In 1972, filmmaker Paul Schrader famously declared Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil to be film noir’s “epitaph.” The 1958 film is now generally considered the last true noir and a way to mark the period where the boom of the American film noir style had officially faded out. A style that catalyzed in the 1940s and lasted through much of the ‘50s (the term was coined in 1946 by French critic Nino Frank, literally meaning “black film”), it had, within a decade, found its traits widespread enough that the specificity of it no longer really existed, while crime stories became far more populated on TV. But film noir was always contested; it was a style, but also considered by some to be a genre. Like the French New Wave, it was a genre that wasn’t really a genre.
Generally, however, icons of film noir, such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and In a Lonely Place, shared similar traits that have come to famously define the term, including but not limited to: Expressionistic cinematography and camera movements, low-key, black-and-white visuals, grimy environment, a crime element, anti-hero protagonist (often, but not always, a private detective or cop) and femme fatale. Directly influenced by the pulp fiction crime novels of the early 20th century, the films were also distinctly a reflection of the post-war period and the anxieties of the Cold War; a fear of the world and of your fellow man.
However, the influence of film noir persisted past Touch of Evil, into the 1960s and beyond (arguably peaking during the 1990s and early 2000s), giving way to countless films that both owe themselves to noir and knowingly take from them. The term “neo-noir” is the label used for these self-aware children of film noir but, like classic noir, it’s a term painted in broad strokes. In fact, it’s often harder to pinpoint what constitutes as “neo-noir” as opposed to film noir. Films like Blade Runner, Chinatown, Oldboy, L.A. Confidential and Se7en (and much of both David Fincher’s and Park Chan-wook’s work, in fact), are very obvious in their consideration as staples of neo-noir. They employ high stylization, amoral protagonists, seedy settings and dour conclusions. But noir is a style so universally influential that it bears its mark almost everywhere.
But like film noir at the end of the ‘50s, neo-noir has seemingly reached its own epitaph. Googling “recent neo-noir films” brings up scant or very reaching results (Knives Out??). In spite of our often horrifying and perpetually uncertain times being an otherwise open playground for the sordid terror of noir, Brian Raftery got to the heart of why neo-noir has become so sparse last year: The explosion of streaming TV and the decline of the star-driven, mid-budget movie. Still, some legitimate neo-noirs have slipped through the cracks, mostly underseen independent films on the industry fringes—a far cry from the mainstream, blockbuster success of films like Basic Instinct or The Usual Suspects.
So, if you’re keen on noir and want some recent fare that really, truly earns the title of “neo-noir,” here are 10 recent neo-noir films that you can’t miss:
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
David Robert Mitchell’s criminally underrated follow-up to It Follows was buried by its own distributor after middling reviews out of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. In the wake of two release date changes, a pitifully limited run and then a bump to VOD less than a week later, Under the Silver Lake gained a cult following from people feverishly invested in attempting to disseminate the same clues befuddling the film’s sleazy protagonist. Under the Silver Lake follows jaded, lusty conspiracy theorist Sam (Andrew Garfield), who becomes mixed up in the disappearance of the mysterious Sarah (Riley Keough). Sam’s convoluted, unorthodox and often aggressive search for a woman he barely knows leads him into a wide-reaching conspiracy that spans across Los Angeles. Ambitious, confounding and formally indulgent, Under the Silver Lake is a neo-noir inspired by both film noir and neo-noir alike, wearing its influences (Billy Wilder, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, Thomas Pynchon) on its sleeve.
Decision to Leave
South Korean director Park Chan-wook has been channeling Hitchcock for most of his career, and has made memorable contributions to neo-noir (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). But his most recent work, 2022’s Decision to Leave, is his most outwardly Hitchcock riff to date, and a sumptuous neo-noir that embraces its roots to the fullest extent. We follow overworked detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who becomes embroiled in the case of a mountain climber’s suspicious death, with the man’s much younger, foreigner wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), pegged as the prime suspect. And surprise: Hae-jun finds himself forgoing career ethics and falling for the newly-widowed woman, an ill-fated though never consummated affair that threatens to unravel Hae-jun’s life. Utilizing impressive filmmaking techniques and camera trickery, Hitchcockian themes of (to quote myself in my own review of this film) “romance, betrayal, obsession and voyeurism,” Decision to Leave is a maximalist noir, and a gut-wrenchingly romantic one at that.
The Empty Man
Filmed all the way back in 2016, then dishearteningly lost in the maelstrom of COVID-19, David Prior’s adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name hit theaters squarely in the middle of the pandemic, in October 2020. Thus, it barely made a blip on audiences’ radars. But like Under the Silver Lake, The Empty Man has been finding its fanbase and growing a cult following since hitting home media, and it couldn’t be more deserved. Starring James Badge Dale as retired-detective-with-unclear-past James Lasombra, James finds himself entangled in the strangest case of his career: A group of teenagers who have committed communal suicide, all connected to summoning a supernatural entity known as “The Empty Man.” Initially nothing more than a fictitious teen dare akin to Bloody Mary, James is progressively besieged by visions of the entity and startled by the circumstances surrounding it. This leads him to a cult that believes in the manifestation of tulpas, and in The Empty Man itself. Comparably dark and seedy to a David Fincher detective film (unsurprisingly, Prior and Fincher have collaborated before), The Empty Man is a chilling hybrid of horror and noir about a tortured man looking for a path to redemption—and coming up empty.
The Voyeurs (2021)
One of the few real erotic thrillers to be released in recent years, Michael Mohan’s Rear Window and Body Double riff The Voyeurs more or less succeeds in bringing some necessary sleaze back to cinema (even if the film was unfortunately only sent direct to streaming on Amazon Prime). The Voyeurs stars It Girl du jour Sydney Sweeney as Pippa: An optometrist who recently moved in with her musician boyfriend Thomas (Justice Smith), and who begins the new hobby of peeping on her attractive neighbors living in the apartment across the street. As Pippa’s voyeurism becomes more of an obsession than a pastime, it creates a rift between her and Thomas, and she unwittingly begins to meddle in the lives of strangers until the unthinkable happens. The film is a lusty melodrama and beautifully stylized by cinematographer Elisha Christian, who utilizes rich colors and plays with contrast and shadows to evoke the film’s noir roots.
The Card Counter (2021)
Haunted by his experiences during the Iraq War, former American soldier William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is now a drifting, placeless gambler, who taught himself how to count cards while serving eight years in military prison. Tell is approached at an Atlantic City casino by the vengeful son of a soldier he knew in Iraq, who had a similar but more violent fate than Tell after being imprisoned for war crimes. Looking for Tell’s assistance in his plans for revenge, Tell instead takes the opportunity to attempt to reform the angry young man and seek his own salvation. But he only finds himself pulled back down into a past he had been trying to escape. From all the way back to Taxi Driver, director Paul Schrader is no stranger to morally conflicted men with unsavory pasts (2018’s First Reformed could also be considered another recent noir of his). And The Card Counter is an apt neo-noir with its slimy casino environments alone, in addition to the anti-hero protagonist fending personal demons in his pursuit of both redemption and the love of a woman.
The Kid Detective (2020)
Another film that suffered from a release during the pandemic, The Kid Detective was stealthily one of 2020’s best—a small-town take on film noir that toys with noir conventions and the hard-boiled detective archetype. As a 12-year-old, Abe Applebaum (Adam Brody) was once Willowbrook’s pride and joy, and there wasn’t a case that couldn’t be solved by the town’s resident kid detective. Until he got one that went a bit out of his jurisdiction: Abe’s friend Gracie went missing, and neither he nor the cops were ever able to solve it. Two decades later, Abe is now in his 30s, washed-up and unable to move on from the amateur sleuthing profession he took up as a child, in his hometown that’s on the decline. Until a new case, a real case, is finally brought his way, and it’s Abe’s chance both to prove himself and absolve himself of the guilt he’s carried for leaving Gracie behind. Though the film is a bit drab, it’s a smart black comedy that’s as funny as it is crushingly bleak, and it leads you to a conclusion you won’t see coming.
No Sudden Move
No stranger to the crime flick, Steven Soderbergh crafts a potent, shadowy noir drama with an impressive ensemble of shifty characters and changing alliances. It’s all wrapped up in a story that manages to subtly reflect the current environmental anxieties of our present time. Gangster Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is hard up for cash and looking to leave town, when he’s hired by a recruiter named Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) to complete a blackmail scheme alongside two other petty criminals: Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). The job is to hold the family of a GM accountant hostage, while the accountant takes Curt and Ronald to his office to retrieve an unknown document from the safe. But upon arrival at the office, the pair discovers that the safe is empty, and not long after this they realize that they’ve been set up. Working together, the criminals follow the trail of their own deception to uncover who really hired them and why—the implications of which span decades into the future.
Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, Nicolas Pesce’s gripping erotic noir finds a one night stand between an unstable sex worker and a serial killer. Looking to satiate his overwhelming bloodlust, husband and father Reed (Christopher Abbott) checks into a hotel and hires a call girl to easily do away with. But his meticulously planned evening quickly goes off the rails upon her arrival, as the woman he hired has instead been replaced. Erratic, sadistic and equipped with a collection of fetish gear, this new woman, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), proves herself to be far too unpredictable for Reed to attempt to murder. Their night snowballs from one wild circumstance to the next, as the two engage in a depraved game of cat-and-mouse, and Reed soon finds himself closer to being prey than a predator. Stylish, sexy and highly perverse, with a femme fatale who really makes a meal out of the archetype, Piercing mixes elements of noir along with thriller and psychological horror into something completely unhinged and fantastic of its own.
Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
Crooked cops Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended without pay, following a leaked video of them using excessive force when confronting a suspect. It’s not the first time they’ve had trouble playing by the albeit loose rules given to the police, but they chalk their penalty up to the latent scourge of “wokeness.” With both of them desperately hard up for cash, the pair team up to rob a professional thief. But things don’t quite go according to plan, cascading into a violent climax with a syndicate of assassins that also makes for the film’s most tense and awe-striking setpiece. S. Craig Zahler’s stark, slow filmmaking style crafts a brutal and merciless noir/exploitation drama that plays off of the perceived societal oppression towards white men against the dreaded Other in American society. But interpretation of the film’s reactionary politics aside, Dragged Across Concrete is an effective, pulpy crime thriller.
Stoner private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello” (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a surprise visit from his ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) one night. But, sadly, it’s not to smoke dope together: She’s got a case for him. Shasta’s been dating real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and she believes that his wife and his wife’s lover are plotting to have Mickey committed to a mental hospital in order to take his money. Doc takes the case, then things get really weird: Both Mickey and Shasta go missing, and suddenly Doc is sent on an Odyssean voyage across 1970s Los Angeles in order to find out what happened to them, the twists, turns, coincidences and influx of eccentric new characters of which befuddle Doc just as much as it does the audience. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s equally beguiling novel invites you to enjoy the ride more than it asks you to help Doc solve the case. Inherent Vice is gorgeous, funny, heart-wrenching neo-noir, with all-timer roles both for Phoenix and Josh Brolin as Lieutenant Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.