With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment is being published for the first time.
The Film: Strange Days
The Year: 1995
The Plot: Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) a disgraced police officer making a living hustling SQUID discs, a sort of virtual reality drug, is suddenly seemingly singled out by a murderer to watch his kills. Meanwhile, he also stumbles backwards into what might be a massive conspiracy involving at least two cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) and the death of a hip hop artist/civic leader Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), dragging Nero’s best friend Max Peltier (Tom Sizemore), partner/bodyguard/driver Lornette "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett), and his ex Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis) into the morass as well.
The Issues: What does it mean to be a man?- In retrospect, this probably comes up in every Bigelow movie up to and including WEIGHT OF WATER and BLUE STEEL and I just plain missed it. It happens. I’ve gotten better at these, let’s just say that.
Anyway, Lenny embodies this question in terms of gender norms—he is repeatedly put down for his lack of physical strength and reliance on being a “guy who talks” over a man who carries a gun or throws a punch. Additionally, what it means to be a man, as in a member of humanity, is held up for examination, most often through Mace’s criticism of Nero.
The commoditization of women- There are only two women in the entire film who get more than a blink of camera time or lines that are not presented as objects of sexual use or abuse. It does not feel coincidental, either, that those two women are arguably the ones with the most stereotypical masculine presentation, Mace and Philo Gant’s (Michael Wincott) brutally efficient enforcer Vita (Louise Lecavalier). While still clearly women, they expose the least skin and are ogled by the camera and other characters the least, are presented as competent and physically dangerous, often more than their male counterparts (Lenny for Mace, Nicky Katt’s Joey Corto). Otherwise women are dismissed, abused, demanded sexual favors of, threatened, name called, and killed.
Race relations- STRANGE DAY’s version of LA in 1999 is a city on the very edge of a race riot. While it was out of step with the 1999 we ended up getting it was not that much of a stretch in LA circa 92-93 when the movie was likely filming and feels scarily prescient now, especially the items involving two black men being pulled over for seemingly no violations.
The nature of memory- The SQUID discs are people’s experiences committed to, in essence, data. As such, they are perfect. There is no conflation with other events, no forget details. When users are watching others’ experiences, this makes the event as much theirs as the person who lived. For people like Nero who use their own experiences, however, it presents memory from ever setting in. Memories are hazy, imperfect, and often lose power with distance which enables humans to move on, to forge new memories, to have new experiences. If, however, you can re-experience your favorite events with 100% clarity, sensation, and memory, why would you ever bother to let them fade to imperfection? And what does that do to your drive to continue being present.
Addiction- This is another item that I think if I was to go back through all the movies I already watched I bet I’d find nearly all of them share this theme. Off the top of my head, we have HURT LOCKER (adrenaline), THE LOVELESS (sex), K-19 (control), ZERO DARK THIRTY (information), POINT BREAK (freedom), and BLUE STEEL (power).
The addiction here is Nero’s to his experiences and to Faith in specific and the more general addiction to the SQUID discs which are openly spoken about and trafficked as though they are a literal drug.
Finally, there is the killer who is addicted to the potent cocktail of sex, power, murder, and flaunting all of them.
Abuses of power- The most obvious example of this is Officers Steckler (D’Onofrio) and Engelman (Fichtner) who perpetrate a massive crime behind their badge and generally spend the rest of the movie trying to mop up in a manner that leads them to take and abuse more and more power.
We see it on a smaller scale with Gant’s abusing the trust of his clients like Jeriko One and his literal physical and psychological abuse of Faith, his apparent girlfriend, who dominates bodily, emotionally, and financially as he seems to be the reason she is a singer as opposed to the “hopefully someday” singer she was while with Nero.
Corruption- Corruption is all over this movie. Obviously, you see it in the cops noted above. However, no one seems to escape it. Nero has been corrupted by his wireware turning him from good cop to con man/hustler, Mace has been turned from a waitress (complete with 50’s style uniform) to an enforcer, Max is a hero cop who took a bullet in the line of duty forced to work for the rich to make ends meet, and Faith has lost herself, seemingly, to her pursuit of fame.
The double edged sword of change- The film smartly points out both the need for change and the inevitable ramifications of change. The murder of Jeriko One should not be covered up and to reveal it will probably lead to things improving. However between here and there lies possible riots and escalating conflict between police and citizens that could lead to more deaths.
On a smaller scale, we have Nero trying to move on (or rather not trying at all) to move on from Faith.
In STRANGE DAYS, as in life, change is often necessary and often very ugly and painful.
The militarization of the police- A show not tell kind of situation. However, when the only way to tell the difference between the police and the National Guard is the uniform, the message is clear.
The Opinion: As I discussed last week, filmmakers, like musicians, often have transition movies where they move from one style to another and for Bigelow that was HURT LOCKER.
Filmmakers often have movies where their style reaches an absolute apex. For instance, David Fincher’s first portion of his career reach’s its stylistic climax in PANIC ROOM, a movie that pushes all the Fincher tics from SEVEN, THE GAME, and FIGHT CLUB to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15.
STRANGE DAYS is that movie for Bigelow. The difference is PANIC ROOM is just kind of ok (although I’ve recently softened my opinion on it a bit) while STRANGE DAYS is so excellent.
All cards on the table, I love this movie. I loved it the second time I saw it (I had to abandon it the first time I saw it because the girl-on-girl POV scene was just too much for 14 year old me to watch in the same room as my parents). I love it still. It also has one of, in my opinion, the best cut trailers of all time.
But that’s my kneejerk, gut reaction. Let’s interrogate it a bit, shall we?
To start with, as hinted at above, the aesthetics of the film are fully realized and just…awesome. Bigelow’s near future LA (the movie takes place in 1999, it was released in 1994) is horrifying; a city teetering on the edge of the abyss. Sickly neon lights bleed into frame from unknown sources in nearly every frame. Garish yellows, pinks, reds, and purples flash and fade. Bright spotlights shine from buildings, helicopters, and flashlights, sometimes going directly into the camera lens, screwing with our vision as much as it does the characters. And, of course, the pulsing reds and blues of the police cruisers appear and disappear frighteningly quick.
Bigelow is also just emptying her considerable bag of tricks out on the screen. At one point, Nero is driving at normal speed and glances out his window to see two women attack a Santa Claus (and this isn’t even Philadelphia—hey-o!) in about speed even as he continues to move naturally. “Shredding” the term for the start and end of the SQUID discs is a wholly new effect created by her and feels like exactly how that technology would work.
Acting-wise, everyone is on their game. Fiennes is flop sweat personified, constantly jittering and spinning his flaws and shortcomings in search of victories. The camera largely matches his energy, moving constantly, looking for all the angles just like our protagonist.
However, he finds the humanity of Nero as well. The good cop, the good friend, the kind man, are also still in him, they’ve just been pushed down by his addiction to the SQUID and his own hustle. He isn’t just high on his own supply, he’s high on his skills in getting others high.
Angela Bassett as Mace is just perfect. Watching STRANGE DAYS made me incredibly frustrated she is not just a huge star. She is so magnetic, so charismatic. The way she uses her face, her eyes, to show her anger, fear, love, and frustration, often all at once, needs to be seen. And the physicality of her performance is dead-on as well. Every fight she gets in, every punch she throws, feels authentic. I have no problem imagining Bassett being just this dangerous without the benefit of cameras or stunt doubles.
At the time, a lot of people thought Juliette Lewis was miscast as Faith, but on this watch I had to disagree. Her transition from the Faith of memories—sweet, flirting, sexy and sexual but under her own control—to the Faith of the present—angry, confused, under an abusive man’s thumb, even her sexuality having grown dark and brutal (the sex she is having isn’t wrong, but it is risky and much different than the kind of sex she is depicting as enjoying in the SQUID vids)—is believable. The sad look she gives Nero as he walks away from her late in the film is heartbreaking and yet so simple.
Sizemore is probably as close to the performances you have seen from him before, but he does some interesting subtle things with the way he holds his body and movies during most of movie and during its last several moments when revelations change our perspective on the movie we thought we were seeing.
D’Onofrio and Fichtner have relatively limited screen time but both make an impression. Fichtner is surprisingly quiet and restrained in his role, a choice that makes his end all the more shocking and makes me wonder if he started there and worked backwards to form the character.
D’Onofrio as the louder, more aggressive of the two becomes almost a horror movie or the Terminator at points. There is a moment where he is dragging someone behind him and moving in these long but hesitating strides that makes him as scary as any slasher stalking his prey. Moments before that, however, he also has a moment of seemingly genuine sadness where he tries to save Fichtner from his choices.
STRANGE DAYS is also an intricately well-constructed film. The movie introduces the facts you need to solve the mysteries of the story in wonderfully quiet ways. It plays fair but never signposts the information. However, as the pieces fall into place, you remember how that character’s injury was revealed here and this character’s history was all on the table before that flashback.
To call attention to one particular example, at the start of the movie Lenny is dressed in loud colors and obviously synthetic fabrics—pleather, shirts way too shiny to be cotton, and so on—and by the end of the film, when he has chosen the be real, honest, and selfless over the slickster hustler life, he is dressed in a tailored suited, a conservative tie, and a white cotton button down. His clothes reflect his journey from artifice to authentic.
Finally, as noted above, the film feels creepily prescient now. The Clinton economic book largely sublimated a lot of the raw race feelings that the country was struggling with after Rodney King, the LA riots, and the O.J. Simpson trail effectively ensuring STRANGE DAYS was released into a different world that the one it was filmed during and forecasting a future that in no way resembled the 1999 we encountered. However, the movie evokes the feel of the streets of New York and DC post 9/11, the Black Lives Matter movement and circumstances that gave birth to it, the sense of race relations being close to a boil, and the criminalization of populations over helping them.
The SQUID tech also predicts, if you will, the rise of social media and image cultivation (none of the videos are of someone’s run of the mill good or bad day and if they are, Lenny rejects them outright as “test patterns”), the popularization of so-called POV pornographic videos, and the ubiquity of first person shooters.
While I do adore it, STRANGE DAYS is not a perfect movie. The depiction of women is intense and stomach churning. Like her approach to DETROIT, Bigelow puts it right in the viewer’s face and keeps it there throughout. And, like DETROIT, one has to ask if it is offering confrontational commentary or offering it for some kind of primal stimulation.
The climax is a thing of beauty, a sign that the film has so effectively played our emotions that somehow a riot and the killing of two police officers feels like a victory. However, the postlude feels too easy. I want good things for the characters but the film goes too far. It’s almost a fairy tale ending.
The Conclusion: My absolute favorite of Bigelow’s films. It’s ending is a touch too pat for my taste but otherwise it is a tour de force. It is also the Bigelow-est film that ever Bigelow-ed.
Note: A lot of the images in this piece fail to capture how vibrant the look of the movie is. There is no US Blu-Ray version of the film available and, as result, getting screenshots that properly reflect the film's look is difficult.