Irrational Man: More Neo-Noir Than I Originally Thought
After seeing this film a second time, this time on DVD, I am even more convinced that Irrational Man is a neo-noir. Before I gave it 11 out of 16; now I give it 12 out of 16 (see especially number 12 below).
Characteristic from film noir to define neo-noir and modern neo-noir:
1. Chiaroscuro for black and white films, intense or muted color in movies filmed in color Not applicable (N/A). There’s nothing about the setting in and around Newport, Rhode Island, that makes Irrational Man a noir or neo-noir, but see number 9 below.
2. Flashbacks The entire film is told in flashback, from Jill’s point of view. She couches her remembrances as a lesson learned.
3. Unusual narration N/A
4. Crime/planning a crime (usually—but not always—murder) Definitely!
5. Femme fatale and/or homme fatale Joaquin Phoenix’s character qualifies as an homme fatale.
6. The instrument of fate The “agent of fate” in Irrational Man seems to be Jill. Jill is the one who overhears the conversation in the restaurant about Judge Spangler. Jill is the one who invites Abe to listen in on that same conversation. Jill picks a flashlight as a prize at the amusement park (I think she wanted it; she’s carrying it in her purse until the end). The flashlight plays an important part, in its own way, as an “agent of fate”! But it belongs to Jill, not to anyone else.
7. Angst (for example, guilt, fear, self-doubt, confusion, and so on; in other words, anything that contributes to angst) Real angst, not just Joaquin Phoenix as Abe, the philosophy professor, spouting intellectual lines. Jill expresses angst, fear, and suspicion when she hears Rita’s theory about Abe. Abe experiences angst from the beginning of the movie until he starts planning his crime. (Rita doesn’t experience any angst at all! She would go to Spain with Abe whether or not her theory about him is true. But Abe and Jill suffer more than enough angst to make up for Rita.)
8. Violence or the threat of violence Shown off-camera but still effective, especially because Jill, Abe, and Rita discuss it in various scenes and in different character combinations.
9. Urban and nighttime settings Not much, if any, urban and/or nighttime settings as I recall, but the seaside setting of the film, with its idyllic views, seems to accentuate the evil intentions of some of the characters rather than detract from it.
10. Allusion to post–World War II (or any postwar) themes One more point about Irrational Man makes it neo-noir for me, and that’s the specific mention of Hannah Arendt. Jill mentions that Abe noted Hannah Arendt’s name in the margin of a book, I think it was. (I wish I had a DVD copy so I could check!) But the point is that the reference to Hannah Arendt again takes us back to the postwar period and the struggle to come to terms with Nazism and “the banality of evil.” From Wikipedia:
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by political theorist Hannah Arendt, was originally published in 1963. Arendt's subtitle famously introduced the phrase "the banality of evil," which also serves as the final words of the book. In part, at least, the phrase refers to Eichmann's deportment at the trial, displaying neither guilt nor hatred, claiming he bore no responsibility because he was simply "doing his job" ("He did his duty...; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law" p. 135). (emphasis added)
Abe justifies his actions in a similar manner: He was simply doing what was best for the woman who wanted her kids in the custody battle.
So it’s not just violence and crime that make Irrational Man a neo-noir; it’s also the reaching back in time to quote a postwar political theorist who was trying to make sense of the war crimes committed and justified for the most banal of reasons. Allen also uses Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis when Abe brings up a theoretical philosophical dilemma while teaching his college philosophy class.
11. Philosophical themes (existentialism in particular) involving alienation, loneliness Abe justifies everything he does in terms of philosophy, but he never once allows for human emotion. He feels alienated from the rest of the world and he says this often throughout the film. But he doesn’t seem to care much about that fact. But yes, I would say this characteristic applies.
12. Psychology (hypnosis, brainwashing, manipulation, amnesia) I have changed my mind about this one [emphasis below is mine]. I think Abe tries to manipulate Jill, but she realizes it only in hindsight.
When the film opens, viewers hear her internal monologue: “I think Abe was crazy from the beginning. . . . He was so damn interesting. And different. And a good talker. And he could always cloud the issue with words.”
Jill does confront Abe about the judge’s murder:
• Jill: “You can’t justify it. You can’t justify it with all this ****. With all this ****, French postwar rationalizing. This doesn’t . . . . This is murder. This is murder. It opens the door to more murder, Abe.”
• Abe: “Okay, okay, okay, okay . . . .”
• Jill: “I don’t have the intellect to refute these arguments. I can’t argue with you. But you taught me go with my instinct and I don’t have to think about this. I feel that this is no good. This is murder.”
13. Greed N/A
14. Betrayal Abe betrays Jill. His actions are not really based on his existential need to feel alive. He turns on her, too.
15. No stark contrast between “good” and “evil” (characters, forces, emotion, and so on) In the end Jill is almost squeaky clean. Abe was depressed at the start of the film, so his intentions seemed masked by the depression. I think this category, for this film, would be how “the banality of evil” makes good and evil hard to spot for the characters and for the audience.
16. Expertise triumphs, perhaps rather than “good” (N/A)