The Rise of Texas Noir

NoCountryForOldMen_2007Noir film and novels are a genre of crime fiction that takes a cynical look at the world we live in. The settings are dark and gritty, the characters are morally ambiguous, and nothing is to be trusted. Many early examples of noir fiction take place in cities where life is fast-paced and criminals hide amongst the masses. Noir fiction set in cities like Los Angeles explores the dark interior of the city beneath its glitzy exterior.

But when you apply noir sensibilities to smaller towns and take the noir genre into country locales—specifically Texas—noir becomes an entirely different kind of beast. Texas Noir is set in rural towns where everyone knows everybody else—and yet everyone is hiding dark secrets. In these small-town cities, all the cops are crooked, and the danger isn’t some stranger you might run into in a crowd. The danger is someone you know. And someone who knows you.

Texas Noir in many ways is an offset of the Southern Gothic genre. In the Southern Gothic tradition, Texas Noir fiction features characters with questionable morals and impulses, settings that are dark, dirty, and decaying, grotesque imagery, and a general sense of unease. Texas Noir’s influences are a perfect mix of these Southern gothic elements and the gritty, intense crime stories of noir fiction. There have been many instances of Texas Noir stories in 20th century and 21st-century films and novels. Here are some of the most prominent examples of Texas Noir fiction.

Lonesome Dove is a 1985 novel by Larry McMurtry about a group of retired Texas rangers. The story follows the characters’ dangerous adventures as they drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. The story is set after the glory days of the Old West, and these aging cowboys are coming to terms with aging and death. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was later adapted into a TV miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.

Blood Simple is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first foray into Texas Noir film. The story is about a Texas bartender who gets tied up in a murder plot after his boss finds out he’s having an affair with his wife. The film is noted for its dark, almost horror film-like grotesque imagery and its neo-noir crime story.

No Country for Old Men is another iconic work of Texas Noir from the Coen brothers. The Cormac McCarthy novel came out in 2005 and was adapted as a film two years later in 2007. The Texas Noir film, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin, won four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes. The story features one of the most intriguing villains in noir film history: Anton Chigurh (Bardem), a hitman who is tasked with recovering money that has been lost in the desert. Chigurh has his own set of mysterious morals when it comes to his killings, often leaving the fate of his victims up to the toss of a coin. No Country for Old Men is a story of violence, crime, and questionable choices that reveals the grittiest side of Texas.

Cold in July is a 2014 Texas Noir film by director Jim Mickle. The film is based on the 1989 crime novel written by Joe R. Lansdale. This story looks at what happens after Richard Dane accidentally shoots an intruder in his home. The man Richard kills is later identified as Freddy Russell, a wanted felon. Richard can’t let go of what he did, and neither can Freddy’s father, who, hellbent on revenge, is hunting down the man who killed his son.

Texas Noir hasn’t completely taken over the noir genre. But as a sub-genre of noir, Texas Noir is gaining in popularity for its dark wit and multilayered crime narratives. Can we say the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century marked the rise of Texas Noir? It certainly seems that way, but we will have to see what noir trends we see in films and novels in the coming years.