Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Like most casualties of Noirland, Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) is pretty much DOA from the get-go. Haunted by the moment he put a bullet into his grifter partner's head, he gets out of jail after a 25-year stretch to find his world mostly emptied of old friends, lovers, fellow thieves. Foley walks heavy, age and regret weighing down his scruffily bearded face. He dreams of resurrection, a new life, but the mean streets of Toronto -- variously steeped in shades of strong urine and blue ice -- eat away at what's left of his soul the moment he predictably puts a foot wrong.
That's the kind of tone and style Canadian director David Weaver aims for in his surprisingly engrossing "The Samaritan." And noir is nothing if not style, even if in these visually illiterate days the term gets defined simply as generic plot elements. Weaver isn't so much after genre -- thriller, crime caper, grifter snares within snares -- as the pleasure of moving, as slow as doom, through an almost subterranean cinematic medium, beautiful yet deadly in matters of hope or innocence.
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"The Samaritan" is no Tarantino firecracker; its deliberate narrative pacing derails crucially in rushed climactic passages. But this chronicle of a damaged man's long dying casts a genuinely noir spell, and gives Jackson the chance to show how interesting an actor he can be when not straitjacketed into rote action roles.
"The Avengers"' cardboard Nick Fury seems worlds away from Foley's all-too-human physicality, flesh beset by age, hard use and guilt. Topped by an absurd porkpie hat, he wears the face of a derelict, occasionally brutish, sometimes ennobled. All the fire and wit and stylish viciousness of "Pulp Fiction" hit man is extinguished here. Jackson's a walking dead man, hungry for a little taste of something sweet before he lies down for good.
Soon after his parole, Foley comes home to find a faceless shadow seated in his dim apartment. Backed by window shades suppurating with that unwholesome yellow hue, flanked by a mildew-green wall, the visitor might be Foley's long-dead partner rising for retribution. But it's the dead man's son Ethan (Luke Kirby), a coked-up snake in an urban jungle. Slithery in his own skin, Ethan's expressions slip and slide from pretty-boy bland into vicious wrongness. He's a sociopath masquerading as a human being, not quite as adept at keeping up appearances -- conning the marks -- as he thinks he is.
Luring Foley down into his neon-glitzy nightclub, the youngster offers drinks, a pretty whore, everything on the house for old time's sake. He also makes his guest privy to a bloody theatrical in the joint's brightly lit kitchen. There Xavier (Tom Wilkinson, in fine fettle as an effete killer), a man with more money than Midas, lovingly catalogues a table of high-end wines, then sadistically crushes a broken bottle into the face of a minion who tried to rook him.
When Foley won't sup with the devil -- partner up with Ethan in his "Samaritan" grift -- the malevolent imp works a cruel long con on him, even as his mark inches toward a new life. He's nabbed a construction job and fallen for a tousle-haired Magdalene (Ruth Negga) much in need of her own brand of redemption.
That long con (very similar to one in a recent fave import) turns the film on its axis, sending all hope graveward. But before everything goes south, one savors the movie's slow, dreamlike passages, especially in Foley's old haunt, a dark, mostly empty bar illuminated with smears of scarlet. A few piano chords, judiciously deployed, and the mood is set for the warm, desperate intimacy sharing drinks in a bar's dark corner can breed. Such scenes convey a way of life, a means of survival.
As Foley's amour fou, Negga is mesmerizing, an elfin enchantress with the mournful visage of a Modigliani, half in love with death. At their first coupling, there's something both touching and terrible in the way the big man with sagging flesh embraces, almost falls upon, Iris' delicate form. In one totally silent scene, the nearly naked Foley sits on the bathroom floor at Iris' feet as she curls up like a drugged-out cat on the toilet seat. There's a quasi-religious element to this shadowy, underwater image, a slantwise, secular pietà.
That subversive strain of faith, the possibility of even losers achieving something like salvation, runs right through this noir parable. The theme's familiar, but "The Samaritan"'s stylish palette -- the colors of corruption and despair -- paints it new.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.