Think "High Sierra" or "White Heat."
Films belonging to the "film noir" genre usually contain similar elements: a "deus ex machina" plot twist that drives the main character headlong into bedlam, a pretty but psychotic girl, a handsome but psychotic thug, lots of money, lots of brutality, and usually a denouement in the desert. Think "High Sierra" or "White Heat."

There is plenty of hard-boiled bad film noir out there. But when film noir is good, you can't take your eyes off the train wreck of human lives.

It is this latter tradition that "Blind Spot" belongs to. The film follows Danny Alton, a troubled teenager (superbly played with depth, grace, emotional integrity and downright plaintiveness by James Franco, who throws himself completely into this role) who has fallen in love with the rough-edged streetkid, Darcy.

From the beginning, you know this is going to be bad.

Darcy invites Danny to his house. But the house is empty and for sale, and a bloody check for thousands of dollars is on the floor. Danny is robbed of his clothing and possessions, but uses the check to track down the suicidal April -- Darcy's other lover. When they reach Darcy's real home, they find Wayne -- a thug hunting Darcy down for the money he's stolen. Together, the three manage to locate Darcy in a dusty, run-down motel in the desert. But that's only the beginning of the tale, as plastic explosives, drugs, gun-running, a creepy funeral home, bisexual assassins and a lonely half-finished house in the desert bring events to an explosive head in an alley outside a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles.

This film contains some of the best noir cinematography I have seen in years. In one scene, Danny races on foot through the desert to the half-finished house in the desert where he believes Darcy may have been taken that evening by mobsters. A very long shot with sharp lighting effects shows Danny -- arms and legs flailing, palpable fear etched on his face (visible even at this distance), dust cloud trailing behind him as the wind whips in his direction -- racing across the desert flats toward the house. The loneliness, the desperation, the despair Danny feels is shocking depicted. There are many such scenes in this film, wonderfully crafted by the experienced Maximo Munzi. This is Oscar-winning material.

The editing, too, is just astounding. The film contains little moments where the characters gain insight into themselves or their situation. Bits of time, where memory and feeling come flooding back. At these times, quick montages of images flash across the screen. This is superb editing by director-writer-editor Stephan Woloszczuk. In one early montage, Danny describes the wondrous feelings he has now that Darcy has entered his life. Quick images of Danny's diary flash across the screen: the words "4 life," "lucky" and "safe" stop momentarily, while page upon page of words, the contents of a human heart, race across the screen -- out of focus, too quick to read. It's like the flood of emotion Danny himself feels.

The flood of images reveals something else about this film: Just how beautiful Nathaniel Waters' production design is. Darcy's quonset-hut home is the perfect match of high-tech and slob (a tribute to the attentiveness of set decorator Kimberly Foster). The stunning desert house scene is just outright creepy. The ruined motel where Darcy hides out can be found in any abandoned small town in America. The creepy (and astoundingly lit) funeral home where the plot takes a horrific turn mixes starkness with the pall of death hanging over the entire film. (It's too bad the film's lighting director is not credited.) This film has a superb production design, one that enhances every single frame and every actor's performance.

That's the fourth element of this film which makes it grab you and hold on to you: The acting. James Franco is a superb actor. Even in "Spider-Man" -- where he was given practically nothing to do -- Franco showed that he understands human emotion like no other actor of his generation. He's no pretty-boy coasting on his good looks like Brad Pitt. Franco portrays deep emotion with full force. His performances contain pure human heart. Consider the scene in the phone booth outside the funeral home, where Danny collapses after telling April and Wayne that Darcy is dead. Lesser actors couldn't carry off the complete emotional breakdown of a human being. Franco does.

Shawn Montgomery, in her first film, simply blows you away with her performance as the suicidal April. Deeply in love with Darcy, suffering from massive depression after having to bury alone her unborn child (after the fetus spontaneously aborts) in a perfume box in the woods, her life of luxury and perfection now a shambles: April is one of the best-drawn characters on film that I have ever seen. While Danny's relationship to Darcy is slowly teased out during the film, April's nervous breakdown is revealed only to the audience. Neither Danny nor Wayne seem particularly interested in her as a human being. April's despair when she realizes Danny has also been Darcy's lover is poignant and potent, even if it is truncated by the character's complete inability to feel any emotion for very long now. Montgomery brings to April a pathos that puts your heart through the wringer.

Mark Patrick Gleason is given the hardest job in the film: Having to make something human and real out of the thug, Wayne. At first, Wayne is simply one of any number of violent, foul-mouthed, obsessed drug-pushers/gun-runners that appears in any number of films (from "Kindergarten Cop" to "Beverly Hills Cop 2"). Gleason does very well with what he's given, but he doesn't quite get to where you feel much for Wayne. It's difficult to say whether this is Gleason's problem or the material's. There is one moment -- where Wayne (who is Darcy's brother, although neither Danny nor April know this) reads Danny's diary and realizes the sexual and emotional link between the two men -- where you just know that Wayne is going to go homophobic on Danny's ass. But the explosion never comes. (Thank god! Trite plots are death to film noir.) Once the revelation about the siblings comes at the film's end, the audience is fairly astounded to realize the depth of love and compassion Wayne truly felt for Darcy -- so deep that Wayne accepted Danny's homosexual love for his bisexual brother. But this all happens off-screen. Gleason is never given a chance to act out Wayne's feelings. It must have been very frustrating for the performer.

The story is rather inventive, although the smuggling device seen at the end of the film is likely to remind viewers of "Diamonds Are Forever" (yes, James Bond). A traditional narrative voice-over (which proves Franco is as great a voice talent as he is a physical actor) provides terrific atmosphere, although it does tend to flow over into schmaltz a few times toward the end of the film (providing some unintentional laughter). Terrific locales play key visual roles in the film. Kudos to the location scout for finding such astounding buildings! The end of the film struck me as a bit rushed; not pat, but a little too firm for my film noir tastes.

Now, I've seen audiences either hate or love "Blind Spot." Modern film audiences, exposed to the most extreme brutality and violence, often have little appreciation for the subtleties of film noir. My suggestion is to take a small group of friends who don't see despair, emotional collapse, desperation or depression as laughable. Take them to a small theater, where they can glory in the spectacle of the film's vision, but where their viewing won't be ruined by a crowd of people who won't recognize good film noir. Get them some popcorn (trust me, they'll be so engrossed they won't finish it), get them a soda, and let them be overwhelmed. Go some place bright and cheery afterward, to wash the grime and awfullness out of your soul. Because this film is so good at making you feel, you'll need that restorative.
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