Friday, October 25, 2019

AFF ’19: DC Noir

George Pelecanos is a master of Beltway crime fiction, but he is drawn more to grittier neighborhoods like Baltimore and Anacostia than tonier Fairfax and Georgetown. That’s where the bodies are—and also quite a few stressed out cops. Known as a novelist as well as a writer-producer for shows like The Wire, Pelecanos adapts his own short stories in the anthology feature-pilot, D.C. Noir, with segments directed by Pelecanos himself, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stephen Kinigopoulos, and his son Nicholas Pelecanos, which screens during the 2019 Austin Film Festival.

Pelecanos’ first story, “The Lovers,” is probably the most traditionally James M. Cain-ish “noir.” It features a high-powered lawyer who wants a permanent, low-cost divorce from his much younger and consequently unfaithful wife. However, the armed robbery specialist he sought to recruit tries to roll over on the counselor when he is busted by Det. Mitch Brooks, who passes it along to an undercover colleague—with unintended consequences.

Akinnagbe is terrific as Brooks and he also helms the best story of the quartet: “String Music.” It has a distinctively moody, late night vibe, but it is impossible to overstate what the great character actor Jay O. Sanders brings to the table as world-weary beat cop Sergeant Peters (or “Sgt. Dad”). Marcus Craig-Bradford is all kinds of intense as Tonio Harris, a youth getting pulled against his will into a potentially violent rivalry, but what is really compelling is the way Sgt. Peters interacts with the people on his beat. You really can call it “community policing.”

Probably the most conventional tale would be “Miss Mary’s Room,” directed by the younger Pelecanos, in which two friends find their bonds of loyalty threatened by the harsh realities of criminal life. We have seen this sort of thing many times before, but Judith Hoag elevates the material with her poignant portrayal of the titular mother.

Pelecanos and company save the second best for last, ending with the excellent “The Confidential Informant,” directed by Kinigopoulos. Seen briefly in “String Music,” Vernon Coates Jr. narrates this urban tragedy from a classically noir perspective. He is the informant and he is proud of what he does to make his community safer (not that he turns down the tip money, mind you), but obviously he must keep his role secret, or else. Thaddeus Street powerfully portrays Coates’ angst and regret with unusual subtlety and simmering restraint. His story arc is truly haunting.

It is not exactly clear whether D.C. Noir should be considered a pilot or a feature, but it is definitely worth seeing either way, especially for its refreshingly positive and sympathetic depiction of a veteran cop, like Sgt. “Dad” Peters. Pelecanos’s stories have depth and grit, which Sanders, Akinnagbe, and Street really flesh out and bring to life. Highly recommended, D.C. Noir screens tomorrow (10/26) and Monday (10/28), as part of this year’s Austin Film Festival.