As part of bringing this blog out of its unannounced one month hiatus (due to personal reasons like traipsing around the US with my mum in tow as part of my MA grad trip), I would like to kick off a new set of film reviews/discussions/critiques with a closer look at Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016). In this film, Black, also known for his other film noir-comedy cross-genre film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), flips some of the film noir genre conventions on its head to produce a wonderfully complex film text.
Firstly, what sort of genre conventions are we talking about?
Some of the syntactic features of the genre that we’re looking at include:
- The detective figure who need not necessarily be a police detective but performs the role of the detective in that s/he pieces together fragments of information/evidence into a coherent narrative
- The two women in the case – the damsel in distress and the vamp who oftentimes swap places as the narrative unfolds
- And the two seemingly unconnected cases that intersect at some point
- Narrative form: First person voiceovers + story presented as a flashback or in retrospect
Some of the semantic concerns that permeate the genre, depending on how the narrative is resolved, include:
- The tension between order and chaos. As an ordering force and a narrating/narrator figure, the success of the detective figure often indicates the film’s larger message about whether there is a presiding sense of order or chaos in the larger society beyond the confines of the narrative film.
- Appearance Vs Reality in which things are oftentimes not what they appear to be
- The (un)knowability of the past
- Humanism: the ability of man (as represented by the the detective) to prevail over his baser nature/adversity by sticking to the facts and being rational
There are, of course, other syntactic and semantic conventions of the genre, and these lists are not exhaustive.
True to its roots in detective fiction, Nice Guys, deals in both murder and political intrigue because these have the largest potential to tear apart the social fabric in a manner that demands immediate attention and resolution from the detective figure (Brownson 13).
However, unlike typical film noir and detective fiction, the uncovering of the crime is not achieved through rational deduction, but by almost pure accident with the film’s only licensed PI, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), literally falling on clues that advance the narrative in major ways. The other 2 detective figures in the narrative, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), take their jobs a little more seriously but are no less comical.
This sort of accidental discovery and advancement of the narrative suggests that luck and narrative coincidence have a larger role to play than rationality in the uncovering and resolving of the cases. Thus, even though by the end of the narrative both murder and political intrigue are resolved satisfactorily, the film has more of an air of wish-fulfillment than the genre’s usual conviction to demonstrating man’s ability to overcome adversity and temptation through sheer force of will and commitment to rationality.
This problematizes (or at least it should) the audience’s enjoyment of the film. The neatness of the narrative conclusion that is found both satisfying and pleasurable is ill-begotten. This defaulting to narrative coincidence for resolution is echoed in the way other film noir conventions are treated:
- the vamp is the damsel in distress – meaning there is no true innocent in this narrative
- the more effective detective figure is Healy who represents brute strength rather than March who is suppose to be the more experienced, intellectual half of the duo, but frequently arrives at the wrong conclusion – representing the failure of rationality
- Murder as symptom to a larger problem – systemic corruption. This elision of the value of the individual is also reflected in the film’s fast-pace and flippant handling of death/murder. This is seen in the opening sequence with Misty’s death pose as a parody of her centerfold spread and March’s accidental discovery of Sid Shuttuck’s corpse.
- Furthermore, the taking down of a single culprit does little to dismantle the widespread corruption the narrative points to even though the star power coalesced in the actor picked to play the role provides the veneer of this move being sufficient
- the fact that truth comes in the form of an adult film that people can barely stand to look at – a metaphor for how the truth is ugly/embarrassing and people can’t stand to look at it or would rather not face it
It is also very telling that the villainous force in the film is Big Corporations in cahoots with dirty politicians rather than criminal individuals. This points towards the current climate of great distrust for the larger systems in society that were suppose to safeguard us from exploitation but have failed to do so (See Fiscal Movies – A Long View).
Thus even though the film concludes happily, we are not given any reliable heroes we can count on. Instead, we are asked to take it on faith alone that we can get to this peaceable resolution when reality has already proven that there is no benign authorial force out there to manoeuvre us into such neat endings. Hence, by forcing the audience to rely on narrative coincidence for a happy ending in a film noir, man’s lack of control over his own fate is felt most acutely.
Brownson, Charles. The Figure of the Detective. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.