Technically speaking, film noir’s heyday ended when fedoras and chain smoking were still chic without irony. However, the qualities that made noir distinctive suggest that its spirit is more alive in new movies than ever before.
Initially formulated by French critics after World War II, noir typically involved a steady heaping of corrupt schemes, scowling wise guys and moody dames with dubious motives. It also allowed audiences to distance themselves from the bad guys — a luxury that neo-noir movies don’t afford.
There’s no greater example of noir’s current evolution than the latest frantic thriller from Danny Boyle, returning to his genre roots. Boyle’s playfully cryptic “Trance” — technically his first noir since his wonderfully deranged debut “Shallow Grave” — finds young auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) forced to undergo hypnosis administered by perceptive therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) at the bidding of gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel). In the movie’s frenetic opening sequence, Franck forces Simon to hand over a priceless Goya painting, but Simon instead slips him an empty briefcase, then claims to have forgotten the location of the artwork after Franck knocks Simon on the head and renders him an amnesiac. When beating the truth out of his captive leads nowhere, Franck turns to Elizabeth in the hopes of unlocking the painting’s whereabouts through more inventive ways.
All the noir elements are assembled: illegal antics, double-crossing galore, and a requisite object — the proverbial MacGuffin — to set the thorny plot in motion. Boyle’s filmmaking style has a marvelous rhythm that weaves pop sensibilities into fluid and persistently exciting narrative experiences; he shakes these ingredients like colored sand in a jar, leading a fascinating degree of discombobulation.
Though Simon narrates the story from the beginning, it’s never clear until the final act whether we’re seeing his version of events the way or an embellished tale with hidden intentions. While structurally messy, at times to the point of frustration, the film’s unstable moral compass eventually takes on a liberating quality. It’s energizing to a view a world not solely populated by the black-and-white extremes of conventional noir; Boyle blows up the shades of grey until it becomes impossible to easily to deduce right and wrong.
Disorientation is the key ingredient of contemporary neo-noir. It also manifests in Harmony Korine’s neon-caked explosion of excess, “Spring Breakers,” which — depending on your perspective — celebrates or indicts the hedonistic tendencies of modern youth. Korine certainly doesn’t make it easy to determine whether the criminal antics of gangster-pimp-arms-dealer Alien (James Franco) and his entourage of giddy college girls have gone off the path of righteousness or discovered a spectacular new freedom. Atmospherically, “Spring Breakers” is an elegant evocation of noir storytelling, littered with misdeeds with girls and guns at every turn. As with “Trance,” it’s nearly impossible to figure out whether any given character should elicit viewer’s sympathies, but Korine relishes the confusion.
On a similarly delirious note, Quentin Dupieux’s surreal follow-up to his allegorical horror-satire “Rubber,” appropriately titled “Wrong,” achieves the same effect. Opening in theaters next week (but currently available on VOD platforms), “Wrong” revolves around a Kafkaesque everyman (Jack Plotnick) desperate to find his missing dog, a conundrum that catapults him through a peculiar odyssey: Characters abruptly die and come back to life, off-kilter conversations lead nowhere, an existentially screwy detective (Steve Little) reveals his ability to view the dog’s perspective through its fecal matter, and a potential culprit with curiously zen motives named Master Cheng (William Fictner) supposedly has the answer to everything — or not. In its wonderfully irreverent way, “Wrong” make it clear that this reality is never to be trusted as anything more than a succession of strange moments that coalesce into an abstract representation of the subjectivity that traps us all. This is the essence of new film noir, which challenges our perceptions through a series of compellingly ambiguous moments.
By point of comparison, “Everybody Has a Plan” opens in theaters this week and repeatedly stumbles backward. Despite getting a slight boost early on from Viggo Mortensen — doing double time by playing double-crossing twins — the Spanish-language thriller relies on a familiar formula of criminal dealings that culminate with a characteristically dreary finale. While it benefits from a world in which it’s established that no good can come, “Everybody Has a Plan” eventually suffers from a lack of new ideas beyond its initial premise that finds the two brothers inadvertently swapping roles. Once that happens, the movie takes one bland twist after another.
Today’s first-rate noirs never fall back on convention. Instead, they destroy it, piece by piece, leaving only a fog of intense feelings and the dreamlike sensation of distrusting the world. In other words, from “Trance” to “Spring Breakers,” the paragons of neo-noir simultaneously give us the rush we desire and the wake-up call we deserve.
“Everybody Has a Plan” (Film Page): C
“Trance” (Film Page): B+
“Spring Breakers” (Film Page): A-
“Wrong” (Film Page): B+