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The Messy, Awkward Violence in the Films of Shane Black

Written by on August 12, 2016 

The Nice Guys 4

In a glut of bombastic violence and overly-stuffed fare this summer, Shane Black’s May release The Nice Guys felt like a breath of fresh air before it was even made apparent how far into the depths of excessive, mindless violence and plotting we’d be plunged into thereafter. Still, this does not give the ingeniously funny action comedy enough credit. Even when it opened at the start of the summer, it already felt like a soothing wave of simple, pleasurable relief washing over a theater usually blaring retina-searing CGI into our eyes on a daily basis, regardless of the time of year. The Nice Guys’ noir stylings coupled with a modern lens and quick wit for genre subversions made for an honest-to-goodness fun experience at the movies, where a fan of cinema could actually sink their teeth into its giddy homages, sharp plotting, and occasionally stunning violence. In retrospect, this film was not celebrated or cherished nearly enough for its ability to stand defiantly on its own.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one to feel this way. Nerdwriter has now released a video essay on the “messy, awkward violence” of writer-director Shane Black’s now-signature style of storytelling, infusing noir sensibilities to create violence on screen that matters and is respected in ways so many others squander it. While the essay covers an array of Shane’s work, it lovingly singles out The Nice Guys to explore its use of violence as a plot element and as “an exhibition of character” to demonstrate just how integral that violence can be far beyond the phrase, “wow!”

The central focus is a scene early on in The Nice Guys where Ryan Gosling’s Holland March attempts to break into a bar. Instead of spoiling the scenario that instead unfolds — which had my mouth agape in the theater — we’ll just leave it at “attempts.” While this moment plays for laughs as a very clever subversion of a trope seen in countless films — and coupled within this, a reversal of narrative momentum when a viewer would least expect it — the small beat actually plays to a larger, more poignant idea within the film. This moment, and its result on March’s physical appearance, is a suggestion and symbolic representation of the deeper sadness that permeates within his character throughout The Nice Guys. This small bit of violence works on a comedic level — it is in fact gut-bustingly funny — but its use beyond that into thematic and narrative levels demonstrates, in one quick instance, Black’s grasp on storytelling and his respect for violence.

In his films, violence may be funny, but it is never — or rarely — disrespected. This creates, Nerdwriter points out, violence that is in many ways quite devastating. Its impact is felt — even if it makes us laugh — because it bears meaning and gives weight to the story. In The Nice Guys, the action scenes do not feel like a break from the narrative because things — character moments, plot points, symbolic resonance — are coming out as this violence unfolds. Where so many action films give us A-to-B-plotting so that we can get to the part where two flying enemies slam into buildings, crushing cities in their wake, The Nice Guys continues its narrative propulsion while delivering real, often funny violence that means all the more because of that. What’s more, this momentum is a result of the violence, the violence is integral to those beats — they are entangled within one another so that there is a purpose for the gunshots and the deaths.

This type of violence — violence where character is revealed and explored, where plot is unfolded and layered — this “awkward violence,” is, as Nerdwriter puts it, “violence respected.” See the full essay below, along with our discussion of The Nice Guys.

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