Neo-noir – or basically “new film noir”: You’ve probably heard the term being tossed around a lot to define something hyper-stylish and yet reminiscent of something retrofitted.
Film noir describes an era of Hollywood crime dramas in the 1940s and 1950s that focused on low-key, highly visually pleasing black-and-white cinematography. So when that sensibility returned in the 80s, it created a surge of interest in a new approach to the style. The term itself was defined by Mark Conrad as “any film coming after the classic noir period that contains noir themes and noir sensibility.” This would be apt, considering such a diverse range of film that fits the term and have helped flesh out an entire genre that blends crime, horror, mystery, comedy, and more while still maintaining those central noir themes.
The beauty of neo-noir is that it has allotted for diversification and deconstruction of film noir’s central tropes (melodramatic lighting, antihero protagonists, apathetic view of reality) to become its own beast. Just take a look at the following films. They are among the best neo-noir has to offer.
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David Lynch’s cult classic film is perhaps a principle example of the immense draw of neo-noir. The film juxtaposes night and day, surface and underground, the idyllic and the insane, to create an essential rendition of neo-noir.
The premise involves a college student named Jeffrey Beaumont who returns home after his father suffers a near-fatal stroke. While walking home from the hospital, he discovers a severed ear in a field. The ear becomes a launchpad for his descent into the dark underbelly of his hometown, where drugs and deception are common dualities. There’s also the appearance of the femme-fatale by way of Dorothy Vallens, the lounge singer that catches Jeffrey’s eye, and Frank Booth, a sinister dealer who loves to humiliate Dorothy. It’s a baffling and seductive piece of cinema and a prime example of neo-noir.
Memories of Murder
An early film by director Bong Joon-ho, most famous for last year’s hit, Parasite, Memories of Murder is loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders that took place between 1986 and 1991.
Detective Park and Detective Seo are tasked with attempting to solve the puzzling case. What makes the film such an effective piece of neo-noir is how both detectives act like facsimiles of tougher detectives, but fail nearly every step of the way. They do their best though, and amid the rainy fall weather, more murders occur, ratcheting up the desperation for the detectives to solve the case.
The film starts off quite understated, but goes on to surprise and overwhelm. By the time you reach the closing shot of the film, you will be breathless.
The Nicolas Winding Refn directed film Drive, an adaptation of the James Sallis novel of the same name, was the talk of the industry when it hit film festivals and theaters in 2011. Utilizing a refreshing soundtrack and highly intriguing antihero main character, played by Ryan Gosling, Drive instantly became a representative example of the modern neo-noir film.
At its center is the aforementioned antihero, who lacks a name and has only a dozen or less lines of dialogue throughout the film. He’s an ace driver, capable of pretty much anything if you put him behind the wheel. He also has a mysterious past and lives a solitary life, working at a car garage while occasionally taking on stunt driver gigs. It’s a life on the margins, until he meets next door neighbor Irene and her son, Benicio. Her husband’s debt weighs heavily on the family and Driver finds himself in the difficult position of caring, while still remaining guarded. Viewers have developed their own theories about Driver’s backstory, and in true neo-noir fashion, the mysteries outweigh the solutions.
Rian Johnson’s fun and addictive whodunit with its ensemble cast, is neo-noir with a different take. Rather than going the route of the films above, Knives Out goes into Clue territory with a metaphysical edge, as though the film is self-aware of all the noir tropes it's playing out.
The story involves the death of a wealthy mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey and his family’s actions upon his death. The film cleverly positions the family in an at-odds situation, where they’re all looking to cash out and gain their inheritance like a bunch of trust-fund abusers. Of course, then Benoit Blanc, ace private eye played by Daniel Craig, appears after mysteriously being hired to figure out the details of Harlan’s death.
There’s even a great literary reference, a jab at the author Thomas Pynchon, in one of the film’s delightful scenes. Knives Out occupies a side of neo-noir that maintains the tropes and style, but goes for whimsy, fun, and comedy, even if the source material is inherently grim.
Man, talk about a stressful film. Nightcrawler is a neo-noir film whose true main character is capitalism itself. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as petty thief Lou Bloom, who goes around eking out a living stealing copper wire and other raw materials to resell. That is, until he discovers the world of nightcrawling, in which film crews run around the city vying to be the first on the scene of an accident, murder, or crime and to flip the footage to local news at auction. Bloom is instantly obsessed and his tenacity earns him some wins. When things get tough though, his inner thievery shows, and much like any true antihero, Bloom is willing to do anything to make more money, even if it means killing people.
Nightcrawler is quite a surprising film. From its authentic display of Los Angeles at night, to its tense and tight cinematography, it’ll make you examine the struts of capitalism and how it shapes and changes us, as we grow more desperate to survive.
The directorial debut of film auteur Christopher Nolan, Following is at a glance a relatively quiet and straight forward tale. It involves a young struggling writer, roaming aimlessly around the streets of London looking for topics (read: people) to write about. He’s naïve and lonely, and his people-watching hobby coasts along fine, until he breaks his own rules and continues following a mysterious man in a dark suit into a world of crime.
The film is shot in black and white with telltale signs of a shoestring budget, which can inadvertently add to the neo-noir flavor of a film. Nolan fans will be surprised to see where the man that went on to create epic sci-fi films like Inception and Interstellar got his start.
If there’s one thing that Michael Haneke is undeniably a master at, it’s provocation. The film is incredibly ominous and quiet (literally), with long shots of an upper middle class French couple living their life with no real imminent danger. That is, until mysterious tapes appear on their front porch. The tapes depict long cuts of untampered footage showing the couple’s home. Instantly, the air of safety is shattered and Georges, the husband, begins to draw leads from the tapes that signal back to his childhood.
The film is quite an unlikely choice given that its absence of style is its “chosen style.” However, Haneke employs an incredible amount of nuance to unsettle viewers.
The Man from Nowhere
The 2010 film from director Lee Jeong-beom is neo-noir at its finest. A reclusive and quiet man named Cha Tae-sik runs a pawnshop, and his only friend is a young girl named So-mi, who lives nearby and frequently visits. When So-mi’s mother, a drug addict and go-go dancer, steals a large pack of heroin and pawns it off to Tae-sik in a camera bag for safe keeping, the wrath of the criminal underworld comes after an unsuspecting Tae-sik. Throw in the fact that his only friend, So-mi, is kidnapped to lure him out and you’ve got a man, truly from nowhere, appearing to go on a rampage of vengeance. This is neo-noir with a side of twisted vengeance and it’s a lot of fun.
And now for something a little different. Martin McDonagh’s directorial debut is about as fun yet transgressive as you can get within the constantly shifting world of neo-noir.
Here we glimpse two contract killers, Ken and Ray, laying low in Bruges after Ray, the younger and less experienced of the two, accidentally kills a child while on a hit enlisting him to take out a priest. The accident proves to cause a multitude of consequences, but it’s Ken and Ray being forced into a purgatorial state in the quiet town that leads to oddity and fun. A strange cast of characters make their appearance, including their boss Harry, an exceedingly eccentric mob boss with a temper, and a love interest, that is both a drug dealer and set designer, who lures Ray into some difficult situations.
The Nice Guys
Like In Bruges, The Nice Guys relaxes itself from neo-noir’s penchant for darkness, mystery, and horror so that its two co-stars can have some onscreen chemistry. As bumbling private detectives, the duo become embroidered into a complex investigation involving the death of pornstar Misty Mountains and the disappearance of Amelia Kuttner.
Both Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling clearly had a lot of fun in their roles and the humor really jumps off the screen. Similar to Knives Out, the whodunit ploy of the noir plays main fiddle, as our stars find new opportunities to entertain viewers.
Directed by David Fincher, Zodiac is based on the 1986 nonfiction book by Robert Graysmith about the Zodiac murders that tormented the San Francisco Bay area through the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Fincher approached the subject material with a very “true crime” aesthetic, washed out colors, moody shadows, and understated scenes that let the dialogue and the acting shine. Fincher went on to utilize the same subtleties in the Netflix series, Mindhunter. However, what really makes Zodiac stand out is the treatment of true crime with this style. Even if you’re extremely familiar with the Zodiac killer, the film will pull you in and won’t let you go, as the years go on and the murders remain ultimately unsolved.
Considered by many as a key film in the rise in international popularity of South Korean film in the early 2000s, Oldboy is the second film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy and draws its source material from the eponymously named manga.
Oh Dae-su is a bumbling alcoholic that is snatched off the street one night while making a phone call, and is imprisoned for 15 years without knowing who captured him or why. When he is released, he has evolved into a meticulous mission-driven man with vengeance on his mind. Of course, it wouldn’t be neo-noir if it wasn’t draped in style and involved a dizzying number of twists and turns. By the end of the film, viewers are as exhausted as they are stunned by the turn-of-events.
It’s what neo-noir does best, gets under your skin, wows you with style, produces enigmatic main characters, and doses in the action for equal measure.
If you’re surprised to see a Michael Mann movie in this list, well, so am I. However, Collateral really makes the case. The premise is deceptively clever—Max, a Los Angeles cab driver working nonstop with a dream of starting his own driving service, goes out on another all night shift and picks up a gray haired man in a suit, named Vincent.
Vincent is cool, calm, and collected and produces an offer that Max cannot refuse: be his driver for the night in exchange for high payment. Of course, it turns out Vincent is a contract killer and one of his strategies for laying low is using cabs to go to and from various locations. Max becomes ensnarled in a complex plot of murder and politics that leads to a stunning end on the Los Angeles subway line.
Featured still from "Knives Out" via Lionsgate