Another Element of Neo-Noir: Breakable Protagonists

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on “The Elements of Neo-Noir.” Since writing that post, it has occurred to me that I missed one key element of neo-noir (though, to be fair, I probably missed a few more that haven’t yet occurred to me): the mental and physical fragility of the protagonist.

Don’t get me wrong, the neo-noir protagonist isn’t made of fine china that will shatter at the slightest abuse. On the contrary, most of them take extensive physical beatings and endure severe mental anguish. The point is that they aren’t unstoppable fighting machines who shrug off both words and bullets like generic action heroes. The neo-noir protagonist knows pain on an intimate level. Their psyches bend and break under the strain of the mental pressures they endure. Their bodies show wounds that are a visible hindrance for the remainder of the film.

Examples of neo-noir protagonists who suffer from extreme mental stress abound. Some of those that most readily spring to mind:

  • Memento - Newmarket Films (2000)

    Memento – Newmarket Films (2000)

    Leonard Shelby from Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), whose anterograde amnesia presents him with enough problems to overcome before his psyche even begins to further cloud his judgement.

  • Trevor Reznik of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), who suffers from severe insomnia that causes extreme weight loss, hallucinations, and a persecution complex that is his undoing.
  • Actually, insomnia is a fairly common trigger for many neo-noir protagonists. Another example is the unnamed narrator of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). His insomnia also causes hallucinations and drives the film.
  • Yet another insomniac character is Will Dormer from Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (2002). Dormer’s titular condition, caused by the ever-shining Alaska sun, leads to poor judgement and self-doubt.

    Insomnia - Warner Bros. (2002)

    Insomnia – Warner Bros. (2002)

  • Frank Pierce in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) ism a paramedic who is just burned out from too many hours on the job and losing too many patients in a row. His desperation leads him to pop pills and this causes hallucinations in which he sees the ghosts of dead patients.
  • In David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Detective David Mills suffers from the deadly sin of pride. His overinflated ego and cocky self-assuredness constantly cloud his judgement and lead him to underestimate his quarry.

    Bringing Out the Dead, Paramount Pictures (1999)

    Bringing Out the Dead – Paramount Pictures (1999)

Not only do neo-noir protagonists suffer the slings and arrows of mental instability and deep psychological wounding, they also suffer physical wounds. Neo-noir protagonists are not unstoppable combat monsters who tear through their foes with raw physicality. Instead, these characters are often beaten, bruised, and bloodied. Some fine examples of this physical fragility include:

  • Once again, Detective David Mills from David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) serves us as an example. In one scene, he takes an intense physical beating. For the remainder of the film, he is shown with bandages and wounds.

    Se7en - New Line Cinema (1995)

    Se7en – New Line Cinema (1995)

  • Holy multi-purpose examples, Batman! Trevor Reznik from Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), not only suffers mentally from his insomnia, he takes a physical toll in the film as well. Christian Bale famously lost 62 lbs. for this role, punishing himself physically just to play the character.

    The Machinist - Paramount (2004)

    The Machinist – Paramount (2004)

  • In Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Jake Gittes has his nose nearly cut off by an assailant (played by Polanski himself). He wears a heavy bandage on his nose for the rest of the film. Insert comment about symbolic castration here.

    Chinatown - Paramount (1974)

    Chinatown – Paramount (1974)

  • Bobby from Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) is beaten severely and, like the two examples above, wears bandages on his face for the remainder of the film. Looks like he’s also in need of some dental work.

    U-Turn - Tristar/Sony Pictures (1997)

    U-Turn – Tristar/Sony Pictures (1997)

  • Even seemingly unstoppable protagonists such as Hartigan and Marv from Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005) carry the effects of their physical wounds and frailties through their portions of the film. Marv becomes extensively bandaged from his physical abuse, and Hartigan is beaten, shot, hung, and has a heart attack.
Sin City - Dimension Films (2005)

Sin City – Dimension Films (2005)

  • In an extreme example of this physical frailty, from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), Mr. Orange spends the entire film bleeding out from being shot in the stomach.

    Reservoir Dogs - Miramax (1992)

    Reservoir Dogs – Miramax (1992)

There are many more examples of the mental and physical frailties of neo-noir protagonists, but these must suffice. I feel they show the overwhelming presence of the element as a common thematic characteristic of neo-noir films. ¬†Note that if this element is included in my list from the last post, that alley scene from David Fincher’s Se7en contains 9 of the elements¬†of neo-noir.


Darren is a life-long geek, an avid gamer (both tabletop role-playing and video games), and a writer and editor. He lives in South Carolina with his wife Barbara and his three rescued Siberian Huskies.

1 Response

  1. June 5, 2014

    […] and I also want something that helps me bring out the characteristic elements of neo-noir as a genre. Yes, there are two links there. Finally, one of the greatest strengths of Streets of Bedlam is the […]

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