Tuesday, September 1, 2009

After Dark, My Sweet (dir. James Foley, 1990)

"I'd like to correct an erroneous impression you seem to have about me. You see, I’m not at all stupid. I may sound like I am, but I’m really not. "

- Kevin Collins, After Dark, My Sweet

He is right, he is not stupid. But you can understand the need to explain himself. He is Kevin Collins (Jason Patric), former boxer and recent escapee from a mental ward. Stumbling down a barren road with no apparent destination, he soon finds himself in a bar, enjoying a beer and making awkward small talk. An attractive woman walk in. Her name is Faye (Rachel Ward). Kevin's brief chat with her no sooner results in an attempt to toss him out of the bar, however Kevin "The Kid" (as he was known during his former glory days) lays out the bartender with a mean right, and soon finds himself back on the road, a wandering mumbling mess. Faye is not through with him however, and chases him down. And from here their lives will take very dark and drastic turns as this absorbing opening sequence sets the stage for James Foley's brooding, stylish noir-thriller.

Faye is a widow and has some housework for Kevin to take care of. Needless to say this isn't all she has in mind, and soon Kevin is introduced to the slimy Uncle Bud (the wonderful Bruce Dern), an acquaintance of Faye and former cop who still has connections on the inside, and who always seems to be wearing a fake smile and grumbling out of the side of his mouth something about a scheme. A romance seems to be on the horizon, however one night Faye tells Kevin to leave for good, hinting at something ominous involving the Dern character, and he follows her wish. There is a side plot involving a caring doctor (Bruce Dickerson) who meets Kevin in a diner and quickly pegs him as mentally unstable. He offers to help out, and may or may not have his own selfish reasons for doing so. He convinces Kevin to stay with him for awhile to keep out of trouble, but Kevin is lonely and in need of companionship on a level the doctor can't provide, and he soon leaves to seek out Faye once more.

For all of this interesting setup, the central plot ends up being fairly transient. Faye and Uncle Bud have a plan to kidnap the son of a wealthy couple and hold him for ransom and they need Kevin to pull it off. After Dark, My Sweet is primarily concerned with atmosphere and characters, particularly these three, who by themselves are simply an alcoholic, a petty schemer and a mental deficient. Collectively, they are in over their heads before they even know it, and it is fascinating to watch, mainly because much care and thought have gone into the wonderful screenplay by Foley and Robert Redlin (based off a Jim Thompson novel) into making these characters complex, layered with nuance, and entirely unpredictable. The actors are more than up for the challenge. The script also provides some of the most deliciously hard-boiled dialogue I've come across. Take this example, said in voice-over by one of the characters during a key scene later in the film:

"We sat there for another half hour or so, and he was talking every minute of it. The words poured out of his mouth, and they didn't mean a thing to me. They were just a lot of noises coming from a sickish-looking face. What other people said had never meant a thing to him, and now it was his turn. Now he was meaningless and what he said was meaningless."

How can you not love that? It's a scene that will knock your socks off.

I want to go back to the performances. They are revelatory. First and foremost, Jason Patric gives probably the performance of his career. Kevin "The Kid" is a fully realized character and the strongest source of intrigue in the film. Simultaneously explaining his actions and desires in 5 year-old minutia ("I am hungry...for food"), while sharply and deliberately putting the screws back to anyone trying to take advantage of him, we ask ourselves, which one is the mask? How much is an act? Is there anything even wrong with Kevin? Is he up to something sinister or is he just a rebel? Perhaps the answer is something much more interesting than that. Patric deftly crafts the intricacies of the character to perfection, and it is a hypnotizing performance. Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern bring equally subtle, thoughtful approaches to their roles. The fact that you actually feel anything remotely resembling sympathy for Uncle Bud at some points is a true testament to the strength of the writing and acting on display.

When all the elements come together as seamlessly as they do here, we are left with a truly engaging experience. Despite its portrait of a bleak world, there is a very redemptive spirit at the core of After Dark, My Sweet. It is a film to be applauded, a near-masterpiece of modern noir with a perfect mixture of hope and despair, of dread and relief, that carries us on the back of its keen visual touch and astute characterizations to the type of richly rewarding viewing experience that makes one fall in love with the movies in the first place.


J.D. said...

Love this film! And I would also agree that this is Jason Patric's finest performance (even over the much-hyped RUSH). Also, I'm a sucker for neo-noir and this is definitely one of the best from that period (along with THE GRIFTERS). I just love the mood and atmosphere of this film. Excellent write-up!

Drew said...

Thanks alot J.D., I'm always amazed when talking with someone about noir and they've never even heard of this film, let alone seen it. One of the underappreciated gems of the genre for sure. It just gets everything right and I continue to be blown away every time I see it.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I think that problem was it didn't get distributed widely enough or promoted very well either. I guess the studio figured it was niche film and didn't have mainstream appeal but I do remember playing the Toronto Film Festival the year it came out.