The Violent Nuances of Noir





“When left to its own devices, does humanity find equilibrium, or does it disintegrate into aggression and subjects?” (Ebiri 2017)


Film noir has portrayed the human experience with societal authority structures with artful, expressionist cinematography since its emergence in the mid-20th century, typically in the form of stories detailing criminal clashes with the police. Classic Hollywood noir film of the 1940s and 50s has been characterised by Graeme Ross (2016) as containing “alienated antiheroes, rain slicked streets, dark shadows and seductive femme fatales.” Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) was, according to Tim Dirks (n.d.), the last noir film of this era. In Scandinavia, however, features of the black and white relic of classic-era American noir are being taken out of situ and contextualised in a dynamic and fluid neo-noir, known as Nordic noir. Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) has contributed to this development, taking the typical noir themes of delinquency and depravity but leaving out an element that has traditionally classified a film as noir: a police presence. In this exclusion, Östlund has unearthed the underlying theme of societal violence in noir, and concurrently raised questions about the true nature of power interactions between individuals.


Twenty minutes is all it takes for Touch of Evil to convey its tone and themes: a car bomb explodes on the US-Mexican border, acid is thrown at a Mexican police officer (Mike Vargas), and racial tension is rife (Mexican gang members threaten Vargas’ American wife, Susan, and an American policeman named Hank Quinlan complains about poor police work in Mexico). The mystery of the car bombing is investigated by the ‘good-cop’ Vargas throughout the film, and eventually he finds out that Quinlan himself is responsible, who was seeking vengeance for his murdered wife. This prompts Vargas to ask, arguably of the viewer: “who’s the boss, the cop or the law?”  In other words, how can the people trust the police if they don’t adhere to the law that they are supposed to be enforcing? And if the police, like Quinlan, are harming those they are tasked to protect, then who should the people turn to?


Touch of Evil is a product of Orson Welles’ libertarianism, a political position that places human liberty on the highest pedestal (Callow 2006). For Welles, the answer to Ebiri’s question is the former option; when left to its own devices, humanity finds equilibrium, escaping the corruption and violence endemic to judicial and legal systems. To those familiar with Welles’ politics, it would seem appropriate that he chose Mexico as the setting for the film. Touch of Evil (1959) may be a fictional, but it doesn’t stray too far from the truth of the permeant political and police violence in Mexico. Organised crime is known to have a grip on federal law enforcement, facilitated by corrupt politicians. When these politicians don’t comply, gangs take back power through physical violence; on average, a politician is murdered in Mexico every four or five days (McDonnel, 2018). Luis Rubio (2017) goes so far as to argue that Mexico is a country glued together by corruption, shown no better than the arrest of Alejandro Gutiérrez of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in December last year on embezzlement charges. This setting underlines the message of the movie; in real life, as in the film, the police perpetrate unjust violence.  


Violence in Touch of Evil, however, is not limited to murder or assault. Susan is threatened by the Mexican gangsters on several occasions, for example, and in one scene she is kidnapped by the gang (with the help of Quinlan) which then attempts to make it appear as though she had been raped. These examples show an important distinction between direct violence and the threat of it. Violence here is an influence, not necessarily an action.


There may not be violence in the sense that anyone is hit or hurt, but there is nevertheless the threat of physical violence and indirect threat of mental violence that may even be characterised as some type of psychological violence since it constrains human action (Galtung 1969, p.170).


Based on Galtung’s theory, Susan and Mike are confronted with psychological violence, which is just as threatening, and as controlling, as physical violence. However, for psychological violence to be effective, it is mandatory that physical violence be used as well, as intimidation based upon threats accompanied by inaction will invariably fade. This is shown successfully in the scene following the kidnapping, in which Susan lies almost unconscious in the hotel room where her rape has been staged, and Quinlan murders a leading gangster beside her. Susan awakens to this crime scene and to the dual realisation that not only is she being clearly threatened, but that the threats are not empty. It is scenes like these in which Touch of Evil constantly enacts violence, following the lead of the first twenty minutes of the film. This progression of violence is not mandatory, however – it can work in reverse, as is the case in The Square.


Violence in The Square is portrayed as more complex, nuanced, and penetrative than its ancestor Touch of Evil, as viewers are bombarded with one aggressive encounter after the other. The Square details the consequences for the main character (both protagonist and antagonist) Christian, after he is robbed outside the art museum he curates. He is convinced by his assistant (Michael) to anonymously distribute threatening letters to the residents of a low-income apartment complex, where they have traced the phone’s location. A young boy tracks down Christian after the delivery of these letters days later, demanding an apology as he was mistakenly punished by his parents over the robbery, which Christian refuses to deliver until the film’s conclusion. This personal plot is paralleled by public controversy; in order to promote “The Square”, the titular new exhibit at the art museum, Christian mistakenly authorises a viral marketing video in which a young homeless girl is blown up on the street. The film’s main plotlines are punctuated by arguments between Christian and a woman he has slept with, a chef yelling at guests who refuse to listen to him, and Christian’s daughters fighting.


This list far from encompasses every act of aggression or violence in The Square. Trying to keep track is a sensory overload, and it appears that the universe of The Square functions against the film’s main motif: “The Square [the fictional exhibit] is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” While violence in the film is pervasive, no violent act, considered individually, is far removed from reality. Almost every instance of violence in the film is an extension of normal behaviour. Therefore, while Touch of Evil sees violence in our institutions, The Square sees violence in us. Does this understanding justify and explain interpersonal violence? Is it simply human nature?


Galtung (1969, p.180) views personal violence as unnecessary, and symptomatic of a lack of “structural violence” (violence imposed upon individuals by institutions): “It is not at all difficult to imagine a structure so purely structural in its violence that all means of personal violence have been abolished, so that when the structure is threatened there is no second trench defence mobilizing latent personal violence.” Galtung (1969, p.171) synonymises structural violence with social injustice; in the film, this structural violence is seen in Christian’s encounters with several homeless Swedes. The sharp contrast between their lives and Christian’s wealth, and the opulence of the art world in which he operates, suggests a complicity in their suffering, which also implicates the audience.


Galtung (1969, p. 180-181) may dislike the assumption “that human beings somehow need violence to be kept in line; if not of the personal type, then of the structural variety,” but his discussion of this idea is exactly how characters function in The Square:


The argument would be that if there no personal violence or threat of personal violence then a very strong hierarchical order is needed to maintain order and control conflict; and if there is no structural violence or threat of structural violence, then personal violence will easily serve as a substitute…this would be a highly pessimistic view of the human condition (Galtung 1969, pp. 180-181).


There is no police presence in the film, and citizens must seemingly take it upon themselves to self-protect and correct antisocial behaviour. In a thirteen-minute uncut sequence, a performance artist (Oleg), pretending to be a non-human primate, stalks a dining room as an act of performance art, which is introduced by this prologue:


As you all know, the hunting instinct is triggered by weakness. If you show fear, the animal will sense it. If you try to escape, the animal will hunt you down. But if you remain perfectly still, without moving a muscle, the animal might not notice you, and you can hide in the herd safe in the knowledge that someone else will be the prey


Tension builds as Oleg’s performance turns from comical to dangerous. He intimidates and drives men out of the room, harasses a woman for minutes, and begins to physically assault her until the crowd steps in when she is tackled to the ground. The prologue characterises Oleg as a deviant, the sore thumb of society who, due to his primitive tormenting of the crowd, should be severed from the body – Oleg’s actions venture beyond the line of what is acceptable to do as a member of “civilised” humanity. Importantly, so long as Oleg is able to act freely in the dining hall, individuals are targets, and thus they must hide within the group. The ultimate lesson of the scene comes when a whole group of men in the room restrain Oleg and begin to beat him in the defence of the victimised woman and as a reprisal. Evidently, people will place their own safety before that of others until they realise that their survival depends on group protection.


In terms of Ebiri’s question, therefore, society eventually settles into a kind of equilibrium when left to its own devices, but it is not an instant response – aggression and physical domination precede the formation of social structures that keep us in check. Galtung (1969) summarises this phenomenon: “people, when left to themselves in isolation…will tend to form systems where rank, or differential evaluation of relatively stable interaction patterns referred to as status, will emerge.” The audience doesn’t get to see the social structure of the dining room fully stabilise, as the scene cuts when the group of men begin beating Oleg. This is a deliberate editing choice, a part of Östlund’s moral vision for The Square: “we’re found to confront our own values, and our own visions of ourselves” (Ebiri 2017).


The threat of violence and its undertones are widespread in The Square, but beyond brief instances its physical practice is not explicitly shown. Östlund observes the perversity of societal violence, but he doesn’t want to encourage it:


The industry is perverted when it comes to violence…it’s an easy way to create a dramatic event. But my view is that human beings are copycats – we imitate what we see. If you’re reproducing pictures of men running around with guns, people will imitate that. Look at any high-school shooting. The images the killers take of themselves in the mirror (Brooks 2018).


Östlund’s view upholds the understanding of violence argued by this article: it is physical and psychological, and obvious as well as subconscious. The Square is a Nordic noir in its dark and cynical perception of contemporary society, alongside its clear social and political agenda (Hill & Turnball 2017, p. 6). Östlund’s noir manages to be violent without the gore, which seems to be the insidious way society functions.


Fiction exists as an alternative to non-fiction, and cannot be accepted as a completely accurate representation of reality. What fiction often is, however, especially in the case of noir films, is an understanding of, and reaction to, reality. Noir’s treatment of violence once relied on battles between the police and criminals, or violence performed by the identifiably malicious, as was the case in Touch of Evil. These films have evolved in the 21st century to encompass the wider issue of societal violence. Societal violence is exerted not only by authority figures and the institutions they represent; it is reproduced by individuals in their interactions with one another, particularly when there is a perceived threat to personal or group safety. This actuality of human existence is depicted with frightening accuracy in The Square. Neo-noir films suggest that in the founding of social groups, aggressors and subjects are initially present, but that people will eventually fall into a hierarchical equilibrium, with violence (both physical and psychological) remaining to maintain it.




1. Brooks, X 2018, “Ruben Östlund: ‘all my films are about people trying to avoid losing face’”, The Guardian, 11 March, accessed 6 April 2018, <>.

2.  Callow, S 2006, ‘This greater drama’, The Guardian, 20 May, accessed 10 April 2018, <>.

3. Dirks, T n.d., Touch of Evil (1958), AMC Filmsite, accessed 10 April 2018,  <>.

4.  Ebiri, B 2017, ‘You’ll probably argue more about “The Square” than any other 2017 movie’, The Village Voice, 23 October, accessed 6 April 2018,  <>.

5.  Galtung, J 1969 ‘Violence, peace, and peace research, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no.3, pp. 167-191.

6.  Hill, A & Turnball, S 2017, ‘Nordic noir’, Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Criminology, 1 ed., pp. 1-21.

7.  McDonnel, P 2018, ‘Widespread killings of candidates cast shadow over Mexican elections’, Los Angeles Times, 10 April, accessed 10 April 2018, <>.

8.  Ross, G 2016, ‘Art of darkness: the top 20 film noirs’, The Guardian, 10 October, accessed 6 April 2018,  <>.

9.  Rubio, L 2017, ‘Corruption is Mexico’s original sin’, Foreign Policy, 26 December, accessed 14 April 2018,  <>.