Purists will declare the only true film noirs are those 'B' movie archetypes made just after World War II until sometime in the late '50s. Later films with the same dark, moody conventions like Chinatown or Body Heat have been collectively dubbed neo-noir. A sort of colorized sub-genre of those original black-and-white mood pieces, neo-noirs in the '90s have sometimes worked (Red Rock West), sometimes failed (The Underneath). Palmetto, the latest, derivative entry in this category, offers nothing new or even exciting to the genre.
By nature, noirs are low-key. The strength of these films relies on an airtight story that spins a highly suggestible main character into a seductive web of immorality. In Palmetto, Woody Harrelson plays Harry Barber, a recently released prisoner who refuses to go back to Palmetto, Florida, on the basis that he was wrongly jailed and he blames the town. On his way to Somewhere Else, his old girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon) need do nothing more than lick his shoulder a few times to convince him otherwise. We are not dealing with a strong, resolute hero here.
While looking for part-time work, Harry meets Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), who offers him $50,000 to fake the kidnapping of her hot little stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny). Right away, Harry is established as a good-guy schnook, a clumsy but incorruptible beat reporter. All Rhea has to do is show a little skin and Barber caves in like an undercooked souffl. Meanwhile, he shies away from the arguably more alluring Nina, a move that completely negates Barber's motives from the start. Also, the money/risk equation presented to him seems like the biggest sucker bet in the history of cinematic bad deals.
Soon, Odette turns up dead in Harry's rented bungalow and he is asked by the commissioner's office to be the press liaison for the case. As the plot unfolds, the audience (but not Harry, unfortunately) can clearly see that this yarn has more holes in it than a golf course. Even Harrelson, who usually excels at playing dumb guys, cannot save the film from seeming like it made a master list of noir conventions and started checking things off. Femme fatale. Check. Rain-swept nights. Check. Dime-store dialogue ('I was hoping the rain was going to wash away the whole dirty business...'). Check. And there's nothing more wretched than a thriller that purposely withholds vital information until the 'surprise' ending.
Palmetto does offer a steamy look and feel: Both Gershon and Shue are quite seductive and director Volker Schlöndorff exhibits a solid feel for the sweaty Florida surroundings. But the film would have fared better with Gershon in the femme fatale role and Shue as the wide-eyed, jilted woman. With lackluster film noirs like Palmetto, it's no wonder the film purists hold on so tightly to the originals.