As you know I can enjoy a good neo-noir type picture every once in a while. It’s almost not fair to include THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE in this pantheon because it’s so spectacular and successfully retro that it makes the other ones look kinda lame. But other than that one it’s been a while since anyone succeeded at the modern film noir. I guess most independent filmatists trying to start out with a low budget crime movie have moved on from trying to make a BLOOD SIMPLE or a RED ROCK WEST to trying to make a RESERVOIR DOGS and then a PULP FICTION and then a LOCK, STOCK AND ET AL.
What makes this one surprising is that the director is Alex Winter, best known as Bill from BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. Or possibly Ted. The point is, he’s not Keanu Reeves, but he is one of those two, Bill and Ted. I believe he is Ted come to think of it. Or he may be Bill. One of those.
If you are a youngster who doesn’t know what BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE is, it is the original version of DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR. So imagine one of those goofballs, only with curly hair, and directing a serious neo-noir type thriller. Starring the kid from E.T.
Henry Thomas plays a young art teacher living in a slum, who overhears his landlord having a loud argument with a drunk who lives in the building. The next day the landlord is dead. Things are bad for Henry. He gets sick, he has money troubles, he meets some weird people, he doesn’t get along with his dad and the cop investigating the landlord’s murder, played of course by Bill Duke, obviously has some suspicions about him.
Sometimes I think Bill Duke really is a cop, living in the alternate movie universe, travelling from film to film solving crimes with a silent, intimidating glare.
The story here is pretty straightforward with all the classical elements. Don’t look for clever twists or surprises, it’s just the good execution and serious tone that make it work. I listened to the commentary track and Alex Winter claims there is a certain dark humor underneath, but I don’t think anyone besides him will notice it. What I liked was that it WASN’T funny, it’s just kind of grim and sad to see what happens to this poor dude.
And the reason why is because of a great performance by Henry Thomas, who seems to have something dark and burning behind his eyes ever since he was abandoned by his pet alien. He is very convincing as his fever gets worse and his grasp on reality starts to slip. There is one flashback shot in here where for some reason he remembers himself standing in a hallway in the dark with shadows on his eyesockets like Michael Meyers or something. I don’t know what the hell it means but it’s creepy.
And the apartment building, where most of it takes place, is dark and weird. The movie is very slow and quiet, with very little music, lots of non-verbal scenes, just the broken heater chugging away somewhere else in the building. And you can almost feel it. Turn that damn thing off.