Among the many narratives about film in 2014 few seemed to note what a banner year it has been for the crime movie. Depending on how one counts as many as nineteen American crime films have been released this year and their quality as a whole has been exceedingly high. These films have been indies (Blue Ruin, Bad Turns Worse, Two Step), blockbusters (Gone Girl), the crowdsourced (Veronica Mars) and even counted among them a few specimens of that most elusive creature, the middle budget adult oriented film (The Immigrant, A Most Violent Year, The Gambler).
But there is a curious trend within the trend, of the seventeen films nine were based on books. This is of course nothing strange in and of itself; Hollywood has been mining crime novels for adaptation since well before the days of Hammett. What is curious is the remarkable fidelity that these films have paid to both the plot and voice of their source material. All one needs to do to see how different the approach to adaptation has been from business as usually is to compare the cold, bleak A Walk Among the Tombstones to Hollywood’s previous attempt at bringing Matthew Scudder to the screen, 8 Million Ways To Die. A Walk Among the Tombstone kept Lawrence Block’s existentially troubled unlicensed detective in the stark New York cold embodied by a frayed Liam Neeson; 8 Million Ways transferred him to 80’s pastel LA to be played by a Hawaiian shirt wearing Jeff Bridges. These productions seemed determine to preserve the voices of their original authors. Even in cases like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For where that voice had gone rancid.
Befitting crime there are extenuating circumstances. Many of the adaptations had the direct involvement of their original author. Sin City once again gave Miller a co-director credit. Dennis Lehane was given full screenplay credit for expanding his short story, “Animal Rescue” into The Drop. And Gillian Flynn carefully transplanted her double blind plotting and cookie laced with arsenic voice from page to screen. But this hardly explains things in the cases where the novel’s authors were dead (Joe, Life of Crime, The Two Faces of January) not involved with the screenplay (Cold in July, A Walk Among The Tombstones) or just terminally inscrutable (Inherent Vice).
It should be noted that directorial voice is also present in these films. The Drop focuses on a protagonist capable of great violence who has essentially shut himself off from society as did Michael Roskum’s previous film Bullhead. Its portrayal of gangsters, which comes off as determinedly deglamorized even for the post Sopranos world, also shows his touch. Fincher found in Flynn a willing partner to cackle at the worst that people are capable of. Cold in July demonstrated Jim Mickle’s preoccupation with 80’s genre efficiency (it’s a bit sad that some of the praise that’s been heaped on The Guest didn’t float July‘s way.) A Walk Among the Tombstones belied Scott Frank’s long partnership with Steven Soderbergh and shared the careful humanism and hushed wintery atmosphere of his woefully underrated debut film The Lookout. Joe made plenty of time for David Gordon Green’s trademark considerations of nature and scenes of genial bullshitting. And Sin City: A Dame to Kill For reflected all too well the air of cheap disinterest that has become Robert Rodriguez’s trademark this decade.
But these all represent a happy marriage between director and source material, not a director overpowering a creative voice. Cold in July feels like a lean, mean eighties genre film because it’s based on a lean, mean eighties genre novel. Fincher and Flynn’s voices meshed so well because both share a misanthropic “people are perverts” sense of humor, a panache for unflinching violence and a certain nimbleness of style. Scott Frank’s work as a screenwriter is as character focused as Lawrence Block’s work as a novelist. And Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have forgotten how to tell a story at approximately the same rate.
So what to make of all this then? Is it all just a fluke? One of those boom years that genre fans get every now and again? I’d be remiss not to admit that chance is a factor. Some of these films have been in development for a long time (A Walk Among the Tombstones was originally supposed to be a Joe Carnahan directed Harrison Ford vehicle as early as 2002). Others had festivals runs in 2013, only finding wide distribution this year.
Yet I think there is something else behind this crop of films. So many film fans fear the homogenization of film, with excellent reason. Whether it’s the new obsession with global box office in the wake of the digitization of cinema distribution and the DVD bust, or the growing focus on film as intellectual property or brand management, we live in a creative landscape that makes the Kafkaesque lore about the test screening process that was the focus of artistic complaint in the last decade look like halcyon days. It is the great irony of our cinematic era, as the filmmaking process itself grows ever more democratic and open, the idea of creative voice on the studio level becomes ever more endangered (consider the fate of Stretch, dropped by Universal purely out of concern for marketing costs, all the more insulting for coming right on the heels of the biggest critical and commercial success of director Carnahan’s career).
Crime fiction on the other hand, has always rewarded a certain pugnaciousness of voice, occasionally to the point of self parody. It’s a voice that’s present in all of the adapted works. From the self laceration and moral torment of Lehane, to the stark, pitiless world of Block, Lansdale’s gonzo style and hairpin shifts between humor and horror and Flynn’s gift with voice, agile plotting and fleet prose. What these texts supplied was thick, unshakeable bedrock for the directors to plant their creative stakes.
Rather than a fluke, 2014 may mark the year that voice itself became the commodity of the underworld.