Kathryn Bigelow has been directing films since 1978 and in the thirty-eight years that she’s been working, her work has been notable for several reasons.
Because she’s one of the very few women in Hollywood directing action films.
Because she’s one of the few women in Hollywood directing action films that are good and entertaining enough to make (mostly male) viewers express shock and awe at the fact that a woman is responsible for directing these films, as if such a reaction is anything resembling a compliment.
Because she directed Patrick Swayze (R.I.P.), Keanu Reeves, Lori Petty, John C. McGinley, Gary Busey, Gary Busey’s love of meatball subs (“Utah! Get me two!”), and Anthony Kiedis in Point Break, which not only inspired Universal Pictures to do their own version of Point Break with The Fast And The Furious, but also inspired a remake which was so forgettable and badly-made that I can barely finish this sentence in describing anything else about it.
Because she directed Zero Dark Thirty, which lost many of the categories it was nominated for at the Academy Awards, partly due to a smear campaign that led some to believe that Bigelow and the film were pro-torture, and also because it was more appealing to award a film that showed Hollywood being great and important and doing great and important things rather than a film that showed CIA operatives working for at least a decade to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist leader responsible for the worst terrorist attack in United States history.
And because she directed The Hurt Locker, which garnered attention not just because of its subject matter (soldiers in battle who consider war to not only be Hell, but addictive and exciting enough to stay there and reign rather than be in the safety and comfort of home and family) but because Bigelow became the first woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director and the film itself won for Best Picture, two accomplishments which were revolutionary but which also grabbed headlines because one of the directors and films in competition with Bigelow at the Oscars that year was James Cameron, director of The Terminator, Terminator 2, Titanic, and that year’s Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Avatar. And also Kathryn Bigelow’s ex-husband.
Shortly after the end of their marriage, Bigelow and Cameron worked together on Strange Days, a sci-fi/action film released in theaters in October of 1995, which wasn’t nearly as critically acclaimed as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, nor was it a box-office phenomenon like Titanic and Avatar.
Strange Days is set in Los Angeles during the last two days of 1999, when everyone is expecting both the best and worst to happen as the millennium approaches and also when the newest illegal addiction to take the country by storm is known as SQUID, miniaturized recordings and recording equipment which allow the user to experience both the memories and physical/emotional sensations during the incident being recorded. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop turned SQUID dealer, who has many friends in high and low places and is known as the man to talk to for anyone in need of some ‘playback.’ When he’s not out hustling or hanging out with his best friends, Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason (Angela Bassett), a limousine driver/trained bodyguard, and Bobby (Tom Sizemore), who is also an ex-cop but working as a private investigator, Lenny finds himself at home every night, pining for the One That Got Away: his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), a former sex worker now working as an up-and-coming rock musician who is now in the arms of her manager Philo Gant (played by everyone’s favorite raspy-voiced actor, Michael Wincott) and wants nothing to do with Lenny.
Lenny finds himself approached by Iris (Brigitte Bako), a sex worker and friend of Faith’s who tells him that she’s in possession of a SQUID recording that needs to be seen immediately and is placing her very life in danger. And before he knows it, he not only finds himself trying to protect Faith, who has no interest in him or his protection, but also trying to protect himself, especially after Iris ends up raped and murdered and Lenny is sent a SQUID recording by the very same person responsible for it. And then there are the two corrupt police officers (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) who can and will do whatever it takes to get their hands on the SQUID recording that Iris wanted Lenny to see, and both Lenny and Mace are left with no choice but to find out what it is that everyone is willing to kill for, and whether or not the truth is something worth revealing when it could possibly tear their lives as well as all of Los Angeles apart.
There are many things about Strange Days that are considered impressive and help to explain why its reputation has improved greatly over the years. For starters: the SQUID sequences. It would be incredibly difficult to understand why SQUID would be a worthwhile addiction for anyone in the film if we in the audience weren’t given convincing reasons why that is, and the film’s opening sequence, in which we see a SQUID recording of an armed robbery in progress from the first-person perspective of one of the robbers and all of it is seemingly done in one take, is done incredibly well enough for the viewer to decide right then and there if they’re in or if they’re out. As exciting as it is to see SQUID used in such a full-throttle manner, it’s equally disturbing to see it used later on by the man who not only rapes and murders Iris, but places SQUID equipment on her head so that she experiences everything that he does while he’s doing it. By the time it ends and we’re left looking into Iris’s eyes completely devoid of life, Lenny expresses the same disgust that we all would as both he and the audience are brought face-to-face with the dark side of this particular technology when placed in the wrong hands (which is of course familiar territory for Cameron, who co-wrote the screenplay).
And the performances are certainly nothing to scoff at either. Fiennes does an amazing job as Lenny, who is constantly dealing, selling, hustling, and doing whatever he can to keep himself afloat, despite the many beatings he takes in his attempts to do so (which really makes you wonder how he ever functioned as a trained member of the LAPD before losing his badge) and yet it’s clear that there may be hope for him and that he hasn’t completely abandoned every shred of integrity he once may have had, especially when he decides to stop focusing on himself and his own needs and on the greater good.
And Angela Bassett…(dreamy sighs)…
When I think of how Angela Bassett and many other non-White actresses are not nearly as famous as they should be, when I think of how they don’t have agents kicking down their doors with all of the job offers for leading roles that they could easily knock out of the park, it makes me want to borrow a flamethrower from Hank Scorpio and burn all of Hollywood down. Especially after seeing Bassett and her performance as Mace. She is highly capable of doing her job and kicking the asses of anyone who steps to her while also refusing to hold back as she attempts to knock some sense into Lenny and convince him to stop living in the past and to live in the present, to be the type of man who was once there for her and her son when they really needed it the most, and to actually be someone who is deserving of her love and her friendship. Much like Claire Temple, Mace is nobody’s sidekick and she reminds us of this with every move in her repertoire that she uses to keep herself and Lenny alive.
Juliette Lewis is terrific to watch as Faith, who is determined to leave every reminder of her past behind as she attempts to reach out and grab the brass ring every time she sets foot on stage and sings into her microphone, even if it means entrusting her career to someone like Philo Gant, who is basically Suge Knight in Axl Rose’s body. We see in flashbacks the love between her and Lenny and why he is still so enamored with her after all this time and how she is determined to keep looking forward and never look back, no matter how much it may cost her to do so.
Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner are both incredibly good in their roles as the LAPD officers who unleash Hell all over the city to cover their tracks in their pursuit of Lenny and Mace, and their characters do a very convincing job of being the terrifying representation of what many people feared then and still fear now of police officers at their absolute worst. To see the damage that they can inflict, that they’re willing to inflict, and not think of the dozens of names and recorded incidents that have protesters saying Black Lives Matter, is almost an impossibility.
If you’ve already seen Strange Days, then you’re probably already convinced of its greatness and have been nodding your head in agreement. And if you haven’t seen Strange Days, if you haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow once again make many other action-film directors look like amateurs in comparison, and if you would also like something else to watch on New Year’s Eve besides Ryan Seacrest/Anderson Cooper/Kathy Griffin talking over cacophonous crowds as the ball drops, you now have an opportunity presenting itself.