Monthly Archives: June 2012

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

Modern film noir is a dying genre, kept alive by strong additions every few years or so (LA Confidential, Minority Report, Body Heat, The Last Seduction, Drive). And then of course there are the Coen brothers, bless their hearts, who incorporate at least some noir elements into all their films, my favorite being Blood Simple. Kevin “kid” Collins, the protagonist in the modern film noir After Dark, My Sweet, left me delightfully confused. After beating a man to death in the ring, Kevin spends a few years in and out of insane asylums, and ends up backpacking his way through California. James Foley, the director, immediately silences all those who claim that noir died with Bogey by immediately creating a pitch perfect tone, complete with an appropriately melancholic score, juxtaposed long shots and ECU’s, and heavy-handed voiceovers, with California’s desert countryside providing just enough surrealism to give it that visual exaggeration. The only time the movie takes a break from its pacing is to insert jarring flashbacks of Kevin’s last fight, yet in these flashbacks there are no audiences in the stands, leading one to question the validity of his memory. Kevin’s sanity is uncertain, and not until the third act do we realize how much of Kevin’s personality is either faked, caused by anger, by sadness, or ultimately despair. Did his murder charge make him this way, or has he always been like this? At times he displays a certain shy, resigned demeanor, only to demonstrate the next moment extreme insight.  “I’d like to correct an erroneous impression you seem to have about me. You see, I’m not at all stupid. I may sound like I am, but I’m really not.”

As the story progresses he meets the femme fetale Agnes, played by Rachel Ward, who takes him in and involves him in a plot to kidnap a child for the reward money. Unsurprisingly, events unfold in a less than desirable manner, employing the “two-time loser” trope of the genre.  If you take a few steps back, the story is not complicated, and relies entirely on its actors to do all the heavy lifting. Jason Patric, who you may remember from The Lost Boys alongside Kiefer Sutherland, delivers a Brando “Streetcar Named Desire”-esque performance, performing everyday activities with a subtle boxer’s slouch and twitchy reflexes. The film also does not move towards Kevin’s redemption. Never are we teased for a moment that his story will resolve peacefully. His character is in many ways both repugnant and crude, yet his semi self-inflicted downward spiral, that ever growing moral pressure that can accumulates over the years, driving one inevitably downward, is something we can all empathize with.  Without spoiling anything, the last 5 minutes does present a resolution which, while in keeping within the confines of its genre, felt both fresh and poetic. For all the unease and cynicism that film noir is supposed to bring, no other genre gives me a greater sense of moral satisfaction. I believe this is due to their thematic connection with Greek tragedies. That slight feeling of innocence being lost, while perhaps artificially, is an essential reaction to art, so long as there is something to fill the void after. (A-)