Crime films deal with criminals in a variety of ways, but there is a temptation (often indulged) to treat the criminal as an “other,” as “the bad guy,” allowing for a good deal of distance between the characters and the spectators. This happens so frequently that when a crime film comes along whose criminals are relatable, it feels bold and fresh.
The bulk of films dealing with crime and criminals at this year’s New York Film Festival are in that latter mode. The crimes in these films are either relatively brief, low-key matter-of-fact, or not depicted at all, with the focus not on the thrills of criminality but on the people whose lives are defined by their outlaw status. The protagonists in these films must deal with the consequences of their crimes, whether big or small, and the question of lawful or moral judgment isn’t the main focus — rather, it’s to show the effects of criminal life on the criminals as well as those around them.
What better way to portray real-life crime than to adapt a real-life crime documentary? That’s the approach taken by director Arnaud Desplechin for Oh Mercy!, a dramatization of the documentary Roubaix, commissariat central, affaires courantes from 2008. Desplechin and co-writer Léa Mysius add some fictional flourishes, particularly with the protagonists, giving the audience a look at the interior lives of police chief Daoud (Roschdy Zem) and rookie Louis (Antoine Reinartz). Yet the film is less about them and more about the criminal cases that come their way, ranging from domestic runaways to insurance-seeking scammers to rape victims, with the cops and the movie eventually focusing on a case of two women (Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier) and their involvement with the death of their elderly neighbor, among other mysterious goings-on in their neighborhood.
The movie plods along in an unfocused way for much of the first half, matter-of-factly portraying the underbelly of the cops’ town but remaining a little too distant until the female suspects Claude and Marie begin to be heavily investigated. At that point, Desplechin commits completely to a procedural style, letting the women reveal (or not reveal) themselves through the interrogations and their reactions. In this way, Claude and Marie become more fleshed-out than the cops are, with the film never tipping its hand toward judging them one way or the other. Seydoux in particular was born to play a murder suspect, her enigmatic expressions a living Rorschach test of guilt or innocence. Through the investigation of these women, Oh Mercy! finds its purpose, portraying what feels like a well-rounded portrait of life in such a downtrodden town — how it makes criminals out of desperate people, and how those who’ve chosen to uphold the law are just barely holding on themselves.
All of China appears to be a prison where criminals and police chase each other endlessly in Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake. Yinan wishes to evoke classic Film Noir within a neo-modern context, and does so right from the start: a man on the run, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), meets a femme fatale, Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei), at night in the pouring rain, and tells her his tale up to that point. Through a series of mishaps and gang-related violence, Zenong, once an underworld legend among the Jiang Hu, is now not only wanted by them for a misunderstanding involving a rival faction but has accidentally killed a cop, sparking a manhunt that comes with a cash reward for anyone who apprehends him.
Liu, a prostitute known as a “bathing beauty” given the titular location where she works, is ostensibly there as a go-between for Zenong’s estranged wife, Yang (Wan Qian), so that Yang can receive the reward money upon the capture (or death) that Zenong knows is coming. Rather than a tense game of cat-and-mouse, Yinan’s film moves forward lugubriously, winding its way into narrative cul-de-sacs and poetic flourishes that feel more like distractions (especially given the filmmaker’s prowess with wild, thrilling bursts of violence). Yet a melancholy mood permeates Wild Goose Lake to such a degree that it eventually becomes clear that the film isn’t about Zenong’s escape but rather his slow acceptance of his fate, knowing that his life of crime was always going to bring him such an end. The women in his life, then, become a greater part of the story, as they struggle to define themselves separately from the world (and the same outlaw) that they’re attached to. Yinan effectively captures the sadness of the criminal underworld, treating it as less of an attractive calling and more like a burden.
The criminals in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow don’t even wish to be criminals — they merely want to pursue their dreams but can only do so through theft and deception. This is in large part due to the era they live in — set in 1820 Oregon, the film finds aspiring chef Cookie (John Magaro) and amateur entrepreneur King-Lu (Orion Lee) barely eking out a living until they meet each other by chance and start to bond, as Cookie reveals just how good a chef he is. Figuring they could start their own baked goods business if they only had access to better ingredients, they agree to steal the milk of the first (and currently only) cow in the region, sneaking onto the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones) under the cover of night.
Reichardt’s film can hardly be called genre in its style, tone and form, as her approach to the material is gentle, quiet, and pastoral, capturing the characters in moments of existing rather than constant action (the film is dedicated to Peter Hutton, whose documentary films similarly favored evoking a sense of place over narrative). Based on a novel by Jon Raymond, however, Reichardt’s script still has a dramatic drive, as Cookie and King-Lu grow bolder and more greedy with their milk-stealing scheme, eventually running afoul of the haughty Factor and his hired hunters and mercenaries. In this fashion, First Cow ties criminality with the harsh quality of life available to frontier people of the time, showing how the thieves’ near-victimless crime betters not just their fortunes but their overall community as well, allowing the townspeople to enjoy baked goods they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The thievery also strengthens the bond between the white Cookie and Chinese King-Lu, forging a friendship through crime that perhaps wouldn’t have had reason to exist otherwise. Their friendship is the focus of the film, its birth and circumstances not judged through a harsh moral lens.
Friendship — and what exactly that term means — is also on the mind of Martin Scorsese’s crime opus The Irishman, a masterwork that is a summation of the director’s films to date, a look at a life in crime in its totality. The film’s other title, I Heard You Paint Houses (which is the title of the book by Charles Brandt that the film is based on), refers to the colorful phrase used to describe the vocation of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro): He’s an enforcer and assassin who “paints houses” with the blood of those he’s told to whack. The film follows Sheeran’s life to within an inch of both the cradle and the grave, chronicling his time in World War II to becoming a truck driver to meeting and befriending both mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and beyond.
De Niro’s Sheeran is portrayed as a near cipher, a go-along-to-get-along guy who is so entrenched for so long in a life of violence and retaliatory murder that it just becomes another aspect of his existence. He defines himself through his close friendships with Bufalino and Hoffa, to the detriment of his relationship with his family, most notably his eldest daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who susses out her father’s dirty deeds whether she witnesses them or not. Peggy’s subjective view of Frank’s actions is the film’s moral compass, as she acts as a living reminder of the hurt and alienation he’s caused.
The film is, by contrast, almost amoral as it objectively follows Frank from time period to time period, showing how much value Frank places on friendship and loyalty … until someone orders him to break those values, which he fretfully but obediently does. Ironically, Frank holds the fraternity that the criminal world provides him (The Irishman refers to a title that is only given to a select number of people within the mob) in high esteem, without realizing how he eventually breaks those bonds as well as virtues of loyalty and friendship.
The film paints a picture of the criminal life as a series of events that rush into one another so quickly that it’s hard to get any perspective until it’s too late, acting as a metaphor not just for the consequences of crime but for life itself. When an elderly Frank is informed that one of his friends is dead, he blurts out, “Who did it?,” the real murderer — old age — being clear to everyone but him. Rather than saying “crime doesn’t pay,” these films turn that adage on its head: Crime requires payment, both from those within it and those closest to it. The bill that comes due as a consequence for a life of crime doesn’t judge or moralize — it simply must be paid.