Friday, May 27, 2016

Night And The Country: A History of the Rural Noir

At its inception, film noir was a genre of cities. From the rain-slicked streets of Los Angeles to the midnight sidewalks of New York, the big city first defined classic noir’s visual style and provided inspiration for its stories of lust and greed. In the classic era, urban spaces were as pivotal to noir as wide-open spaces were to the Western. One could see this just in the titles: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, CITY OF FEAR, CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, CHICAGO SYNDICATE, CRY OF THE CITY, DARK CITY, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, THE NAKED CITY, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. The primary components of the genre were perhaps best distilled in the title of a brilliant 1950 crime drama by the director Jules Dassin: NIGHT AND THE CITY

But what about noir’s country cousin, the rural noir? While the big city went to hell, what was happening in the heartland, down south, and out in the sticks?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. While most classic noir either ignored the countryside or presented it in an idealized form (something like Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 OUT OF THE PAST, for instance, is typical in this regard—it contrasts the peace of small town life to the innate corruption of the city), the rural noir sought to darken the picture. It wasn’t all Mom and apple pie out there in the woods.   

The rural noir had early progenitors in films like Fritz Lang’s 1936 FURY, which features Spencer Tracy as a city slicker terrorized by a small town lynch mob. Like FURY, many of these early films focused on city dwellers who, for one reason or another, trekked into the wilderness and found trouble waiting there for them. This storyline became a subgenre all by itself. Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) followed two buddies (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) on a fishing trip who give a ride to a third man (William Talman) only to discover that he’s a gun-wielding psychopath. Nicholas Ray’s films THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) both featured troubled protagonists—respectively, a teen fugitive played by Farley Granger and a tormented cop played by Robert Ryan—who try to escape their problems by fleeing into the country. To one extent or another, however, these films were about how the  desire to transcend the complications of city life is thwarted when the simplicity offered by the country turns out to be a chimera.

As noir developed, some films began to present the country without its big-city contrast. These were rural noir in the truest sense. The first fully formed of these films was the haunting MOONRISE (1948). Directed by the legendary Frank Borzage (the first director to win a Best Director Oscar), it tells the story of Danny Hawkins, the disgraced son of a convicted murderer. Raised in shame, Danny grows up tormented by other kids—particularly Jerry Sykes, the spoiled son of the town’s banker. Years later, the adult Jerry Sykes (played by Lloyd Bridges) corners Danny (Dane Clark) in the shadowy woods behind a dance party and tells him to stay away from Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell) the pretty school teacher they both love. When Jerry makes one last crack about how Danny’s old man was a murderer, Danny lashes out. When he walks out of the woods a few moments later, he has more in common with his father than just a last name.

In MOONRISE we find the beginning of rural noir’s most resonant theme: the burden of kinship. More frequently than its urban counterpart, rural noir locates its stories in the tangled, and sometimes downright twisted, dynamics of family. For one thing, the protagonist in a rural noir is far more likely to have a family in the first place. Whereas the noir city is mostly made up of loners, in the noir countryside, characters are often bound to their families like prisoners on a chain gang. In Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), for instance, two young children are orphaned when their father goes to the gallows for murder and their mother is killed by their stepfather, a religious nutjob played with Satanic glee by Robert Mitchum. The film hews closely to the source novel by Davis Grubb not just in the plotting but in the simmering grotesquery of Grubb’s West Virginian vision. Familial obligation, as it so often is in the Southern Gothic literature that helped inspire rural noir, is largely a matter of children being made to pay for the sins of their parents.

Interestingly, this family theme only seems to have gained strength over the years. One of the best (and most underrated) noirs of the 1990s was 1993’s FLESH AND BONE, directed by Steve Kloves and starring Dennis Quaid as Arliss, a vending machine operator in Texas who lives a solitary life in an attempt to free himself from his oppressive father, a career criminal played by James Caan. When Arliss falls in love with the daughter (Meg Ryan) of a family that his father massacred years before, he is pulled into an almost biblical showdown with the old man. Past and present collide in a way that invokes the famous adage of William Faulkner (one of the guiding spirits of rural noir) that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The starkest expressions of this theme can be found in the two best rural noirs of recent years. Set in southern Arkansas, Jeff Nichols’s 2007 SHOTGUN STORIES stars Michael Shannon as Son Hayes, the bitter eldest brother of the Hayes clan, whose estranged father abandoned them long ago to begin another family. Uninvited to their father’s funeral, Hayes and his brothers crash the service and, in front of their father’s horrified second family, Son delivers a withering eulogy and incurs the wrath of his half-brothers. As petty slights steadily escalate to confrontations and then to violence, there are unmistakable echoes of Faulkner’s tortured families — particularly the brother versus brother drama of ABSALOM ABSALOM! — with the deeds of the (unseen) father echoing down through the years, condemning all his sons. We find another backwoods patriarch bequeathing misery to his children in Debra Granik’s adaptation of the brilliant Daniel Woodrell novel WINTER’S BONE. It tells the story of a pine knot-tough teenager named Ree Dolly (wonderfully played, in a star-making performance, by Jennifer Lawrence) trying to find her missing drug dealer father in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Masterfully adapting the Woodrell story, Granik deftly explores the crushing weight of poverty and, in the formidable figure of Ree Dolly, showcases the kind of marrow-deep grit required for a young woman to navigate a world of drugs and deception, a world founded on reflexive misogyny and trigger-quick violence.

Like any genre, of course, the rural noir can lapse into cliché. Just this winter, director Scott Cooper attempted a gritty look at rural poverty and drug abuse with his film OUT OF THE FURNACE. His story follows a steel worker (Christian Bale) in a dying Pennsylvania factory town who has to journey up into the Ramapo Mountains of northeastern New Jersey to look for his missing brother (Casey Affleck). Despite a strong cast, the script feels underdeveloped and the film itself lacks the lived-in quality of something like WINTER’S BONE or SHOTGUN STORIES. A character like Woody Harrelson’s vicious drug lord (the film’s villain), for instance, never expands past the point of being a vicious drug lord. Like so many rural noirs, OUT OF THE FURNACE wants to be a mediation on family, and on the causes and effects of violence, but the film ends up being a good example of how the genre can repeat itself to little lasting effect.

While something like OUT OF THE FURNACE may suffer from a comparison to its betters in the genre, it does further demonstrate how rural noir has become the de facto cinematic means of exploring the culture and conditions of America’s rural underclass. In today’s Hollywood, when fewer and fewer films can make it through the studio system and only slightly more can find financing through the ever-corporatized world of independent film, investigations of poverty and family hardship need something sexy to attract potential investors and, further down the line, audiences. The veneer of the crime film is that something sexy. Of course, given the news of rampant drug addiction and economic distress coming out of places like the Appalachians and the Ozarks, perhaps it’s not just a veneer after all. It was ever thus with film noir. Whether set in the city or the country, it’s always sought to tell the dark and disturbing truth.

Note: This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of MYSTERY SCENE.

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