Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (available to rent on amazon and iTunes) earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations for this month’s Academy Awards, which perplexes me no end because it’s just not that kind of movie. It’s incredibly entertaining, very well shot, but there is nothing in this story you haven’t seen before, whether we’re talking characters or plot. It’s cowboy noir, and while I love noir (and did really enjoy this movie), this iteration changes nothing of the noir formula except putting the action in west Texas.

Jeff Bridges, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, plays Texas Ranger Marcus (not Josh) Hamilton, who’s – wait for it – just a few weeks away from retirement when a string of small-time bank robberies, all of branches of the same bank, crosses his desk and gives him one last ‘big’ case before he heads off to his porch. The robbers, played by Chris Pine (Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner), are a pair of brothers who are robbing banks solely of the small cash in the drawers, and are working up enough money to pay off some specific debt that becomes clear around the midpoint of the film. Pine plays the sensitive brother who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, while Foster is the ex-con loose cannon who seems to enjoy robbing banks for the hell of it. Bridges’ partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is a younger cop of both Mexican and Comanche descent, and bears the brunt of Bridges’ unending stream of bigoted “Injun” humor.

It’s two against two, and you can certainly guess how this is going to end if you’ve seen a few movies in your lifetime. That doesn’t make the trip less enjoyable, especially since the dialogue between the cops is snappy (other than the racist humor, which has a little shock value at the start and quickly overstays its welcome as a device to mask the affection Bridges’ character feels for his partner) and the scenery is stunning, with panoramic shots of the west Texas landscape. I haven’t been to that part of the state, but I’ve been to Arizona and New Mexico, even out of the metro areas, and it has that same feel of desolation between the arid climate and the lack of anything resembling civilization – buildings, paved roads, people, even animals.

The characters, however, are all straight out of Noir Central Casting. Foster plays his character turned up to 11 the entire film, and while he seems to be having a blast, it means the character has no nuance. He’s a psychopath and his only redeeming characteristic is that he loves his brother, although that’s just kind of a stated fact, with nothing resembling an explanation or a background. (He shows incredible empathy for his brother, but thinks nothing of shooting strangers, security guards, cops, and so on.) Bridges does everything he can with his character, although the cop who’s one case away from retirement is about as hackneyed as the hooker with a heart of gold, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to survive this movie and who’s not.

Where Hell or High Water really clicks is the dry humor, much of it around Texas playing a bit to stereotype. When the brothers rob their second bank, there’s an older gentleman at the teller; one brother asks him if he has a gun on him, and the man replies with a combination of shock and indignation, “You’re god-damned right I have a gun.” A young punk at a gas station who can barely hold his pistol correctly gets what’s coming to him for mouthing off to the brothers. Albert gets a few zingers back at Marcus that show him to be the more erudite of the two, despite the way Marcus talks to him as some sort of noble savage.

Was this script just a noir story, though, or was writer Taylor Sheridan trying to make some bigger points about evil banks and a dying way of life on the ranch? If the latter was true, it didn’t work at all for me; it was there but entirely superficial, and if the plot itself was familiar, the Big Bad Corporation aspect is downright bromidic. Sometimes a good guys/bad guys story is just that. Let them shoot it out for themselves and leave the bigger meaning to other films.

(By the way, two “where I have a seen that actor before?” moments for me from Hell or High Water: The brothers’ lawyer is played by Kevin Rankin, who played the priest on Gracepoint, and Toby’s ex-wife is played by Marin Ireland, who briefly played an Islamist terrorist on Homeland.)

I’ve seen five of the nine Best Picture nominees so far, and this would easily be at the bottom for me, and behind a few other movies I’ve seen this year, including Loving, which I saw Saturday and will review this week as well.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

David Hadley Chase was a prolific British author of American crime fiction, writing numerous novels (under this pseudonym) that were, for the time, controversial for their graphic violence and implied sexual content. His first novel, the grim No Orchids for Miss Blandish, remains his best-known work, and it’s just $1.29 for the Kindle through that link (or just £4.99 in the UK). It’s gripping despite an almost nihilistic view of its characters, the rare story where the venal criminals are more compelling characters than the hard-boiled detective attempting to find them. George Orwell was a fan of the writing, but Raymond Chandler was not, calling it “half-cent pulp writing at its worst” in a letter to Cleve Adams. (Chandler later won a lawsuit against Chase, accusing the latter of plagiarizing a section of a later book.)

Miss Blandish is the heiress at the center of a theft and ransom kidnapping plot that involves two different groups of crooks, the latter, the notorious Grissom Gang (reminiscent in many ways of the Australian Pettingill family), run by a sociopathic matriarch and her mentally challenged, ultra-violent son Slim. Their plan is to steal her new diamond necklace, collect a ransom for her from her wealthy father, and then dispose of her rather than risk her identifying them … but then Slim takes a fancy to her, complicating their plans even after they get their money and try to use it to run a slightly more legitimate business.

Miss Blandish’s father hires reporter-turned-private detective Dave Fenner to try to track his daughter down several months after he’s paid the ransom without any word on her whereabouts or even whether she’s alive, and Fenner – about as cliched a detective character as you’ll ever find – uses his knowledge of the town’s underworld to find the one lead police didn’t uncover. Chase spends most of his energy and the bulk of the verbiage on the interactions between Slim Grissom, his mother, and the other dissolute members of their gang, including how they respond once it becomes clear that their faĉade of respectability in their new venture has been cracked.

The violence in the book is par for the course for the era, although No Orchids was apparently one of the first to raise the violence to this level; I don’t enjoy violence for its own sake, but to paint the picture of the Grissom gang as unrepentant and likely sociopathic killers, the violence serves a literary purpose. Less necessary and much harder to stomach is the largely off-screen rape of Miss Blandish by Slim, repeated over a period of months. When Fenner finally finds her near the end of the book, however, all of the dialogue seems to indicate that there is no recovery from this sort of trauma, both from the extent of the crimes committed and from the shame of being a victim of kidnap and a presumed rape. It’s true to its era, but fortunately we live in an era that is both more enlightened and better equipped to help trauma victims recover from their ordeals, which gave the novel’s resolution a very antiquated and somewhat misogynistic flavor. A female author would never have written this ending – or at least I’d like to think one wouldn’t. (For the record, I don’t agree with either of Orwell’s interpretations of the ending; I think he’s ignored or dismissed a third possibility, that the motive was shame.) However, for fans of noir fiction, No Orchids offers a swift, exceptionally dark take on the genre, one where the payoff is less important than the way there.

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.

The Killer Inside Me.

I’m off to Arizona for some Fall League scouting this week, so barring a rainout there won’t be a chat or podcast, and dish posting may be sporadic.

I’m a huge fan of noir films and novels, starting with the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but, having finished both of their canons, moving on to darker crime novels like those of Jim Thompson, whose The Killer Inside Me is the third and most unsettling of his novels I’ve read so far. The basis for a 2010 movie starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, the novel delivers exactly what the title promises: It’s a first-person account of a sociopathic deputy sheriff whose solution to almost every problem is to kill whoever’s causing it.

Lou Ford is the narrator and killer in question, a cliche-spouting officer of the law who has a troubled background that has limited him to low-level police work, even though he has the intelligence of his father, a successful doctor who may have recognized that his son was mentally unstable. Ford’s narration is of dubious reliability, and he only gives us glimpses of his history of violence, but is more transparent when describing his predicament when an attempt to exact revenge on the town’s wealthy industralist backfires on him (in part through his own duplicity). Every solution he conceives involves violence, usually committed by him but pinned on someone else. After a few deaths too many, however, the facade he’s constructed starts to crumble as he realizes his bumpkin act isn’t fooling the powers that be any longer.

Thompson utilizes violence as a literary tool, as a window into “the sickness” inside of Ford and as a physical manifestation of the character’s inability to properly process negative emotions such as frustration or insecurity, largely avoiding lurid descriptions of Ford’s actions. Thompson largely avoids the question of a first cause, other than a hint that Lou may have been abused when he was a teenager, and focuses instead on the character’s almost robotic responses to difficult situations. He’s the pre-Anton Chigurh, but with a complexity that McCarthy’s arch-villain lacked, showing glimpses of emotions directed at others (through the lens of his own well-being, of course) and a wry sense of humor in between the spasms of violence.

The Killer Inside Me functions as a perverse character study, but its main appeal is its suspense – will Ford continue to kill with impunity, or will the various authorities stop him – and if they do, what kind of fight will he put up before he’s caught or killed? Ford even confesses to another murder he believes he has to commit – whether for practical reasons or due to “the sickness” is unclear – well before it takes place, then takes his time getting around to it, as if he’s enjoying toying with the reader’s emotions, or merely enjoying reliving the murder in his own mind.

The hazard of any novel that uses first-person narration where the narrator is the central character (and probably an unreliable narrator too) is that other characters become two-dimensional because we only see what the narrator sees, or what he wants to tell us. Thompson conveys the sense of a net closing in on Ford in part through the sheer number of characters whom Ford suspects have figured out his ruses, yet none of them has any depth because of the limitations of Ford’s own perception of others and their emotions. Ford is textured and at times opaque, but Thompson gives us a character who doesn’t describe other characters well because he can’t understand their emotions other than fear.

I didn’t enjoy The Killer Inside Me as much as the similar pop. 1280, which is more nuanced in its portrait of a ruthless killer, or The Grifters, which revolves around confidence men double-crossing each other in a study in sociopathy. Thompson’s ability to portray these half-people, consumed only with themselves and unable to feel anything for others, is disturbing in its realism, but that darkness is an essential ingredient in noir and, I admit, part of what I find so compelling in his novels.

Next up: I’m about a third of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and knocked off Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native last week.

The Ministry of Fear.

My quick reactions post to the Futures Game went up last night for Insiders.

I’m a huge fan of Graham Greene’s works, having read more novels by him than any other writer not named Wodehouse or Christie. Greene is probably best remembered today for his “Catholic novels” – a group that includes The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and my favorite of them, The Power and the Glory – and if you look for his works in any bookstore, independent or big-box, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Yet Greene also produced suspense novels he derided as “entertainments,” mostly spy novels, which varied from straight-ahead intrigues (The Confidential Agent) to parodic works with serious themes below the humor (Our Man in Havana, which is on the Klaw 100).

The Ministry of Fear is one of Greene’s entertainments, a serious spy novel that revolves around a bit of mistaken identity to delve into existential questions of identity and memory and the morality of crime and murder in wartime. It is tremendously entertaining, with an everyman protagonist who becomes a hunted man when he inadvertently wins a cake intended for an actual spy at a local fair, and well-paced, while avoiding the sense of empty calories you might find in a more formulaic, pulp-fiction spy story.

Arthur Rowe is a bit of a sad-sack widower who enters a fortune-teller’s tent at that local fair, a brief decision that lands him the cake and a significant amount of trouble, especially when he refuses to give or sell the cake to its intended recipient. This coincidence puts Arthur on the run after an attempt on his life and a frame-up for a crime committed with his own schoolboy’s knife, bringing him into conflict with a past of his own that he’s trying to escape, even as his mind refuses to give him freedom.

A good spy or suspense novel needs its share of twists, and Greene gives us several, most of which I haven’t mentioned here to avoid spoilers. There are at least five major plot points that might count as surprises, although I thought the denouement was rather predictable given what came before – mostly that we run out of culprits, but also because the genre teaches us to look for the most shocking answer to the novel’s main question. Greene sustains The Ministry of Fear in spite of that one foreseeable outcome because of the depth of his characterization of Rowe, a more complex man under the surface than Greene’s initial presentation of him would indicate. Rowe is emotionally exhausted, looking for closure, careening from moments of great inner strength to severe defeatism. He can be clueless, but in crises shows quicker resolve and remarkable deductive reasoning skills. He’s full of pity, but is not as pathetic as he’d seem, even flashing a cold streak when that will get him what he wants or needs. He’s neither hero nor antihero, a protagonist whom the reader wants to ‘win’ but whose terms of victory are not quite what we’d want for him.

The Ministry of Fear can’t succeed as a spy novel unless it gets the “spy” part right, and I believe that it does so with a plot that moves quickly with sufficient narrative greed to pull the reader forward, as well as enough twists and turns to keep the suspense level high (until that one climactic twist). It works as a novel because Greene was almost completely incapable of writing a novel, even an unserious one, without creating at least one strong character, while using the same voice and phrasing that made him a master of English fiction.

In between the last blog post and this one, I read three classics from the Bloomsbury 100 list: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. None seemed worth a full post; Franklin’s book was the most interesting, a very early work of feminist literature where the young protagonist chafes under the societal restrictions that prevent her from receiving the same education or opportunities as men her age. Written when Franklin was just 21, the book describes the efforts of her stand-in main character to develop her independence when her fate is determined by others around her, nearly all of them male. She has but one decision she can make for herself, and makes it even if the world around her would view it as foolish.

Next up: Herman Koch’s 2013 novel The Dinner.

pop. 1280

My draft reviews are all up now – full recaps for every NL team and every AL team, plus my chat from early on day two, my day one recap, and Friday’s Behind the Dish podcast where I talked a bit about day one.

When I reviewed Jim Thompson’s The Grifters a few weeks ago, a reader said I should read his Pop. 1280 next, as it was his best work. It’s much tighter, definitely funnier and yet in ways far more fitting of the “noir” label, setting up the reader again and again for twists that turn a situation that seemed almost silly into a vision of paranoia and sociopathy.

Nick Corey is the narrator and protagonist of pop. 1280, the apparently hapless sheriff of the sparsely populated county of Pottsville in an unnamed state (probably Texas). Corey finds himself disrespected by the local criminals, including the two pimps at the town’s whorehouse, and verbally abused by the haughty sheriff of the more populous neighboring county. His manipulative, domineering wife Myra rules the roost at home, where they live with her simple-minded peeping-Tom brother. Nick presents himself as the amiable dunce, but the reader learns quickly that he is anything but friendly or a fool, and is either coldly rational and without empathy or is delusional and psychotic.

Thompson’s portrayal of the character is skilled and precise, crafting boundaries and expectations for the reader and then knocking them down as the character develops before the reader’s eyes. I don’t know if Nick is actually a sociopath – he might have a personality disorder, like narcissistic p.d., although that’s a better question for a psychiatrist who likes to diagnose fictional characters with mental illnesses – but he commands your attention. I found myself hanging on his words; I was eager to read what happened next, because he was unpredictable and his schemes were clever, but also because I wanted to hear what he said next because his words were less predictable than his actions. One by one, Nick identifies his problems and “solves” them, without significant regard for the consequences because he seems to believe that the rightness of his actions will protect him from any negative results.

One question the book didn’t and likely couldn’t answer was whether Nick’s standing in the town was a function of the public’s fear of him – did they recognize how dangerous he was, and leave him in office out of fear? I couldn’t view Nick as a reliable narrator, but at the same time we receive no other information beyond what he tells us, leaving us with no choice but to accept his version of events. Myra manipulates Nick, and cheats on him, and yet there are times when her demeanor towards him changes from condescension to fear, as if she’s witnessed a change in his personality from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. He’s one of the most interesting antiheroes I’ve come across in any genre.

Next up: Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.

The Grifters.

I’ve got a draft blog post up on Braden Shipley and Aaron Judge, as well as a post with predictions for the 2013 season.

Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel The Grifters is my first encounter with his work, a neo-noir novel that draws from the prose style of hard-boiled detective novels but brings it outside of the detective genre, instead focusing on the cons themselves with barely a shamus in sight. The three main characters are all tied together in simple ways, but Thompson develops them each so deeply that the result is like a modern, dark Greek tragedy, written by someone who read too much Raymond Chandler. (Note: One cannot read too much Chandler.)

Adapted into the 1990 film of the same name by Donald Westlake, The Grifters centers on Roy Dillon, a mid-20s artist of the “small con,” little tricks designed to yield up to $100 that won’t attract too much notice from the police. His indifferent, manipulative mother Lilly is herself involved with the mob, as she has been for years, now helping them rig the betting against longshots at the track. Roy avoids most lasting relationships, as part of the life of the grifter but also a consequence of a childhood with a sociopathic mother, yet ends up involved with Moira Langtry, who is also on the make but whose motives aren’t immediately clear. When one of Roy’s small cons leaves him nearly dead and in need of convalescence, his mother makes her move to reestablish herself in her son’s life – for her own purposes, of course.

Roy is the far more developed character in the book, working from an independent sense of morality, wary of his mother yet unable to fully sever ties with her, but Lilly is far more fascinating – the mother who’d eat her young and who only views others as tools for her own advancement. (It cracks me up that the actress who played Lilly in the film, Anjelica Houston, is now the voice of the overly sweet Queen Clarion in the new Tinker Bell movies.) We get Lilly and Roy’s backstory through flashback chapters intertwined with the present time, which tracks Roy’s injury and recovery, and which allows Lilly to introduce Roy to the seemingly innocent nurse Carol, an immigrant who is reluctant to discuss anything of her past.

Thompson had to have been at least somewhat thinking in terms of Greek tragedies, especially Oedipus, when writing The Grifters, as the elements are too obvious for this to have been inadvertent. The incestuous undertone to Lilly and Roy’s relationship becomes clearer the more we watch the two interact, especially since sex is Lilly’s primary way of manipulating men, either to get what she wants or to get out of trouble. The three elements Aristotle identified as critical to the tragic plot – reversals of fortune, recognition, and suffering by one or more protagonists – are all present, especially in the two-part conclusion, the second half of which even surprised me. Greek tragedies often come across today as pedantic and dull, but Thompson uses both the plot and taut syntax to keep the tension high from the hit Roy takes the stomach in the first chapter to that final confrontation that lays everyone’s motives bare.

The style and subject matter reminded me of Chandler and Hammett, as well as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I read in February, but the strongest resemblance was to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley’s novel is more violent and has less of the classical elements of The Grifters, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Thompson had influenced Crumley’s work, especially since Crumley was in college and graduate school when two of Thompson’s most significant works, this novel and Pop. 1280 were first published.

Next up: B.S. Johnson’s manic metafictional absurdist novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

Drive.

It didn’t take me long to find a 2011 film that I thought was better than The Artist. I admit to a strong partiality toward noir in all its forms, but even adjusting for that, I thought Drive was tighter, more interesting, better performed, and a lot less cliched than the actual Best Picture winner. (Drive wasn’t nominated.)

Based on a novel by James Sallis (just $5.18 on amazon), Drive follows its nameless stunt-driver/mechanic protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling with the bare minimum of emotion, as he moonlights as a getaway driver for hire, a role that gives the film’s car-chase scenes some actual justification. The Driver develops an attachment to a new neighbor Irene, (Carey Mulligan), and to her young son, Benicio, whose father, Standard, is in prison when the movie begins but comes home to find himself pursued by thugs to whom he owes money for protecting him while he was in prison. When the Driver sees Standard take a beating at the hands of the thugs and learns that they’ve threatened Irene and Benicio, he offers to help Standard fulfill the gangsters’ demand that he rob a pawn shop holding a substantial amount of cash, which, inevitably, leads the Driver into a conflict with the gangsters themselves that he resolves (in part) through his skills at the wheel. It’s a pretty simple plot with a small number of characters, but they’re all looped together very tightly, if a little improbably, unless we believe Los Angeles is so small that it only has two gangsters in it.

One of the hallmarks of the noir genre is understated dialogue, which is one of Drive‘s two greatest strengths. The Driver couldn’t say less if he was made of stone, and even his expressions are so slight that it’s often unclear whether he’s motivated by anger, self-preservation, or the desire to protect Irene and Benicio. He barely smiles or frowns, and is almost inhuman in his calmness under pressure. I wish that understatement had extended to the film’s depictions of violence, which are unsparing (fine) and gory (pandering?), and which added little to the film itself. I expected bodies, but the director seems to take a perverse delight in the destruction of the human head.

With scant dialogue, a movie like this lives or dies on the quality of its performances, which turns out to be the other strength of the film. Gosling is excellent as the Driver, playing him as emotionless without turning him into a hackneyed “tightly-wound hero about to explode” character. Albert Brooks is even better playing against type as a high-ranking gangster who hides an inner ruthlessness behind a somewhat erudite facade. (I’d also give points to Carey Mulligan for being cute, which the role requires since the Driver is supposed to develop feelings for her fairly quickly.)

Gosling’s character is so calm and insular that it requires a precise performance that keeps emotions you’d expect to see in scenes involving fear or rage below the surface, yet Gosling doesn’t come off as a charmless robot or a monotonous antihero. Brooks steals every scene he’s in, even those with Gosling, again by keeping his sinister nature underneath the sarcastic but not humorless exterior; when he’s not taking care of business, he has his charms, yet when he flips the switch and needs to commit some horrible act of violence, there’s no overplaying – this is just business, from a man who knows when something needs to be done. The failure of the Academy to give Brooks a nomination for Best Supporting Actor earned them much criticism in a year when they seemed to screw a lot of things up (Dujardin over Oldman for Best Actor would be one such mistake in my mind), and based just on Brooks’ performance here I can see why, although I still would have given the award to Christopher Plummer for Beginners. Gosling makes the movie, but Brooks elevates it every time he’s on screen.

The story itself doesn’t have much depth behind it, but imbuing a noir film with too much subtext would rob it of its essential noir-ness. Noir is entertaining without targeting the least common denominator: Phrasing is clipped, dialogue is sparse, explanations are few. The viewer is drawn into the film because he has to work a little harder to understand motivations or connections between characters. Drive only veers from typical noir through its depictions of violence, but not the intensity attached – there should be a coldness pervading all conflicts between protagonist and antagonists, which Drive achieves; the gore only served as a distraction to me.

(I should probably mention the plaudits given to the film’s soundtrack, but I can’t say I noticed it at all. Soundtracks and scores almost never make any impression on me unless they’re intrusive.)

The limitation of Drive is that you have to like this style of movies – it’s an action movie without a tremendous amount of action (which led to one of the more frivolous lawsuits I’ve ever heard of), and it’s a sharp movie without a ton of dialogue. I like hard-boiled detective novels for the same reasons I liked Drive, because I like seeing a plot stripped down to its essentials, with tension that’s derived from the story itself. Your mileage may vary.

Animal Kingdom.

I’m a bit behind here as I’ve been researching and now writing up the top 100 prospects, but I’ll try to at least get some fresh content up on the dish this week.

When I was slowly making my way through the 2010 nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture over the course of the second half of 2011, several readers mentioned the Australian drama Animal Kingdom as an unjustly overlooked candidate for that honor (although Jacki Weaver did receive a Best Supporting Actress nod). It’s a harsh, bleak film that uses crime as a springboard for examining motivations behind individual decisions – including the fungible ties of family – without ever lapsing into pure crime drama, with a minimalist approach to dialogue and plot that kept the pace up even with such stark subject matter. And it was far better than two of the Best Picture nominees I saw, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right, and is probably ahead of The Fighter for me as well.

As the film opens, we see Jay, a sullen teenager, calling 911 (or the Australian equivalent, I suppose) without any emotion to report that his mother, sitting next to him on the couch, appears to have OD’d on heroin. Even after her death, he calls his grandmother, Janine Cody (Weaver), from whom his mother was estranged, to ask for help, yet still shows very little emotion at all – what could be shock, of course, but turns out to be more than that. Janine is the head of an organized crime family, based on the real-life Pettingill family and the real murder of two police officers of which one of the Pettingill sons was accused, and Jay finds himself gradually folded into the family business without ever quite understanding his role in it until he’s arrested after the deaths of two police officers. From there, Jay finds himself forced to choose between the only family he has left and the morally correct option presented to him by the lead investigator, Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce, excellent as always), who tries to offer Jay a way out in exchange for the testimony to damn his uncles.

Although the Cody brothers are violent and disturbed, particularly Andrew (“Pope”, played by Ben Mendelsohn) and the paranoid Craig, the film’s setup puts them in the role of prey rather than predator, which at least explains their actions as those of desperate criminals rather than criminals who are violent for violence’s sake. Pope is at least a sociopath, Craig’s paranoia is the cause or result (or both) of his drug abuse, and it’s hinted that Darren is suppressing his homosexuality; all three in an unhealthy home environment, chased by a crooked police force, create a powder keg that the viewer expects to explode. (That’s not to forgive any of their violent acts, but provides depth to the characters beyond the simple “bad guy does bad thing” motif.) Jay, on the other hand, spends most of the film as its Nick Jenkins, mostly passive observer, occasional fringe participant, until events force him to choose sides and grab the wheel of his own fate.

Much of the dialogue in the film, especially spoken by Jay and his uncle Darren, is mumbled, and between that and their Australian accents I had to rewind a few times to catch what was said, although I assume the mumbling was by design, as those two characters share a certain reluctance to go all-in on the family’s activities. The film is often dimly lit, adding to the bleak feel but making it a little tough to watch. And since the film is driven not by violence (although there is some) or by action, but by dialogue and reactions between pairs of characters, it doesn’t fit neatly into buckets like “crime drama” or “action film” that might have made it more of a commercial success. (It earned just over $4.9 million at the box office in Australia, which made it one of the top earners of the year in that country – a fact that surprised me, since I tend to think of Australia as more populated than it actually is.)

Animal Kingdom was largely ignored by the Oscars, but it set records in Australia’s version of the awards for both nominations (18) and wins (10), the latter including best picture, director, screenplay, actress (Weaver), actor (Mendelsohn), and supporting actor (Joel Edgerton, as Barry “Baz” Brown, which was an odd choice if you’ve seen the film). It is loaded with strong performances and one of the most perfect endings I can remember to any film – it resolves one major plot strand, yet opens a new one just as large that remains unanswered.

I’d be curious if any of you have seen another Australian film written by Edgerton, The Square, a neo-noir drama that also received much critical acclaim.

Brick.

When I wrote about Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom a year and a half ago, I asked if any of you had seen his previous movie, Brick, a hard-boiled detective story set in a modern high school. Nine of you said in the comments I needed to see it, and several more of you have suggested it since then. I’m usually pretty safe with reader recommendations … and this was no exception. I was blown away by Brick – very smart, occasionally funny, great narrative greed, and all kinds of homages to one of my favorite genres in literature. (Worth mentioning: it’s just $3.94 on DVD right now at amazon.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, an intelligent but slightly aloof high school student whose ex-girlfriend has gone missing for several weeks. He receives a panicked phone call from her, sees her one more time, and within 48 hours she ends up dead, leaving him to try to unravel the mystery, which leads him into his school’s subculture of dope-dealing and hilarious posing along with the full allotment of tough guys, fake tough guys, violence, and apple juice.

The film is characterized as “neo-noir,” although I’d stick with “hard-boiled” given Brendan’s character and the terse, quick dialogue through nearly all of the film. Brendan is quick with the ripostes, and a few other characters manage to match him quip for quip, like the character Laura, of the high class and uncertain motives, responding to him on the phone.

Laura: Who is this?
Brendan: I won’t waste your time. You don’t know me.
Laura: (slowly) I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.
Brendan: Ah, the folly of youth.

The characters nearly all speak quickly – occasionally unintelligibly – and the pacing is brisk, while the dialogue has just enough slang to give it an altered-reality feel without overselling the noir feel. Johnson layered the plot with a red herring or two and even gave Brendan a brilliant sidekick, just called The Brain, complete with thick-lensed glasses (with hipster frames, as it turns out) and a machine-gun delivery.

The script is brilliant, but the performances elevated the movie to plus. One of the hardest things for a teenaged actor or actress to do is to play a teenaged character who’s supposed to act like an adult – it usually comes off as forced, often with unintentionally comic results. But Levitt sells his character quickly and easily; by the one-quarter mark, you’re no longer distracted by that age/speech discrepancy and are buying Brendan as a viable young adult, rather than a kid playing dress-up. Without that performance, the center of the movie wouldn’t hold.

Most of the other cast members filled their roles admirably with Brendan at the center; Meagan Wood, who seems to be better known for appearing in African-American sitcoms and bad horror films, stands out as one of two femmes fatales (and the much more convincing of the two) as a cold, manipulative actress tied up on the fringes of the central crime but who enjoys toying with Brendan when he comes for information. The other femme fatale is played by the adorable Nora Zehetner, who simply doesn’t fit her part, not in looks (it would be fair to say that a doe was Nora Zehetner-eyed) or in articulation (the precise, upper-class speech of her character doesn’t fit her actions or motivations). That’s not on Zehetner, but on whoever made the casting decision. You wouldn’t cast me as Tug for similar reasons – I could be the greatest actor since Olivier but I couldn’t sell you on a character I’m not physically built to play.

For someone like me, infatuated with the style and tension of hard-boiled literature, Brick is sublime – a brilliant adaptation of a great story Dashiell Hammett forgot to write. It’s the rare movie I’d actually want to watch again.

Next up: In Bruges.