Said the comic gangster in Payback, misquoting an old saw, “Don’t shit where you eat. Or, I mean, where you live. That’s it. Don’t shit where you live.” And I, more puzzled than usual by the entertainment being offered, wondered, “Where does he live? Or, I mean, where does he think we live?”
That’s it, my review of Payback: Where do these filmmakers think we live?
Stepping from the movie to the street–and feeling more befuddled than usual by the transition–I made myself look more closely at my surroundings. Maybe, if you were to carry out the same exercise, you would find yourself staring at zigzags of escalators and stairs, bronze railings and potted plants, all trapped and reflected in a glass-walled chute: the shop windows of a mall. Or you might exit Payback into a nighttime parking lot: a blacktop garden where automotive bugs swarm at the roots of tall, light-bearing stalks. In my case, the movie-house doors opened onto the long vistas of Upper Broadway in New York. I took note of the parking meters and signposts regimenting the sidewalk’s edge; tatters of paper shivering on the acrylic wall of a bus stop; a dozen colors of neon, half-masked behind the trees and shrubs that grow on the median strip. Harsh and motley, part steel and part light, the setting invited just the kind of self-controlled human free-for-all for which New York is famous.
The people who made films noirs–which were not so much a genre as a tendency within cinema–often drew your eye to these irregular, unpicturesque spaces in the built environment. That was part of the force of noir: Instead of seeing iconic views of Los Angeles or New York, you encountered those in-between places that make up the vast majority of our cities, despite our best efforts to ignore them. In that sense, films of the forties and fifties as disparate as Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success had something in common with one another and with the work of photographers like Robert Frank, who were looking at the overlooked in America’s everyday landscape.
But that, as I say, was film noir as a tendency, an artistic intuition. If you want to undergo a comparable awakening to your world through a recent film–accompanied by a sense of dislocation and moral unease–you could not do so with anything that labels itself as “noir.” Look instead to something like Chantal Akerman’s 1977 News From Home, with its clear-eyed views of Manhattan’s streets and subways. By contrast, what we have today as “film noir” is almost single-mindedly iconic in its settings. It is also, not surprisingly, a cinema of nostalgia and moral certitude.
Payback, though marketed to general audiences as a star vehicle for Mel Gibson, is perhaps more notable for its sophistication as an exercise in past-tense filmmaking. Flaunting their backwardness, the filmmakers have based the movie on Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter, which was the source for one of film history’s most celebrated thrillers, John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank. But whereas Boorman sought to startle at every turn–even today, Point Blank can peel your eyeballs–the writer-director of Payback prefers to lull you. It’s a rotten thing to do when the come-on is ultraviolence.