Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I love this movie. I wish I could have been at the premiere Sunday night, but I was chained here to the desk at the Labs, working. Lucky Beaks. Lucky, lucky Beaks.
NARC (w. & d. Joe Carnahan)
Before NARC blasts out of the blocks at a literal full sprint, the film pauses briefly to capture a tortured-looking Detective Nick Tellis braving the cruel, mid-winter winds slicing off of the Detroit River. Though he’s yet to be introduced to the audience, his suffering is not only palpable, but textured – embodied by the expressive brilliance of Jason Patric, as criminally underused an actor as there may be not-working-enough today. Absent from the big screen since 1998’s YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, Patric’s ability to evoke despair through those piercing blue eyes so inexplicably full of sadness and regret has not left him. It’s a great moment demonstrating how clearly the film’s writer and director, Joe Carnahan, gets character.
Then again, Joe Carnahan apparently gets cinema; how else could one explain this stunningly brilliant sophomore effort that so ferociously jumps off the screen in even its quietest moments? A follow-up to his Rodriguez-budgeted BLOOD, GUTS, BULLETS & OCTANE, Carnahan has clearly ingested a steady diet of uncut Friedkin, Ferrara and Stone, among other practitioners of high velocity filmmaking; however, stripped down entirely of its sturm und drang, NARC is essentially a classically structured crime melodrama with a straightforward plot owing largely to the great police corruption dramas of Sidney Lumet. But while Carnahan has reinvigorated the genre with a stroke-inducing shot of adrenaline, he’s retained the 70’s-era filmmaking icon’s generosity with his actors, resulting in a pair of lead performances from Patric and Ray Liotta that rank among the best work of their careers.
Patric’s Tellis is a disgraced undercover narcotics officer being groomed to rejoin the department to help close the slaying case of Michael Calvess, a fellow narc killed in the line of duty. Still recovering from the psychic scarring of the incident that put him on hiatus (and depicted in the energetically shot, graphically violent opening that kicks off the film), Tellis yearns to leave the streets behind for a desk job, where he can collect a paycheck and be a regular husband and father to his wife and ten-month old son. When this Shangri-La is dangled in front of him, dependent upon the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Calvess’s murder, Tellis takes the assignment, but with the following condition of his own: Calvess’s superior and friend, Lt. Henry Oak (Liotta), must come on board as his partner.
First glimpsed working over an abusive husband via the always persuasive sock-and-pool-ball combo, Liotta’s Oak is introduced as a phenomenally successful detective forever on the verge of an Internal Affairs investigation, which understandably renders him suspicious of his sudden reinstatement onto the Calvess case at Tellis’s behest. Oak comes right at Tellis with his concerns in a moodily staged mutual inquest over a cup of coffee at a dingy, dimly lit diner that allows both men to get a bead on each other’s intentions and, most importantly, character. Illuminated solely by a dangling overhead lamp, Carnahan sticks with static over-the-shoulder angles, resisting the urge to emulate Mann’s classic De Niro/Pacino face-off in HEAT, and allowing Patric and Liotta the space to fill in the emotional blanks, expressing with each line reading and reaction a remarkable degree of psychological information even when the exchanges are tentative and, in Tellis’s case, less than forthcoming.
This simple, unfussy sequence is immediately followed by the film’s most brazen cinematic gambit. Returning home from his tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Oak, Tellis slips under the covers next to his wife, who knows she’s about to lose her emotionally fragile husband to the job one more time. As Tellis falls asleep next to his wife and child, Carnahan shrinks and splits the screen, contrasting this tenuous marital situation with scenes of the newly reinstated officer hitting the streets with Oak, shaking down informants for leads. Eventually, these squares of activity move to the corner of the screen and multiply; suddenly, it’s the ol’ Figgis Quadrant, but with an actual, organic purpose: to depict the widening chasm between Tellis’s personal and professional life.
As their investigation lurches forward, Tellis immerses himself deeper and deeper into Calvess’s life, drawing alarming parallels between the deceased officer’s predicament and his own. But recognizing these similarities and acting on them are two wildly different things, and Tellis is too far gone to see his own impending familial disaster. Staring for hours at the crime scene photographs of the freshly murdered Calvess, Tellis develops a hunch that the slain officer might have also hovered too closely above the narcotics flame, and likewise submitted to their destructive seduction. As he begins to dig internally, Tellis unexpectedly runs into blocked files and, most suspiciously, finds Lt. Oak unwilling to follow up potentially damaging leads, including possible police corruption when they stumble upon a SWAT rifle in a dead perp’s apartment. Is Oak knowingly ignoring evidence that Calvess was dirty? Or, more disturbingly, is Oak only involved in this investigation to cover up his own involvement in his protÃ©gÃ©’s death?
As the intense, bullying Oak, Liotta has summoned the menace of his earlier malevolent turns in SOMETHING WILD and UNLAWFUL ENTRY, and infused it with his calmly paternal work in BLOW. Physically, the performance is a revelation; Liotta has never been this hulking before, and he uses this newfound bulk to scarily intimidating effect. He’s also blessed with Carnahan’s best monologue, a heartbreaking rumination about how his wife’s death made him a better cop, and what doing his job means to him now. Delivered inside a car during a stakeout, Carnahan places the camera outside of the automobile, slowly circling around to the windshield as snow flakes periodically float into frame, beautifully evoking Oak’s chilly sense of emotional isolation. It’s a wonderful instance of a director and actor’s craft dovetailing to achieve something almost holy.
This same symbiosis is present with Carnahan and Patric, though the tightrope walk here is doubly precarious. Perhaps because he’s repeatedly and, most likely, intentionally sabotaged his several opportunities for genuine stardom, Patric has always had trouble connecting with audiences, which is probably why his most fondly recalled performance to date is his creepy work as the predatory misanthrope in Neil La Bute’s YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS. What’s so wonderful about NARC is that Patric has finally found a film gripping enough to offset his withdrawn, somewhat remote charm (and I use that term loosely). The shadings he brings to the tragically sympathetic Tellis are deftly drawn, and though the character is a bit of an open wound, Patric resists the urge to emote, letting those eyes do a good deal of expressing all on their own. A marvel of subtlety and range, Patric’s is the single best performance I’ve seen all year.
So when these actors are seated in the Kodak Theater next March as Academy Award nominees, they’d better be thanking the supreme deity of their choice for ever running across Joe Carnahan, one of the few recent Sundance discoveries who actually translates to lower altitudes. For a burgeoning, second-time filmmaker to display such a command of the filmic vocabulary is not entirely unheard of; Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher, to cite the few recent examples, showed this level of proficiency, too. I’d gladly place Carnahan in their vaunted company. He’s a keeper.