Tuesday, November 19, 2019

30 Days Has Noirvember: S.A. Cosby

My Five Favorite Rural Noir Movies

I’ve spoken ad nauseam about why I feel the definition of what is noir should not be confined to the mean streets of a rain swept metropolis so we are just going to skip right over that and get down to the gristle. Jed Ayres asked me for a list of my top five noir films and I decided to stay on brand and deliver a list of my favorite noir films that take place along dusty backroads and in the shadow of weeping willows and cornfields where both blood and moonshine are spilled across the rich dark soil.

5. Flesh and Bone...I don’t know if the term “hidden gem” accurately describes this nasty little slice of Texas gothic noir but when it pops up on a basic cable channel late at night I can’t look away. Filmed in 1993 Flesh and Bone stars erstwhile almost leading man Dennis Quaid (the less crazy of the Quaid Brothers) as Arlis, a lonely beverage truck driver who traverses dark and dusty backroads resupplying vending machines all across the Lonestar State. However once upon a time Arlis was the unwillingly accomplice to his father Roy (a bone chilling James Caan) a violent burglar. As a child Arlis would pretend to be lost and homeless. A kind hearted family would take him in then that night he would unlock a window or a backdoor to allow Roy easy access to the Good Samaritan’s home. After one of their jobs ends in a bloodbath that leaves only an infant baby girl alive Arlis abandons his father.

Flash forward twenty years and Arlis finds himself drawn into the life of Kay, played by Quaid’s real-life wife at the time, Meg Ryan. Kay seems to be as battered and bruised by life as Arlis and the two slowly find themselves drawn together. Soon the unwelcome reappearance of Roy with his teenage paramour Ginnie in tow (played by a pre-pretentious Gwyneth Paltrow) and some deep dark secrets threatens to reduce Arlis and Kay to a pile of flesh and bone. The movie isn’t high art and it was a bomb at the box office but there is something tragically operatic and emotionally resonant in this cruel little morality play set against the sand swept Texas flat lands.

4. Gator…. I know noir is not supposed to be funny but Gator has enough gallows humor and genuine pathos to be included in this list. Filmed in 1976 as the follow up to White Lightening Gator again cast Burt Reynolds as Gator McCluskey, a legendary moonshiner who finds himself forced to go undercover in a corrupt small town. Part Red Harvest part Dukes of Hazzard Gator is also a film that takes the trope of the corrupt small town and plops it right in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp. Reynolds has rarely been more charismatic as a sort of backwoods Parker and Jerry Reed is slimy perfection as local redneck crime boss Bama McCall. When I was a kid this was one of my grandfather’s favorite movies because even though Gator was a white man he had enough Dirty South street cred to make you believe he’d be on your side in a fight.

3. A Gathering of Old Men….. Not sure if this qualifies as noir but it’s my list so screw it. Originally airing on CBS in 1987 A Gathering of Old Men is less a murder mystery than a meditation on the deep scars racism can leave. Set sometime in the late 70’s the film tells the story of the murder of a racist farmer. Soon suspicion falls on Mathu, a revered elder of the black community in this small southern town. To help protect Mathu Candy Marshall, the white owner of the farm where Mathu works has a group of his friends come to his tarpaper shack and confess en masse to the murder. This gathering of old men then stands together with their shotguns at the ready to defend Mathu from a lynch mob on their way to the farm. The story takes numerous twist and turns and when the truth finally comes out it will leave you with a sense of despair and a spoonful of hope. Based on the masterful novel by the late Ernest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men manages to be suspenseful, moving and thought provoking all at the same time.

2. Winter’s Bone…. based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woddrell Winter’s Bone is a stark unpretentious movie. The cinematography is as washed out as the lives of its characters.  Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree Dolly a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in the Ozark mountains of Missouri where she cares for her mentally ill mother and her two younger siblings. After her father disappears while out on bail Ree embarks on a journey into the local rural underworld of meth cookers, drug dealers and killers. Her uncle TearDrop tries at first to dissuade her from looking for her father then agrees to help her when they learn Jessup Dolly put up his home as collateral for his bail. Winter’s Bone is a masterful dissertation on the bonds of family and the generational curse of poverty. John Hawkes is at turns tender and terrifying as TearDrop a great twist on the benevolent sociopath trope in crime fiction. Jennifer Lawrence has never and I repeat never been better than she was in this film.

1. One False Move…I wrote a whole essay about this film in a previous issue of HBW but suffice it to say it is my favorite rural noir film because it’s one of the few that contrast the traditional noir setting of the beginning of the film with the pastoral prosaic settings of the finale. One False Move tells the tale of a trio of drug dealers who rob a stash house in LA and go on the run. They find themselves in the small hometown of the female member of their trio where secrets and violence collide like freight trains on the same track. Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach and the late great Bill Paxton are among the standouts in this incredible movie by Carl Franklin from a scrip by Thornton. Find it. Watch. Thank me later.

S.A. Cosby is the Anthony award winning author of My Darkest Prayer and the upcoming Blacktop Wasteland. You should buy that shit and follow him on Twitter @BlackLionKing73.

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