Palmetto drags film-noir conventions into the ‘90s

Palmetto drags film-noir conventions into the ‘90s

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain has us reflecting on other Florida crime movies.

Thrilling as it can be to watch a filmmaker toy with noir conventions—see Rian Johnson’s teen-gumshoe thriller Brick, or about a third of the Coen brothers’ output—there’s also something charming about a genre throwback with the courage to play it straight. Palmetto, a widely forgotten dose of Sunshine State seediness, boasts few of the postmodern tricks of its late-’90s, crime-picture ilk.

Sporting a glaze of perspiration, Woody Harrelson stars as a crusading journalist whose refusal to take a payoff lands him in the slammer on trumped-up charges. Broke and bitter after two years of wrongful imprisonment, this archetypal patsy retreats to the eponymous Florida community. There, he’s roped into a phony kidnapping scheme by two textbook femme fatales: a vamping trophy-wife (Elisabeth Shue, cast against type) and her teen-temptress daughter (a young Chloë Sevigny, still a year away from her breakout role in Boys Don’t Cry). 

Anyone familiar with Double Indemnity or its countless imitators will have no trouble guessing where all this is headed. (The title of the source material, James Hadley Chase’s novel Just Another Sucker, is another clue.) Yet Palmetto’s pleasures have less to do with its increasingly predictable plot—which jumps the rails around the time Michael Rapaport shows up as an acid-pouring scumbag—than with its workmanlike celebration of noir tropes. There are dingy bars and dingier motels, tough-talking D.A.s and dirty-talking dames—all delivered by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) with a refreshing lack of wink-wink affectation. (In the director’s only pretentious gesture, scurrying cockroaches serve as a reoccurring metaphor for unchecked amorality.) 

Palmetto’s ace in the hole is Harrelson, still a hot commodity in the wake of The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Harrelson nails the swaggering charisma and sweaty-palmed desperation of his fall-guy protagonist—a one-time man of principle whose turn to crime stems as much from disillusionment as from pure greed. “If you can’t beat the crooks, join them,” the film cynically suggests. That’s a vintage noir philosophy if ever there was one.

Availability: A bare-bones DVD from Turner Home Entertainment, rental or purchase from several digital providers, and Netflix rental.

Filed Under: Film

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