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Feel-Good Noir

This is what happens. In Boston, four masked thugs, with naked automatic weapons, rob a bank. In the process they compel a young woman employee to open the time-locked vault. I say young because the actress playing the “bank manager,” Rebecca Hall, is twenty-eight, which seems a little raw for that job. (Or am I just sentimental about banks?) But wait, there are greater implausibilities to come.

The gang gets away with the money and they take the young woman as some kind of temporary hostage. Why? I never understood why. Unless they want to be in a movie and know that there is always a girl. Along this way the gang end up with her driver’s license and realize that she lives only a few blocks away from their homes. In so avowedly a neighborhood film, can this be a surprise? Yet the studious members of the gang begin to worry that she might recognize them—why, since they were heavily masked? (In fact, the woman did see a tattoo on the back of one man’s neck—the film spelled this out in close-up, but the gang never knows it.)

So why does one member of the gang, Doug, decide to watch and follow the young woman, even going to her launderette (when he has nothing to wash!) so that he may “fall” into conversation with her? Let us consider the reasons:

   a) Doug is judging whether he should kill her—to eliminate the least risk.

   b) He wants to observe her to see if she is a risk.

   c) He is an idiot.

   d) He has nothing else to do until the next bank robbery.

   e) He is Ben Affleck, and it is his film, co-written by him and directed by him, and he needs a bitter-sweet love story to “redeem” the violence.

   f) The script is bonkers.

This movie is The Town, and it’s not the worst one from 2010. But even a load of expert acting, efficient action direction, flashy editing, and an inhalable love for Boston and Charlestown can’t go far when f) is the right answer—the script is bonkers. That sounds harmless enough, a mere inadequacy, but it is an offense to taste and intelligence. For instance, the young woman has plainly been traumatized by the experience of the robbery. She sees a co-worker gratuitously brutalized. She is held at gun-point. Her nerve breaks, but then re-gathers (she is given a half-way kind word from guess who). Left blindfolded on a river bank, she is ordered to walk forward until her toes feel the water.

Moreover, she is a wildly “nice” and adorable girl, if you know what I mean—the kind who will fall in love, have sex (and it is good, good, good!), be sweet and decent and utterly obedient to the rampant male fantasies running the picture. Some days after the robbery she begins an emotional relationship with a dark, badly shaved, and evidently under-educated hunk from the hood. I don’t know what your experience of breaking and entering is, but I find it anti-aphrodisiac. It doesn’t build trust or ease. Most men—and most women, especially the willowy touchy-feely type that Rebecca Hall is—are going to be in shock, and not looking for a new date with whom they have only co-starring status in common.

What does The Town have to do with Moonlight Mile? Several things. The novel and the film are based in the Boston area and they have the same battered and embittered affection for the place and its low life. They have a shared ear for rough talk and sentimental attitudes that powers the quick cut from self-pity to casual cruelty. They are both about what they call “redemption.” And Affleck’s first work as a director was Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), taken from an earlier Lehane novel (and a more impressive film). But the alluvial bond between the new book and the new movie is the current American taste for noir, and the hope that the warm mud of violence and criminality will pass for verities about life on the street. There are many things corroding America, and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.

Moonlight Mile is as good a read as The Town is watchable as a flick: there’s no doubt about the skills on show. Lehane writes give-me-more dialogue; he has a knack for delayed comic thrusts out of Elmore Leonard; he can do plot, though not as cleverly as George Higgins; and he is a judicious supplier of terse literary flavor—“the public outcry was loud enough to lead ships ashore through night fog”—that actually kid and patronize real literary commitment. If you want crime, violence, torrential sex, and literature (and it’s a tough challenge), I suggest that you read Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1999).

Moonlight Mile is a Patrick and Angie book, for Lehane fans: Patrick Kenzie is a private investigator, and his wife Angela Gennaro is studying law, which means going to school and not earning. They have a kid now, a daughter, and they have great sex. It’s not that Lehane cares to spell this out: as a dreamer over sex, he is shy with the thing itself. He is detailed and specific on violence, but the sex is too precious to suffer anything like Moore’s remorseless, detached eye. But Lehane has Angie come on like a hooker named “Dominique,” a pick-up, always a boost to male-fantasy vanity. Soon she’s tossing a coin as to what they will do: “Tails—I cash this check and we walk over to the Millennium, get a room, and blow the rest of the afternoon damaging the structural integrity of a box spring.” That sounds odd, and cool, and it‘s the way people in Lehane talk, as if the Bogart-Bacall To Have and Have Not was in their mother’s milk, or their guy’s come. I said it that way to make you wince, or just to let you know that nastiness and offense aren’t quite dead yet. Patrick and Angie talk a lot in the book about how broke they are, which is surely sympathetic in these times—but I’d prefer the numbers to the chat. After all, being broke is very factual: it means pages of sums on your scratch pad, a lesson in why you did math, and not too much confidence for beating up box springs. Poor people don’t go to a hotel to have fun.

Sex is as much glamorized in Moonlight Mile as it is in The Town, and it leaves you wondering if the characters or the authors may be getting much of it. Isn’t the American novel ready—Susanna Moore is—to see that there is sex, but not always good sex? So sex is good if you’re getting it; there isn’t a connoisseurship system. “Good sex” is one of those white lies that go along with the code of advertising—the suggestion that banks care for us, that new movies are worth seeing, that purchase will confer prestige as opposed to debt.

But as well as getting solvent, Patrick and Angie have a redemption issue. Or rather, he has it, but she agrees to share it, as if it might be a new sex toy. You see, twelve years earlier, in the events of Gone, Baby, Gone, the couple worked together on the search for a lost four-year-old girl named Amanda McCready. They found her, but Patrick then did the obvious and legal and professional thing, which was to return Amanda to a bad mother and a nasty home. Now Amanda has gone missing again. A wretched aunt grinds on Patrick’s guilt to get him back in a new version of the old case. And he does it, he succeeds. At least Dostoyevsky knew that redemption depends on failure.

In The Town, the search for redemption is all the more specious and evasive. But this means that Doug—the Ben Affleck character—has to have a back story and a few moody acting scenes where Ben films Ben in sensitive close-ups. He had a lousy father and a mother who killed herself. But poor little Dougie was told that she simply went away—so he spent a long time as a child in the Town asking if anyone had seen her. This story breaks your heart, and it is offered to explain why Doug, who might have been a good hockey player (except that he can’t skate backwards) has turned into a mindless and very violent robber who endangers other people’s lives and health in his quest for money. That is why he robs the bank manager’s vault, and there are still two other big jobs to come in the film, including a shoot-out at Fenway Park itself (cute extra!) that collaterally kills or maims an undeclared number of cops and crooks.

But the Rebecca Hall character has moved and inspired Doug, even if he has no laundry and cannot think backwards or forwards. So he decides to “go away,” to give up violence and crime, to admit that he can’t have Rebecca—until a sequel comes along. (Come, Baby, Come?) But in the course of redeeming himself and forsaking violent crime, he kills two other men, one of them the very rotten florist/fence/organizer who is delivered in a phenomenal Dickensian performance by Pete Postlethwaite. (Just watch him strip long-stem roses.) The actor is so secateurs-sharp acute it’s hard to let him go. Still, killing him is rather a roundabout way to redemption, as well as an old habit in the movies.

The film ends with a glimpse of Doug in Florida, on a lonesome key, in an art-directed “ramshackle” home—but it is his home, and he has forgiven himself. He has grown a beard, now, and he likely has enough Ben Franklins from the robberies to write a novel. He left his major cut of the loot with Rebecca, and she (a one-time bank manager— I warned you, banks are the modern blacking factory), instead of returning the cash, has donated it (just try parking a big bag full of Franklins anonymously) so that a dead arena in Charlestown can be made into an ice ink where the local kids learn to skate backwards. (A nifty getaway technique for hold-ups in Boston’s narrow streets!).

This ending reaches from the ridiculous to the embarrassing, save for the gloss of the “noir” filming, the adrenaline of violence and sex (doses delivered at set intervals), and the compelling efforts of actors such as Pete Postlethwaite and Jeremy Renner. The latter is so striking as Doug’s blood brother you wonder how Danny ever survived to have a soulful pout and hurt-boy palsy inherited from Marlon Brando’s alleged ex-boxer in On the Waterfront. Renner is an actor who shames Affleck and his entire pose, but shame, too, can be a step on the way to redemption.

The way Patrick gets to feel better about himself requires a proper salvation for Amanda, though with her drab experience and lethal smarts (she could be the central character in a real novel) it is hard to believe that she’ll bother to be a bank manager. Amanda has hedge fund written in her stars. But in this process Patrick has the life and wholeness of his child threatened by the very nasty bad guys. (How bad are they? They are Russians! Cold War nostalgia meets the new “Mafia.”) In what is still known as life, the likelihood of this risk is probably less than the bank manager getting the hots for Doug while her body is still numb. But Lehane and Affleck are alike in needing to make that trick work to have a show to offer. So much for the notion that Patrick and Angie have a real, impoverished existence. They are living in a dream—but we are the sleepwalkers who give the dream honor and reward. And we are bonkers, too.

So Lehane has written a piece of feel-good noir. Everyone ends up dead or better than they started off, which is the clean-up that excuses any forward thinking. This is a marked concession to crowd-pleasing after the darker conclusions to Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River (another Lehane story, filmed with distinction by Clint Eastwood and allowing Sean Penn to unfold enough layers of nastiness to get street cred in Boston and its lethal surrounds). As I say, Lehane is a skilful page-turning writer, but don’t buy what The Washington Post has said—that “Lehane deserves to be included among the most interesting and accomplished American novelists of any genre or category.” That is scary nonsense. It prompts me to tell the easy-going customers for noir to read some of the genre’s masters—Hammett, Simenon, Patricia Highsmith, Patrick Hamilton, and even Celine.

But noirism abounds in America, and in the area of movies it involves the recovery of every grungy picture that programmers can find. And so a large, sedentary, middle-class, and crime-free audience (people alarmed by parking tickets or tax audits) dotes on femmes fatales, dead end endings, shadows that obscure the sparseness of sets, hard-boiled dialogue, and a certain amount of sex and violence by suggestion.

In the course of The Town, Doug tries to explain his unusual expertise in criminal matters by telling the woman how he watches all the CSI series and knows their procedures by heart. Think about how much there is of this stuff in contemporary American culture, covering a range from the often sedate Law and Order through the artiness of CSI (made under the digital shadow of Michael Mann) to such real achievements as The Wire and The Sopranos. There is the world of James Ellroy, though his vaunted research begins to fade as we recognize that Ellroyana occupies just the several cubic inches of his skull. (Why not? That’s writing.) Throw in the international success of the Steig Larsson books—where violence knows no bounds, especially when it’s sexual: rape seems to be on screen all the time—and you might conclude that crime rates in America are soaring.

The fact is that since the 1980s crime rates in America have dropped drastically. No one is sure why, and into that vagueness you can throw in the surfeit of violent movies, to go with the fear of prison, the evolution of law enforcement, and the severity (or otherwise) of the courts. I don’t think causal connection is the important thing, not nearly as much as the cultural preoccupation with violent crime. Affleck the actor has been getting $10 million or so a film for the last few years, and The Town grossed in the region of $100 million—and yet it’s a film about people so driven by poverty or the fear of it that they commit these hideous crimes. But Beverly Hills (and equivalent residences on the East Coast) have long housed wealthy creative people obsessed with the lives of the under-privileged, their dress style, their impassive wit, and their affectless chic—the Michael Corleone syndrome. And the most important causal link, I would suggest, is how this cultural taste keeps pace with our increasing real-life detachment from our mounting poverty, under-education, and the kinds of dysfunction that accompany it—because they are too real to be handled, too intractable to be faced.

The coziest lie in these two works is that having your heart in the right place will overcome those things, and the ugliest implication is that a society can find its entertainment in bank robberies and thereby satisfy or elide its increasing disquiet with the nature of banks. Noir is now a glamorization that assists in the avoidance of grimy, difficult politics or the gradual, boring process of reform and improvement. So it’s not that I “disapprove” of violence on screen, or of the spurious use of redemption in fiction to indulge fictions about the criminal classes. There are valuable works from this material. One of them is The Brink’s Job, a film from yesteryear, or 1978. It’s not a great film (William Friedkin made it), and it is a recreation of Boston from the late 1940s. What is admirable is its parade of chumps, on both sides of the law, and the consequent air of the picaresque. Most criminals are idiots. But the ones in Lehane’s and Affleck’s productions are psychotic would-be masterminds—great parts to play or write, and a weird thrill to read. They are, above all, sexy. And that is a grave untruth. Most violent crime is the desperate resort of people left out of society—which is why so many of them are not white or good-looking, and most of them lack the emotional life that might sit on a Florida key at sunset and feel peace. Poor people don’t do peace.

Noir is sapping our minds and our hopes. Most of our noir is not hard-boiled and unsentimental, like Red Harvest (1929). Dashiell Hammett knew enough about criminals to loathe and distrust them, and to insist on his detectives as hard, shabby, remorseless men. So in The Maltese Falcon, Spade sends Brigid to Tehachapi with a distinct relish. He takes women, but he doesn’t have to like them. And Hammett doesn’t want to make us admire him. Lehane and Affleck, by contrast, want to be taken for tough beholders of an ugly world, but they are as runny as yolk.

One sad aftermath of good noir is that the detective, the law, the authority, do not work out the problem, clean up the town, or make a nice ice rink. The great cop-out in The Godfather films was that their immaculate tone backed this assurance: the family will make things work, so don’t you want to join us? Here, try the meatball sauce. Patrick and Angie in Moonlight Mile go back home at the end with their daughter. They have won—for now. Doug in The Town is safe and about to bloom. Isn’t it pretty to think so in a world in which we have to learn that the authorities—not just the cops and Sam Waterston’s D.A, but the President and Paul Krugman—can’t work it out. There is no home at home. It was foreclosed.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.