Bronson and Why Can't They Get Neo-Noir Right?

A couple of days detour into newer releases had Give 'Em Hell Malone and Bronson on tap last night.

Bronson was a treat. I first heard about it from Graham last year and if I recall, it made his post-deadline top ten list for 2009. It's the story of Britain's most dangerous prisoner, Charley Bronson, a man incarcerated for most of his adult life, much of it spent in solitary confinement. Bronson is a wickedly entertaining film, directed with some nice stylistic touches by Danish film maker Nicholas Winding Refn (of Pusher fame, a film worth seeing if you missed it). The star of the film is undoubtedly Tom Hardy, who arguably delivers the most compelling performance of the year as the barking-mad Bronson. He is simply stunning. I'm not sure you can (or should try to) read much into Bronson. For all the operatic indulgences and surreal stage play structure employed to tell the story, Bronson distills down to a relatively straightforward biography about the ultimate misfit, a violent man completely at odds with society and its rules.

That the film works at all is a testament to the power of a brilliant performance and the unique artistic vision that the film maker/screenwriter/actors brought to the table. On a slightly separate note, the excellent score Graham mentioned in his earlier post is the glue that holds Bronson together. It's almost a character in the film - ethereal, funny and poignant, the kind of soundtrack that enhances scenes but doesn't get in the way. I'm hesitant to go all the way and call this an unqualified home run. It's the kind of film that delivers huge in the thrills department and demands a second viewing, but I'm still not 100% sure it warrants the top marks I want to heap upon it. Bronson left me with the same feeling I had after Hedwig and Pete Tong, if that makes any sense. I'm going to let it percolate for a few days and stew on it before I decide. My gut instinct is to call this a clear winner though.

Which is more than I can say for Give 'Em Hell Malone on the other hand. It's a complete misfire from the Frank Miller boudoir-noir school of modern misinterpretation. It's got a couple of modestly decent turns from Thomas Jane and Ving Rhames, but the plot, lackluster over-direction, cartoon bad guys and lousy female lead sink this project fast. There was probably an OK movie buried somewhere in this script, but it needed a much better director/screenwriter to flush it out. It's about a quarter as good as the 5/10 Sin City, if that helps.


Neo-noir should in the middle of a renewed heyday right now, given the general state of the things, but the underlying fundamentals of the noir motif seem lost on the current generation of Hollywood writers and filmmakers. As a result, all we get is shite like Give 'Em Hell Malone. They could all take a page from Melville's book (Jean-Pierre that is, not Herman). Melville's '60s crime films took the noir in an entirely different direction than recent filmmakers have opted for, boiling down the traditional tropes of film noir to the barest minimums - fedoras, trench coats and handguns. The dialogue was spare, the violence minimal and the doom...palpable. His greatest works – the loose trilogy of Alain Delon pictures that started with 1967’s Le Samourai, through Le Cercle rouge and his final film, Un flic – are remarkable for their emotional and visual murkiness. Melville famously described his vision for Un flic as being “a colour film in black and white” This sparse vision and pared-down style lent gravity and a gripping cool to his films, something completely missed in the noisy and cluttered direction of modern neo-noirs.

Sooner or later, we'll hopefully find a filmmaker who “gets it” and dials it down rather than up. Film Noir works best in the desperate and quiet world of a protagonist with nowhere to turn. If he isn't screwed by the 15 minute mark, it's just another crime flick.


the coelacanth said...

say it tom! say it! what we were talking about yesterday, the comparison of le samourai and...

oh, and it's alluded.

Chandles said...

Football on the mind on this Superbowl Sunday, Scott? Bronson stars Tom Hardy, not Tom Brady. And yes, he was fucking unreal in this movie. I loved it.

Britarded said...

Looking forward to Bronson, is it... a bit like Chopper?

Anyway yes, we were talking about Le Samourai cos I just watched it and I think it's influence is visible in Limits of Control. I suppose you could say Ghost Dog even more so. Funny, I never thought of Jarmusch as a director of noir before.
Also, haven't 'loner' movies become more about helpless, tragic characters. I'm thinking of The Wrestler or Last Days here. Maybe I'm wrong but is it just cooler to be flawed and vulnerable these days? Me, I want a real man! Just a thought. Again, haven't seen much noir, so may be talking shit here but just thinking out loud. Thoughts?

APRIL said...

Thanks for reminding me that I still need to watch Bronson - a friend of mine once compared it to a combination of A Clockwork Orange and Chopper and gave it rave reviews so I can't wait to track this baby down.


La Sporgenza said...

Thanks Kendall – fixed that Brady/Hardy thing – I've never heard of this actor until Bronson and Brady sounded right at the time (it was late).

Odd that you should mention the loner film in the concert with the Le Samourai/noir comment Tom because I was thinking about that very issue when I wrote the first half of this post, the part about Bronson. It might be overstating the noir influences, but I believe Jarmusch makes specific mention of Melville's Le Samourai on the Ghost Dog director's commentary. The noir moniker has come to mean a whole bunch of things – probably too many in fact – because it has no real definition. I'm not sure in fact if a truly 100% film noir even exists. They tend to be amalgams of all sorts of varied elements including a style of cinematography, a mood, a downbeat plot, something existential, the doomed man, the consequences of moral shortcuts, etc., etc. These same elements are found in all sorts of genres and film making styles making their noirishness (sorry for the made-up word there, but you know what I'm angling at) almost entirely interpretive. I would agree that Jarmusch uses similar techniques in The Limits of Control – stillness, limited dialogue, surreal landscapes and an existential story, so in many ways it does parallel Melville's Le Samourai.

To your further point about loners, that too is a fundamental part of the traditional noir motif, but I'm not sure if films that key on singular characters such as The Wrestler, Last Days (or the couple I mentioned in the original post It's All Gone Pete Tong and Hedwig) makes them particularly noir-like. I suppose it depends how far you're willing to stretch the definition. Interesting thought though.