They say clinging to the past will eventually leave your soul tired. Sometimes you have to move on, shove those memories into the monochrome drawer of antiquity. Neo-noir movies disagree; all the past needs is a dash of color, breathe a new life into them, bask them in the promise of the future to cover up old scars. The kids will be none the wiser.
And so, every once in a while, you find a reason to sit back and play that jazz during the peak of your cynical episodes while sipping a glass of Scotch thanks to the following neo-noir movies.
Speaking of clinging on to the past, Sin City captures the essence of noir and puts its own nihilistic twist. It’s the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. It’s an anthology of connected crime thriller stories set in the titular city where it’s always grimy and the inhabitants are only one bullet away from being dead or being criminals.
Sin City evokes the jazzy and dark narration of noir films of old though it mixes in a distinct style by rendering itself in monochrome while key characters or elements such as blood retain their color. Of course, the full noir starter pack is here; skeptical characters, femme fatales, absurd crime mysteries, and rain– lots of rain.
As far as Korean crime thrillers go, Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy holds a legendary cult status that’s hard to dethrone.
It’s the definitive revenge film with an overarching revenge commentary and plot– one that will leave its viewers nauseated or disgusted. The movie follows the tale of a man who was kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. When he was freed, there was only one thing on his unstable mind: to seek revenge against his captors.
But the plot becomes more complicated from then on, leading to a twist that subverts all expectations.
In a nutshell, Drive is a heist job that revolves around a stuntman whose night job is as a getaway driver for criminals. The stuntman-driver is played by none other than Ryan Gosling as he glares and murders his way into the story, with the film hinting at his closet psychopathy.
However, even the toughest icebergs melt, and Gosling’s character, aptly called the Driver, has warmed up to a mother and her child. He then decided to help her in a heist that would ensure their survival and give them an escape from their dangerous lives.
Drive’s take on noir and neo-noir is sprinkled with neon lights and synth-wave pop in a film that made men want to buy a car and drive on an empty highway with a blank face.
Before Drive, there was Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s disturbing noir film about man’s loneliness and alienation.
It stars Robert de Niro as Travis Bickle, one of movie’s earliest villain-protagonists. Travis, due to his background as a war veteran, has always wanted to contribute to society, but his methods were misguided and delusional, leading to a failed political assassination and an accidental shootout which inadvertently named Travis a hero, like a lot of Sigma males these days.
Despite being less of a detective or crime story, Taxi Driver’s stylistic cinematography and angles are undeniably noir in execution.
No Country for Old Men
One of the most critically-acclaimed neo-noir films, No Country for Old Men is also generally regarded as a brilliant yet disturbing film. It’s about a war veteran who happens upon a suitcase full of cash– which he takes home. Big mistake. He soon finds a hitman who has a twisted set of morals. One of the most nerve-wracking manhunts ever in Hollywood ensues.
The film, despite its lack of music and a dramatic score, was somehow more tense and more unnerving than others with a full set of bombastic audio cues. It’s all thanks to the cinematography and the way the movie frames its action scenes and violent moments. All of them are disturbingly realistic and dark.
Memento is one of Christopher Nolan’s earliest films and it’s a lesser-known mindbender compared to pop culture classics such as Inception or Interstellar. The movie incorporates a more personal story about a retroactive amnesiac who seeks revenge against the men who killed his wife and gave him his medical condition.
Being a Nolan film, of course, there’s a huge twist and you’ll certainly need a second or even a third re-watch in order to fully grasp the convoluted narrative he chose for this kind of story. But with every frame of its being, the film is a neo-noir mystery thriller that doesn’t rely on campy dialog and portrays a more hopeless and distrustful world.
Hard Boiled is a simple cop story. A policeman loses his partner in a shootout and in his desperation for retribution, he joins forces with an undercover officer masquerading as a gangster hitman to take down a whole crime organization. Hard Boiled is no doubt cynical in its approach but it’s more famed for its chaotic action.
Every set piece is there to be ripped apart by gunfire and every time a trigger is pulled, the whole scene explodes like a Jenga tower. In fact, Hard Boiled even became a primary inspiration for a game franchise such as F.E.A.R. due to its action sequences.
In any case, Hard Boiled is also among the films that put Hongkong crime thrillers and dramas on the global neo-noir map.
Chinatown has it all– everything that a noir film should have. There’s deep-voiced narration, suits, gangsters, deceptively dangerous women, a private eye, and a cascade of crimes leading to a twisted investigation. Of course, there’s plenty of jazz music and gunfire, along with stubborn determination.
Chinatown stars Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a detective who finds himself at odds with a crime ring after being hired by an imposter in what seemed to be a typical infidelity case. The whole case soon becomes deeper than a grave after Jake discovers an elaborate plan and setup that barely fits the job description.
The film is an important cultural cornerstone in the noir genre, especially since it’s one of the last few films made in the traditional noir style.
Surprisingly, the first Blade Runner film also counts as neo-noir despite its handful of other genres like cyberpunk and sci-fi. The cinematography and its general visual style remind viewers of the old days of detective noir films and sure enough, Blade Runner starts off as a detective story.
Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard here and he’s a blade runner– an enforcer whose job is to chase after and terminate android fugitives or rogue artificial intelligence. The film quickly branches off to its other genres after introducing the people Deckard was hunting and it even challenged the viewers’ notions of humanity after presenting a morally gray scenario for the protagonist.
Even then, the movie still retains its noir style with the rain, the melancholy, and the stoicism of the characters all wrapped up in dystopian neon. Blade Runner later became the launchpad for the whole genre of cyberpunk.
Ghost in the Shell
Speaking of cyberpunk epics, Ghost in the Shell is right up there with Blade Runner.
Unsurprisingly, this techno-crime thriller is also a neo-noir movie at heart. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the detective here and she’s out to catch a rogue artificial intelligence who has transcended its primary functions and is now out to wreak havoc on the humans who enslaved it. Like Blade Runner, it posts an existential question on the nature of sentience and humanity.
Beyond that, it’s a poignant and depressed episode of the protagonist’s lowest point where even she started questioning her identity and humanity after her brain and consciousness were transferred to an android body.
It’s also worth noting that like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell was a genre-starter and trendsetter and even paved the way for more neo-noir/cyberpunk hybrids like The Matrix.