In most crime fiction, the schemes that drive the narratives are pretenses for audiences to hang out with colorful antiheroes who lead lives that embody the portions of our fantasies that revolve around sex and power, or, more broadly, independence from the constrictions of society. This is a genre, then, that lives and dies on its characters and sense of time and place, rather than the shape or efficiency of the plot.
The setting of Hap and Leonard, a moody noir miniseries based on a run of novels by Joe R. Landsdale, is a patch of East Texan swampland in the late 1980s. George Bush is about to inherit the presidency from Ronald Reagan, and the corporatization of America is reaching an apex of social control that’s modest only when compared to today’s business culture. A fog of war hangs over this era, encompassing the fallout of morale emanating from a recognition of the futility and corruption of the Vietnam War, informed by a counterculture that knows it bitterly failed. In fact, many aspiring revolutionaries have joined The Man, trying to forget how far they’ve slid away from their ideals of forging a country that actually resembles a democracy.
Showrunners Nick Damici and Jim Mickle (who directed most of the episodes) sketch in this context with blunt, broad, macabre panache. A horribly scarred former revolutionary, Paco (Neil Sandilands), shoots a mannequin outfitted with a Reagan mask in the head with a crossbow. Two male lovers argue over Reagan’s merits as an actor and a president. (They appear to have missed the one Reagan film that might have appealed to them: Don Siegel’s The Killers.) A cabal of hippies turned criminals, who think of themselves as aspiring progressive capitalists, smoke and drink into the night; the haze of their partying communicates a vast sense of boredom and rootlessness, as gators crawl around in a nearby swamp that hides all sorts of crime-genre secrets. All while two killers, the smirking Soldier (Jimmi Simpson) and the punk Amazonian Angel (Polly McIntosh), whose flamboyant fashion sense recalls that of Pris from Blade Runner, murder their way toward the debauched idealists. It’s all so overripe, and irresistible for junkies of this genre.
This absurdly, effectively pregnant atmosphere will be familiar to those who’ve seen Mickle’s films, particularly Cold in July, which also revels in noir-esque cinematography, a synth-ish score, and lurid dialogue that’s chewed up by actors with a sense of what might be called aspiring iconoclasm. With Cold in July and Hap and Leonard, Mickle is doing for the crime genre what Ti West, Adam Wingard, and others are for the horror film: resurrecting the tendrils of its aesthetic that are associated with the 1980s, both for the sake of fetish and for re-establishing a past parallel to the civic uncertainties (war hangover, loss of jobs, loss of rights) that dog us in the present.
It certainly isn’t incidental that the titular protagonists are both revealed to be damaged by the Vietnam War, physicalizing the injustices that the lapsed counterculture group, headed by the clearly untrustworthy Howard (Bill Sage), claims to want to correct. When we first meet Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams), they’re picking roses in a field under the hot sun, only to be told soon after that their jobs are terminated, as a group of far-cheaper Mexican workers are on the way. It’s established that Hap and Leonard are best friends with a dysfunctional dependency on one another. Leonard is an African-American who served in Vietnam, left angry in its wake, often alone and penniless, occasionally trying to help his even worse-off uncle, who resents him for his homosexuality. Hap is a Caucasian who avoided the war by protesting it, serving time in Leavenworth for his efforts, getting out to discover that he lost his wife, Trudy (Christina Hendricks), who put him up to the protest to begin with.
Damici and Mickle are overly pleased with themselves for mounting a series that pivots on an interracial buddy friendship, which is understood to have sexual undertones, most obviously when Leonard greases up his nearly naked body to go river-diving for stolen money. Call it almost condescendingly equal-opportunity shtick: Unaware genre mavens get their macho hijinks, while more conscientious progressives can congratulate the artists, and themselves, for recognizing subtexts that are latent in the buddy-action genre, even if those subtexts aren’t so latent these days.
But the actors are charismatic enough to compensate for the self-consciousness. Here, Purefoy is a dead ringer for Thomas Jane, and he informs Hap with a Jane-ian element of wounded, comedic stoicism. Williams, as a colleague noted, is essentially reprising his performance in The Wire, playing Leonard as a shit-kicking queer avenger who represents the cheeky annihilation of several different stereotypes at once. But such annihilation shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not yet.