Magazine article The Christian Century

Noir Lite

Magazine article The Christian Century

Noir Lite

Article excerpt

IN Out of Time, Matt Whitlock (played by Denzel Washington), a police chief in a small Florida town, is sleeping with Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan), his high school girl friend, now unhappily married to a local brute (Dean Cain). Ann can't catch a break: she learns that she has cancer, and she can't afford the only treatment that might save her life. So Matt lets her have a suitcase full of cash--the gleanings from a drug bust that his office is babysitting for the federal drug officers. He figures that the wheels of justice spin so slowly, he'll have enough time to replace it before the dealers come tip for trial.

That night Ann's house is torched, and her corpse and her husband's turn up inside. Matt realizes he's the prime suspect. Like Ray Milland in the 1948 suspense film The Big Clock (or Kevin Costner in its 1987 remake No Way Out), he has to tap dance furiously, to keep ahead of the mounting evidence against him (and the government bigwigs who suddenly want the suitcase back) while he tries to solve the murders himself. Anti he has to outrace his own estranged wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), a homicide detective.

The moment when Matt hands that suitcase full of ill-gotten gains over to Ann is a classic film noir setup. Film noir is the genre that explores the dark side of the human psyche, and often pivots on the misjudged actions of ordinary people who succumb to temptation. In the classic noirs, they're men (like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice) who are duped by femmes fatales. But in Sam Raimi's deeply unsettling 1998 A Simple Plan, it's money that lures the protagonist (Bill Paxton), a smalltime businessman who's never before broken the law. When he, his brother and a friend find a cache of money in a crashed plane, they allow themselves to be swept away by the promise of how this stolen wealth might alter their lives. It does, but not iii the ways they'd hoped. A Simple Plan is about the potential for even the most decent people to tumble into the darkness; that's why the story is so upsetting.

Though noir is the sexiest and sometimes the most violent of movie genres, films of this kind are steadied--and the best are deepened--by their moral weight. Actions matter; they have consequences, generally pretty dire ones. …

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