NOIRVEMBER 009 ~ Joseph Gordon-Levitt

by ryankl

It makes sense Joseph Gordon-Levitt would fill the role of the modern noir archetype. While every other leading man has been busy feeding chicken fillets and carb paste into his pecs, JGL has been off to the side amassing a wildly erratic and hugely high quality body of work. When you see him on the bill, you know you’re going to get some effort. And you know his character won’t have the red carpet laid out for him in every respect, JGL is the pure everyman in every superb sense of the word and that’s why he’s noir to the marrow in his bones.

JGL can take a hit and keep moving through sheer force of will.


If you think about noir leading men, they are so rarely the action hero type. They might get in a lotta scraps but they’d be batting under .400 easy as to their success rate. Your noir man isn’t about being a dazzling icon, or about spending their time pumping iron, they are about grit. JGL has grit in spades and we never saw it coming, which makes it all the more visceral when it sparks on screen.

Launching into our cultural hivemind as a child star, JGL had the decks stacked against him. A goofy sitcom, a very specific pony-tailed look, I’ll be honest in thinking we might never see the kid again. But we did, in a little high school noir film called BRICK and it was the sort of performance, and flick, and script, and event that completely erases everything you had considered about a person and puts you in the palm of their hand. It’s a hard boiled high school romance from Rian Johnson, with a nuanced language created for these streets alone, and the tone of the piece was incredibly sombre. From there, JGL could do anything and you had to follow him just to know.

Now, who knew what would actually happen. He went from sappy sitcom to 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, which while endlessly viewable in that 90s melange of teen flick safety isn’t exactly high art. BRICK was high art and from there JGL would solidify himself as an icon in a new place, a place between the blockbuster stars and the pretty boys. Which becomes interesting because he is himself capable of carrying some very big flicks and he is a handsome dude in the old school sense. But it begins to feel like he is purposefully choosing his place in the world so he gets to dabble in some fascinating narrative machines, many which would be considered unconventional and certainly not safe but that means you always get a sense he’s drawing from a place of art not commerce, something we don’t see enough of in Hollywood.

Post-BRICK, I tracked JGL to THE LOOKOUT [purely because of Scott Frank’s involvement as writer/director] and I was completely won over. This subdued heist flick is all about tone and JGL plays a guy who has suffered brain trauma and is impacted for it. It’s a small performance, he’s not out to make this problem flashy, and the whole flick matches that idea. Play the low key, make the audience sit forward and pay attention. It’s one of those modern crime flicks that slipped past the radar but seems to get enough of a run with the people who matter that it is not lost. And while it’s not exactly a true noir, I do consider its downbeat end to be worthy of mention here because it showcases that different and flexible attitude to noir. JGL’s character doesn’t end up dead or in a cell, but his injured mind/body is a cell, and the guilt and isolation he starts with are still present and might well forever be. He is, for all real intents and purposes, still trapped in a cell and it’s his own mind.

His next real notable for me is the clincher when proving JGL’s versatility, and it’s one of his finest noir roles. [500] DAYS OF SUMMER is an amazing flick. It’s supremely heartfelt, it’s real in its hyper-unreality of love, and it’s the finest romance-comedy flick of the past ten years, hands down. And it’s in this real and wild depiction of love that it shows the real noir in the world as we process heartbreak and its infinite darkness. The love between JGL and Zooey Deschanel’s character is all the more bleak because it’s only 500 days, you could fit at least two score of these types of heartbreaks in your life if you were un/lucky. You could near endlessly find the girl, fall deeply into her, have her snuff your heart, and be spat out in time for the next and you know you’d do it again. And the final moment confirms this as we are offered a moment of hope, JGL meets the new girl, the next girl, and why that might be [probably should be] affirming, and yet all I can think is that he’s just signing up for another 500 day stint of ventricle tenderising before the bastard is ripped out again.

Which is all his fault because he runs headfirst into the field despite being told it’s poisonous. He knows with Summer that she doesn’t want anything serious and yet he pursues anyway, because he’s his own problem. In fact, he’s a straight up dick. He’s moody, rude, and pretty damn stupid. In order to get those little highs, those blissful romantic moments we all strive for, he’s willing to hand his heart across to get stomped. Because he knows the memory of the best time will defib him back in time for the next time. He is rotationally setting himself up for failure, and pretending he doesn’t know it each time.

Love is the ultimate destroyer because it’s always about betrayal.

I weigh in on INCEPTION being a noir in that way we follow the determined downfall of one man, but that man isn’t JGL, it’s equally impressive ‘actor’ [not star or pec stand] Leonardo DiCaprio’s show. But JGL holds an important role that acts as a bridge to the next flick I wanna mention and it’s this: JGL is the muscle of INCEPTION. Not Tom Hardy, the brick bat also on this crew, no, Hardy is the weapons guy, and JGL is the ass kicker. Now, JGL is my size [so those who know me understand why this role of muscle is fantastic]. JGL isn’t physically intimidating…well, not if you just take his actual dimensions as they are. But when you add in the way he holds himself, the certainty with which he moves and acts, when you measure how big he feels, suddenly the numbers go up. You believe JGL can kick anyone’s ass through sheer force of determination and drive and it doesn’t break the narrative or the world at all. It is this mettle that makes JGL shine as a noir lead and INCEPTION was the ultimate proof that he can do anything needed to drive a narrative engine into the water and still gun the pedal down.

Which is what he does in LOOPER, acting as Bruce Willis’ younger self and you start to believe that he most certainly would grow up to be that grizzled old bastard who could walk through stone. This is also doubly fitting because before Willis was the hardened action star, with the engine block head, and the weary eyes, he was a rom-com tv show star who didn’t look like he could stand over his own shadow [hyperbole klaxon: love you, Bruce].

By the time we hit LOOPER, there was no doubt in my mind at all that JGL could be the guy waiting when you travel back in time and he’d shoot you down before you’d taken a full breath of air from the past. JGL was walking diamond by this stage and so nothing in this flick seems out of his range, right up to the final dusty denouement that breaks your heart in its inevitability.

Noir has found a vessel in Joseph Gordon-Levitt because you hate to see him end in a ditch but you know he’ll put himself there time and again if it’s in the better interest of just one other person. He is that man and we are all the better for having the opportunity to see him operate.

JGL Addendum

I also love his music so why not treat yourself: