NARC begins intensely with a narc’s-eye view of a bust gone bad. Everything happens too quickly and there is no time to focus on any one event, from the killing of a bystander to the killing of the perp as he attempts to take a toddler hostage, to the shooting of the toddler’s pregnant mother. The narc is Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) and as he tries to stop the pregnant woman from bleeding to death, he stops to scream at a reality that could allow this and it is as raw a cry as a human has ever made. The subsequent shot, of Tellis at home cradling his own baby is as profound as that scream and the perfect pairing of images to illustrate the two mutually exclusive worlds that Tellis in particular and narcs in general inhabit.
Eighteen months later, and on suspension because of the incident, Tellis is offered a break that seems too good to be true. Help the police track down a cop killer, make the bust stick, and he can write his own ticket, one that includes a promotion and choice of assignments. But like all things that seem too good to be true, he starts to suspect there’s more going on here than a simple investigation, and that his real real job is to keep an eye on the dead cop’s partner, Henry Oak, played with a brittle laugh and fly-away intensity by Ray Liotta. As the plot thickens, and police procedure becomes a dim memory, there are plot twists that always play fair, but never disappoint. And as the recurring motif, the cop’s murder is played out many times, but each time just a little differently as new facts turn up, and each replaying is as convincing as the last.
This is not new territory. But in the able hands of writer/director Joe Carnahan, we are gifted with a script that is as smart as it is deft. With a nod to noirs that brings the genre squarely into the new millennium, Carnahan uses a spare and stylish method to tell his story. In a world where a cop is as likely to take a bullet from the guy watching his back as from the perp he’s tracking, he creates a pervasive air of wary alliances where sudden death and absurdity co-exist, where a snitch can take a hit of the hard stuff while nursing the effects of the itching powder with which his girlfriend has assaulted his manhood.
Words are eschewed when a picture or a gesture can suffice and do so perhaps better than a string of nouns and verbs. When Tellis goes through the dead cop’s effects, there is a moment when the camera fixes on a present to the dead man from his daughter, still wrapped and with a card attached. The richness of the life taken, the hole that the death has made, and then the almost undetectable flash of self-recognition in that scenario a moment later when the camera catches Tellis reacting to a picture of the cop and that daughter. There but for the grace of dumb luck goes he, reduced to a box of evidence in police storage.
As a whole, Carnahan does neat work with visuals, using the camera to comment on the action, be it hand-held chaos or an overhead shot that lets us eavesdrop on a conversation that can only mean trouble. He uses lighting, too, to send a message as he overexposes the film slightly when showing us police work, bleached to dirty grays and blues that contrasts in an almost comforting way with the slightly golden tones he uses to show us Tellis home life, tones that bleach ever so slightly as work takes its toll on him and that life.
The core of the film is, of course, the relationship between Tellis and Oak and as played by Patric and Liotta, it is a fascinating pas de deux as both tacitly acknowledge the mutual suspicion and odd dependence their situation engenders. Patric’s Tellis matches Liotta in intensity, but to Liotta’s firebrand, he has the eerie quietness of a man who’s coped with the undercover life by pushing emotions too deep for too long. That thousand-mile look in his eyes is him looking within and seeing a world of hurt. It’s a toss-up who finds them more menacing, the perps they wail on or each other.
Don’t expect NARC to deliver any heroes or, for that many, any villains. Moral absolutes belong in philosophy books, not in this universe.