Film noir had its heyday in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but since then filmmakers have taken the genre to strange new places, as this fantastic collection of sleek, stylish thrillers shows.
Travis Johnson

26 May 2022 - 10:25 AM  UPDATED 26 May 2022 - 10:25 AM

Talk about film noir and you have a general but clear picture in your head, most likely involving Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum in a trench coat, trading punches with two-bit mooks and quips with deadly dames, all in glorious, silvery monochrome. Neo-noir, however, is a more ambiguous proposition.

Later filmmakers mined classics like The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly for their own purposes, sometimes just lifting the aesthetic, sometimes the narrative form, often twisting both to their own artistic aims. Neo-noir is a broad church, but while the following films might seem like a mixed bag, their roots are sunk deep in noir’s mean streets.

A Scanner Darkly

Richard Linklater adapts Philip K. Dick’s hallucinatory sci-fi novel to excellent effect, casting Keanu Reeves as hapless Bob Arctor, who along with his friends, played by Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder, is addicted to the mysterious drug Substance D. But Bob is also Fred, an anonymous narcotics agent whose true identity is unknown even to his superiors in the police force. His parallel lives intersect when Fred is ordered to monitor Bob, who is believed to be a major dealer, and matters aren’t helped when Bob’s addiction starts messing with his perceptions of reality. Linklater employs rotoscope animation here, in which cells are drawn over footage of real actors, giving the whole thing a heightened, unreal quality that enhances the film’s paranoid tone perfectly.

A Scanner Darkly is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Dark City

Following on from the cult hit The Crow, Australian filmmaker Alex Proyas’ third feature is a gorgeous and ambitious science fiction mystery. In a vast art deco city where it’s always night, Rufus Sewell’s everyman awakens in an unfamiliar hotel room with no memory and the body of a murdered woman in the bathtub. Fleeing the police, he finds himself caught up in a dark web of conspiracy woven not by criminals but by The Strangers – a pale-skinned order of mysterious men who seem to be secretly controlling the city, shaping both its streets and the minds of its citizens to their collective will. Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt and Colin Friels show up in support in this Kafkaesque meditation on free will and reality.

Dark City is now streaming at SBS On Demand.



Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children) burst onto the international cinema scene with this post-apocalyptic black comedy. After society collapses, the inhabitants of a rundown apartment building are kept in fresh meat by the butcher shop on the ground floor. But where’s all that meat coming from? When an unemployed circus clown (Dominique Pinon) takes a job as the butcher’s (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) assistant, he soon falls for the boss’s daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) – but is he a fit suitor, or is he fit for the pot? Cartoonish and imaginative in a manner reminiscent of Terry Gilliam, Delicatessen is a perverse delight.

Delicatessen is now streaming at SBS On Demand.



Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body) flips the script of the cop-on-the-edge stereotype by simple dint of casting Nicole Kidman as the hardened and hard drinking loose cannon who must confront the sins of her past when she discovers evidence that an old enemy (Toby Kebbell) is still alive. Kusama crafts a consummate gritty thriller as Kidman’s tough cop works her way through a series of suspects and informants on her road to vengeance, but it’s Kidman’s incredible performance that really stands out. Almost unrecognisably haggard and dead-eyed, she presents a portrait of a life ruined by moral compromise and trauma, a cop so similar to the thugs she brutalises that the only real difference is her badge.

Destroyer is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Hot Summer Nights

It’s the early 90s and Timothée Chalamet is packed off to picturesque Cape Cod to spend the summer with his aunt following his father’s death. Things get interesting when he’s introduced to the joys of the marijuana trade by Alex Roe’s too-cool-for-school laidback dealer, and falls for his sister, played by Maika Monroe. But there’s always a bigger fish, and what started as a carefree walk on the wild side soon turns deadly. A breezy, slick summertime noir whose chief strength is the talent of its young cast.

Hot Summer Nights is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Under Suspicion

Swapping the mean streets of Los Angeles for 1950s Brighton, England, Under Suspicion sees Liam Neeson as a disgraced cop turned private investigator who specialises in faking evidence of adultery for divorce cases. When both his wife/accomplice and a wealthy client turn up dead, our man must figure out whodunnit before he’s collared as the most likely suspect, but not before falling into bed with widow Laura San Giacomo. Classical in its plotting and aesthetic, Under Suspicion offers familiar pleasures in an uncommon setting, and is all the better for it.

Under Suspicion is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


Killer Joe

Lowlife drug dealer Emile Hirsch plots with his father (Thomas Haden Church), sister (Juno Temple) and stepmother (Gina Gershon) to murder his estranged mother for insurance money, hiring Matthew McConaughey’s cop-turned-hitman to do the deed. Things go awry when the beneficiary turns out to be not who they expected, and it isn’t long before the bodies begin to pile up. Directed by the legendary William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and adapted by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) from his own stage play, this is a sweaty and sadistic southern fried noir hell-bent on pushing boundaries.

Killer Joe is now streaming at SBS On Demand.


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