wealthiest son. Kid is soon set up as the kidnapper, and the fall guy.
But Kid Collins has something in common with Thompson’s other leading men: seemingly slow and underestimated by everyone, he’s darkly clever, and deeply disturbed. Kid’s smouldering blue eyes are the only hint that he’s not as slow as he seems, although he does warn Fay and Uncle Bud (to little avail) not to treat him like he’s stupid. It’s only as the film builds to its taut, near-perfect conclusion that he reveals himself for what he truly is - a frighteningly intelligent man who has one last shot at making something of his meaningless life.
It’s an impressive performance by Patric, and the sexual tension between Kid and Fay is certainly palpable (although the sex scenes show little of the violence that marks Thompson’s work - an issue that’s already causing controversy around the release of The Killer inside Me). There’s no denying Rachel Ward’s sex appeal, but it’s a shame that she isn’t a better actress - good at playing drunk, she over-acts in the melodramatic moments when the kidnapping of the young, lonely and neglected boy starts to go horribly wrong.
Despite its minor flaws, Foley’s film is a lean, compelling thriller whose fluid tracking shots and rusty brown and gold hues have aged surprisingly well in the 20 years since its release, while Patric, whose career never quite took off, is still a heartthrob.