Black Road (2016)

Somehow, while it would be easy to file Black Road under the heading of “Film Noir”, its cool, sunny Oregon coastal setting feels more like Paul Newman’s two movies based on Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels – Harper and The Drowning Pool.  Which, yes, does seem a strange comparison for a movie set in a future where “cyborgs” are common.

Admittedly, “cyborg” is mildly deceptive here, as we are talking about a plug-in AI named Clyde which serves the hero as his research assistant, sensor array, lie detector and all-around helper.  However, Clyde is unhappy with many of the decisions Dylan has made lately and there is a growing rift between them.

The setting is the nation of “Jefferson”, a breakaway set of states which have set up their own Libertarian state.  It seems a mostly plausible notion, except for the curious decision to place it in California and Oregon, two states which have more regulations, restrictions and bureaucratic red tape per square mile than the rest of the country combined.

Much of the plot, involving a wife who claims she wants the P.I., Dylan, to help her negotiate a divorce settlement with her billionaire husband, Sterling (but may in fact want Dylan to kill him instead), could be from Ross MacDonald as well, with all its layers of uncertainty, lies, relationships, the past and family secrets.  Yet other elements – like having the hero a former soldier hoping to start over in a new place, and the his affair with his client – seem more like James M. Cain or Jim Thompson.

Perhaps the element that many viewers will find jarring are the references to black magic and supernatural powers connected to Sterling, who is a former cult leader as well as an inventor and industrialist.  But it is handled very well, and helps to emphasize, as the situation spirals out of control, just how desperately out of his depths Dylan has put himself.

I love a good noir crime thriller – particularly when it strays into science fictional territory – and this one has everything you could ask for and more.  It eschews the future noir look of Blade Runner, instead choosing to give us something more familiar -and only mildly reshaped by its high-tech future.  It isn’t what most of us think of as Cyberpunk, and that is one of Black Road’s greatest virtues.

My one (minor) complaint is that its ending could have used a little more clarity, but Black Road still marks its director, Gary Lundgren as someone to watch.

Hopefully he’ll return to science fiction again one of these days.

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