“Guess I got what I deserved.”
Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” provided a fitting sendoff to arch criminal Walter White in the final scene of Vince Gilligan’s landmark television drama Breaking Bad. We guess that’s all the show had to say.
All that remained was silence, and, honestly, a fairly formidable void. Where now would audiences go? What did we deserve?
As far back as we can remember, crime films have been a staple of American cinema. From the roaring days of James Cagney and the Warner gangster movies to the golden age of Scorsese, it seemed evident that the one place crime almost always paid was at the theater. Still, when looking back over the year in film that was 2014, it can’t be denied that the genre took some rather interesting turns and indeed experienced an embarrassment of riches that would make Henry Hill’s Lufthansa heist seem like small potatoes.
To understand this rise in crime, we must first turn our attentions back to the year 1998. When HBO first premiered The Sopranos, they hoped only for a successful series. What they couldn’t have anticipated was their inciting of a phenomenal television revolution. Suddenly audiences found themselves rooting for a TV dad who was anything but wholesome, and the widespread championing of the anti-hero became synonymous with high art television.
When The Sopranos eventually, and some would argue far-too-abruptly, concluded midway through 2007, audiences were left wondering what would fill the gap. We didn’t have to wait long, as the pilot episode of Breaking Bad hit AMC in January of 2008. The way that had been paved by Tony Soprano was fiercely and fearlessly trod by Heisenberg; the latter owing his existence largely to the former.
The response to Breaking Bad’s final bow has been just as immediate. The first shot across the bow fittingly starred Bryan Cranston himself: Cold Comes the Night. A strong, bleak noir, Cold Comes the Night sadly wasn’t a hit at the box office. The next two theatrical, entirely silly crime film offerings were Robocop & Non-Stop. Not exactly wins for the genre. Then came the ever-expanding summer season, officially kicked off by Captain America: The Winter Soldier in April. The season offered its requisite big-budget cheap thrills.
One film that unfortunately got lost in that summer shuffle was, ironically, E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills. Traditionally, crime films have served two purposes: to exaggerate and pervert the ideal of the American dream and to provide vicarious release for our baser, Old Testament sense of justice. Cheap Thrills is the epitome of the former, centering on a man whose poverty forces him into a twisted game in which he is willing to commit ever more heinous acts for money. Its title may suggest that Cheap Thrills is a forgettable foray into trashy schadenfreude, but its performances, direction, and unique examination of class dynamics more than justify every drop of blood spilled during its run time. In fact, the admittedly artfully executed Raid 2, also released this year, with its carousel of violent spectacle is far more populated with cheap thrills than is Cheap Thrills.
When the summer expired, things really got interesting. The season died a very unexpectedly brutal death. In the wake of superheroes and giant robots, film noir fired back with a vengeance. In the span of six weeks, we ran a bullet-riddled gauntlet that included The Drop, A Walk Among The Tombstones, The Equalizer, and John Wick. As if nodding to the long legacy road that brought us to this point, the first film of this stretch, The Drop was incidentally also the last film appearance of the late James Gandolfini who played Tony Soprano for HBO.
Each of these films were gritty, savage, and constructed with as much an artist’s hand as a triggerman’s finger. The cinematography and performances in all of these films is every bit as eye-catching as the moments of brutality. Walk Among the Tombstones feels like a David Fincher film at moments, The Drop is directed by the Oscar nominated Michael Roskam, and Antoine Fuqua gives us in Equalizer a seemingly spiritual successor to Man on Fire. There was also a certain blue collar aesthetic to each movie’s protagonist that made even the swiftest, most violent action entirely relatable to their audience.
The Drop centers on a Brooklyn bartender, Tombstones on a private detective recovering from alcoholism, and Equalizer on a hardware store employee with a bloody secret. Even John Wick, a former assassin for the Russian mob, begins his story attempting to lead a provincial life; his tumble backwards into violence spurred on by the senseless murder of his dog. What could be a greater slight against idyllic Americana than killing a man’s dog? Not so coincidentally, the mistreatment of an innocent pup is also the catalyst for Tom Hardy’s character in The Drop to descend into violence.
John Wick and Equalizer are also prime examples of the absolute justice angle that so often draws us toward crime cinema in the first place. Those without the means to protect themselves are defended with remorseless, apocalyptic fiery swords wielded by those whom the antagonists should have known better than to have crossed. Furthermore, what makes 2014 a standout year for this conceit is that while movie stars like Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington were its standard bearers, newcomer Macon Blair proved in Blue Ruin, playing a homeless man who avenges his parents, that even those with no means whatsoever can exact supreme justice. Sometimes even normal people, given the right inclination, can learn to be criminals through practical application…much like a high school chemistry teacher slowly evolving/devolving into a drug kingpin.
Walter White didn’t just remind us of Tony Soprano, didn’t simply hearken back to Warner gangsters, but in fact proved to be the figurehead of a post-ethical society. Thanks to shows like Breaking Bad, we have become entirely comfortable with anti-heroes living outside the confines of legality, and the films of 2014 have eloquently reflected this sentiment. The Purge: Anarchy proved that not only are audience enticed by the idea of a world in which all crime is legalized for one night, but that indeed there is a burgeoning franchise in that construct.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in the tremendously affecting Nightcrawler is in fact a post-ethical exploration of the media. Whereas in years past the media has been vilified in film for caring more for ratings than the value of human life, Nightcrawler, much like Cheap Thrills, proposes that poverty drives the individual’s diminished sense of right and wrong and that news outlets’ ubiquitous detachment can itself be gamed by those driven to climb the capitalist ladder. When we watched Walter White struggle to pay his medial bills thanks to a broken, callous health care machine, did we not cheer on his spiral downward into profitable criminality? Gyllenhaal does his part to solidify this perspective with a performance that has us alternating between admiration and repulsion.
It’s hard to invest in ethics anymore; real world events have shown that the legal system continues to be a barometer of inequality rather than a safeguard of justice. What’s interesting is that even documentaries from 2014 are stark illustrations of a post-ethical climate. Whitey: The United States vs. James Bulger follows the trial of notorious Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger and interviews many of his former extortion victims. During the filming, one interviewee, who was set to testify, is murdered! In the movies, bad guys suffer at the hands of anti-heroes, but the reality is that the innocent suffer to benefit the bad guys. When no one actually gets what they deserve, the hurried flight toward escapism is not at all surprising.
Rounding up 2014, as per usual, are a fair few “awards bait” films. Some of the most prominent among them are, shockingly, crime films. Foxcatcher brings the story of one of the more bizarre American crimes to the screen, The Gambler takes us into the seedy underworld of high stakes wagering, and A Most Violent Year sees a married couple willing to do anything to keep their business afloat during New York’s most dangerous year. But even these end-of-year crime flicks and all previously mentioned are but a small sample of a year flush with genre standouts. To the mix we should also mention Grand Piano, Big Bad Wolves, Cold in July all of which are as high quality as they are high genre, and The Dog, a documentary that re-contextualizes one of the most famous American crimes and subsequent crime films: Dog Day Afternoon. Furthermore, 2014 is the year a cult crime TV series, Veronica Mars, made its return as a feature film after nearly a decade absent from the airwaves. For crying out loud, this is the year that Japan remade Unforgiven, the most noir-y of contemporary American westerns. It’s not a stretch to note that Walter White’s demise did little to reduce the crime rate, quite the opposite in fact.
The finest of points to place on 2014’s exemplary crime film rap sheet can be found in the year’s highest grossing film. At first glance, it may seem the crime films discussed herein are the antidotes to the superhero spectacle of Guardians of the Galaxy. But upon closer inspection, the film’s eponymous team consists of a thief, an assassin, two bounty hunters, and a man out for vengeance. This is officially the year that ushered in Marvel’s super-anti-hero movie.