Two neo-noirs from unlikely sources

When you think of directors Harold Ramis and David Cronenberg, film noir is not the first genre that pops into your head. Cronenberg likes to blow things up good, real good. And come to think of it, so does Ramis. Well, at least that would apply to the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. But both directors turned out nice little neo-noirs last year.

Cronenberg’s History takes up one of noir’s primary themes: our inability to escape from our past. For most of this translates into a desire to embellish, to create interest where none really exists, to move ourselves out of mundane trajectories. But for, say, an ex-mob-hit-man, this can mean the very opposite. When they have had enough of the crime and killing, they try to escape into dull normality, to conceal themselves in the persona of a small-town schmo. In classic noir at least, this gambit never works. The past always finds you, claims you and sucks you back in. It happens in The Killers, it happens in Out of the Past, and it happens here. Throughout the film, Cronenberg has us pondering some interesting moral aspects of identity. For example, if a small-town everyman acts out of character and bravely takes on and defeats two random thugs, he is seen by the townfolk as a hero. But what if the same acts are performed by a trained killer, a virtuoso of violence? With exactly the same intent, our perception of his actions are utterly changed. It’s a quiet movie, dismally scored, punctuated by brutal violence, and it’s in those moments that we remember, “ah yes, Cronenberg.”

Ramis’ Ice Harvest on the other hand, is simply a straight-up neo-noir. With a femme fatale, a double-crossing partner, a sack of money, and corrupt-but-likeable protagonist, all the classical elements are present. The movie was marketed as a dark comedy, which may have left much of its audience unsatisfied. And indeed, there are a few Fargo moments here, but you can see why some movie-goers would have felt a little misled. No greatness here, but certainly enough for fans of the genre, or John Cusack, to latch on to. With its anti-Christmas themes, would pair nicely with Bad Santa.

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