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Non-Review Review: Narc

Joe Carnahan’s Narc is a visceral and powerful film. It’s less concerned with plot and character than it is with mood, crafting a suffocating visceral aesthetic that seems to almost smother the viewer. Set in snow-bound Detroit, it creates a world that feels closed in upon itself, the white sheets of snow clearing into dirty mounds to allow passage within the city, but suggesting that there’s nothing but white space beyond the world we explore. While Narc tells a story we’ve seen many times before, practically revelling in the familiar plot points of a police movie about the drug trade, Carnahan’s direction gives the movie a bit of an edge – and a powerhouse performance from Ray Liotta makes it much more engaging than it might otherwise be.

That’s a whole Liotta gun…

Carnahan shoots a lot of his scenes on a washed out blue-grey colour scheme. The family scenes, those featuring the officers at home with their families, are much more vibrant, but the world outside is cast in this numb desaturated hue. The blueish tint is so strong that – during the opening sequence – blood seems more purple than red, perhaps a hint that the drab surroundings have managed to suck the oxygen out of a victim’s haemoglobin.

Carnahan’s direction is visceral. He doesn’t shy from violence – even if he tends to keep it relatively sharp and to manage our exposure to it. There’s a lot of fairly disgusting stuff to be seen in Narc, as one might expect in a movie about cops and drug dealers, but Carnahan is careful to ensure that we never get desensitised to it. He creates a world so tangible that we can practically smell the decaying corpse found inside a bathtub in a dive apartment. The sound mixing is just is powerful – an early murder feels particularly brutal not just because we see the violence, but because we can literally hear sound of gargling as a victim struggles to breath through their own blood.

Screaming bloody murder…

There’s really no other way that Narc would work. It’s powered by Carnahan’s visceral direction – it’s governed by sensation rather than by emotion or by plot. Our lead character, Nick Tellis, remembers in flashes and quick cuts – he processes information through a vivid imagination. We don’t just hear the account of an officer beaten to death and executed, we see it through Tellis’ mind’s eye. It’s an efficient storytelling technique, and it works well. Television and film have taught us that cops working vice are liable to see their souls eroded away, and Carnahan convinces us that they can’t help but relate to the sordid and corrupt world they inhabit in the most explicit manner possible.

It’s this emotional connection that anchors Narc, and it’s lucky that Carnahan is so skilled at connecting with audience. The plot is fairly standard undercover cop stuff, but there’s some significant logical gaps to be found. For example, the cop pursuing the investigation was a close friend of the deceased – and he takes it somewhat personal. The film does, to be fair, acknowledge that this might not be the smartest way to secure a conviction for the death of an undercover police officer.

Fair cop…?

Tellis is advised, “Lieutenant Oak, per departmental mandate  is restricted from participating  in the Calvess investigation any further. That’s the log line, and…  that’s the way it’s been worded to me.” When Tellis inquires as to why Oak is excluded, he is informed, “Well…  he and Calvess were close.” It’s that tangible and personal connection to Calvess that makes Oak a poor choice for any investigation, and Carnahan again takes the time to show us what that means, in practical terms.

While we understand where Tellis and Oak are coming from, we don’t understand why any police department – especially one worried about public relations – would team up “some guy playing nine-ball on some perp’s skull” with a “fringe ex-cop fallen out of favour, looking to get back behind a badge”to hunt down a cop killer and drag them in front of the flash bulbs. It seems like a media nightmare, and a whole bunch of potential lawsuits waiting to happen. However, Carnahan tries to convince us to look past that central plot contrivance, and he generally succeeds.

Tellis all…

The film, again, stumbles back into familiar cop movie convention in the final act, when the reality of the murder is explained. Naturally, it’s a bit convoluted, while ultimately remaining fairly predictable in a movie like this. (As an example of that, my mother was able to make a fairly-close-to-the-mark guess of what happened the moment that we hear the back story.) It’s up to Carnahan to keep the audience so wrapped up in the moment that they don’t really notice how simple and how familiar all this is.

(I will note, however, that despite the fact it’s a pretty conventional undercover cop movie, it almost seems like the Miami Vice movie that Michael Mann wishes he had made. Only, you know, in Detroit – not that Miami Vicespent too much time in Miami. It has a unique visual palette, and hits on many of the core themes of the both the series and the movie, exploring the dynamic between cop and criminal and way that vice inevitably corrupts those who must deal with it on a day-in and day-out basis.)

An aged Oak…

Carnahan is ably assisted by Ray Liotta. Liotta has always been a great actor, but he really works incredibly well with talented directors who can bring out the best in him. Oak is a cliché himself, the bitter and cynical old warhorse who has been beaten down by the world he’s found himself working. However, Liotta manages to make Oak curiously sympathetic and a great deal more sophisticated than we might expect. It’s in the eyes. Oak always looks tired, worn out. Liotta convinces us that his eyes have seen far too many horrible things for one human being to process in a lifetime.

Narc works best as a vivid and visceral experience, one that engages the viewer more sensually than intellectually (or even emotionally). The world of cops and robbers might feel quite familiar, but Carnahan renders it in such a way that it feels more all-encompassing, a bit deeper than usual. We’re all familiar with what happens to a good cop after “prolonged contact with the city’s drug element”, but Carnahan makes sure we feel it.

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