Ahoy, squirts! Quint here to introduce the one and only Copernicus who is on the ground in Santa Barbara right now taking in that film festival. Copernicus, probably the smartest human being to ever put thoughts into words on this site, has seen the new Sam Jackson movie, which he describes as a noir. Sam Jackson in a noir is all I need to know I will be watching this movie, however if you want to know more, good ol' Copernicus can fill you in! Enjoy!
Last night at SBIFF we saw the world premiere of THE SAMARITAN, a modern noir starring Samuel L. Jackson. Going in, I had low expectations. I always enjoy Jackson’s work, but he makes a lot of films. I love his work ethic, which no doubt comes from his days struggling to make it. But as a result, he’s in a lot of films, and not all turn out great. What really had me suspicious was that the film was premiering at SBIFF on a Sunday night, and in the 680 seat Lobero theater, instead of the 2000+ Arlington, where most of the red carpet events are held. Samuel L. Jackson was showing up to support the film in person, so I knew at least he was behind it. But he’s biased -- I still wondered if the festival staff was dumping the film in a smaller venue on an off-night because it wasn’t that great.
My suspicions were unfounded: THE SAMARITAN is an entertaining, clever noir, and has one of the most shocking plot twists in years. Prepare to have your pants surprised off. The big twist caused a huge gasp from the entire audience at our screening. It is quite something to hear 680 people have an involuntary physical reaction to a movie scene. I won’t spoil it here, but that twist comes about midway through the film, and it is actually the first of quite a few shifts that will keep you guessing until the end. You can figure out a few of the film’s minor turns before they happen, it is a noir after all, but quite a few times I thought I was ahead of the next twist, only to be fooled myself.
As a result, I can’t give away much of the plot, so I’ll only set up the beginning of the film. Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) an old-time grifter and a con man is released from prison after 25 years. He tries to turn over a new leaf, taking a job in construction, but before long some demons from his past return to haunt him. Ethan (Luke Kirby), the son of his former partner, is desperately trying to recruit him for one huge score. But he works for the new crime boss in town, Xavier, (Tom Wilkinson), and that’s a scene Foley wants nothing to do with. And this is a noir, so of course there has to be a temptress of questionable moral character. That’s Iris (Ruth Negga), a drug-addicted prostitute running with the wrong crowd. Actually she’s only the first of two such characters.
If you like movies with elaborate cons, like THE GRIFTERS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, or DOUBLE INDEMNITY, then THE SAMARITAN is right in your wheelhouse. It has a few flaws that keep it from quite reaching such rarified heights, but there’s plenty to like.
The biggest knock against the film will be film geeks complaining that it is derivative. One of the plot points is very similar to something from another film that film geeks may have seen, but most mainstream audiences won’t be familiar with. And another plot point is very similar to an alternate ending to a more famous movie. I won’t mention either film for fear of ruining the surprise, but I predict future flame wars between Talkbackers similar to the never-ending “Tarantino ripped off CITY ON FIRE” or “Lucas ripped off THE HIDDEN FORTRESS” debates. My own opinion is that no film exists in a vacuum; all borrow either explicitly or subconsciously from what came before. I had a chat with director David Weaver just after the film, and he’s a real film geek and fan of the site. I like how he has drawn from many genres and films to create something that feels like an homage, but is at the same time original. In fact, he sometimes uses your familiarity with the subject matter to subvert expectations and keep you guessing.
Jackson and Wilkinson deliver expectedly solid performances. Jackson carries the film, so his performance is key to maintaining the audience’s interest. Wilkinson’s role is surprisingly small though. I suspect it was initially larger and got edited down. This is an indie film, so the rest of the supporting cast aren’t well-known actors. Kirby and Negga hold their own, but as is generally true in a noir the characters are mostly broad types -- foils for the hero. They have their motivations, but it is plot, not necessarily character development, that drives this type of movie. The actors pull off their roles, but nobody matches Samuel L. Jackson’s star power.
I really like the fact that THE SAMARITAN is a modern noir. By that I mean that the film follows noir conventions, but the characters aren’t pretending to be in the 40s, the film is in color, and it can get steamier than old film codes would ever have allowed (there is nudity). In that sense it is closer to something like BODY HEAT than some early works from the classic era. However, there is one scene in particular that bugged me. Deborah Kara Unger plays a relatively small role in the film. The first time we see her she speaks and acts normally. But as soon as she’s alone with our hero she drops into a cringe-inducing approximation of the silliest of 50s noir speech. I don’t think that scene was shot particularly well either. I suspect they ran out of either time or money when shooting that scene. But IFC has picked up the film for a May release. I really hope they’ll reshoot that scene.
One more nitpick is the penultimate scene of the film. I won’t spoil it, but it is the kind of thing you can understand a writer writing for thematic purposes, but it just seems so implausible that you don’t really buy it. Let’s just say it is medically dubious. In fact, a very similar ending was rejected from another film for not being realistic enough. In this case, the same thematic point could have been made in the climactic scene just before. It almost took me out of the film, and if had happened earlier I’d have checked right out. As it was, I’ll tolerate it because by the time it happened I was already invested.
But I don’t want to end this on a down note. THE SAMARITAN is a worthy take on the noir genre that is entertaining, surprising, and it plays well to a crowd. And on top of that we get another great performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I think it will be a quite a crowd pleaser, and much talked about this summer. I’m looking forward to whatever director David Weaver does next.