RogerBW's Blog

Strange Days 21 May 2022

1995 SF noir, dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett; IMDb / AllMovie. Paranoia's just reality on a finer scale.

It's a film that did famously badly at the box office: $8M gross against a budget of $42M. But it's a film that I saw the next year on home media, and it's a film I love while accepting that it has flaws.

And a large part of why I love it is Angela Bassett as the working-poor limousine driver Mace, one of the few grown-ups among the characters here; Bassett has often ended up in the role of the hard-done-by wife or girlfriend in Serious Drama about Men, but she has convincing physical chops too.

While this is no Big Trouble in Little China she's in many ways a more powerful character than Ralph Fiennes' Lenny, an ex-cop turned black-market experience dealer. Yes, this is an SF film, but it's an SF film of the "what if this one small thing" variety: the technology exists to record sensory experiences, and play them back, using portable hardware. Much more, it's a noir film, sometimes descending into stereotype (all right, Faith (Juliette Lewis) isn't using her wiles to get the big strong man to work for her, she'd rather he stay out of her life, but in many other respects she's something of a standard femme fatale), but adhering to the basic principles that make a noir plot work.

Which means Fiennes has a tough job: Lenny is skeevy as all get out, he's a drug dealer in all but name, he's a cheat and a user of people, but he's also someone whom we're supposed to care about at least a bit, someone we'd like to see succeed. (There's a point at which he's watching Faith when my reading of Fiennes' performance was clearly that this is the first genuine emotion he's felt all film.) He even grows up a bit by the end.

I think that Kathryn Bigelow may fall into the pattern one sees with some women who are among the first to break into largely-male environments, who get accepted by performing more stereotypically male than the men: this is a very male-focussed and male-gazey film, and some of the sexual violence left critics uncomfortable – while at the same time it's not filmed, as can often happen, to look sexy. One's meant to feel uncomfortable while it's playing out – perhaps a better feeling to have in a cinema than at home with a pause button.

All right, this was made in the wake of the Rodney King riots, and it looks hopelessly optimistic in the idea that if you just brought the murderous cops to the attention of the right people in the power structure the problem would go away. Yeah. Right. But Max (Tom Sizemore) makes a decent argument, that releasing the evidence will cause huge problems and more deaths in the inevitable rioting…

I'll grant the film doesn't need to be two and a half hours long. But it has two superb action sequences (the police attack on Lenny and Mace in her car, and the fight in the hotel room), that manage to keep it clear what's going on and show the brutality of the violence while avoiding glamorising it. It has Mace saying "memories are meant to fade", about both Lenny's experience-dealing business and his pining after Faith, while at the same time she's pining over the good Lenny she once knew and can still just about see inside the person he's become.

Not a film for everyone; very few are. But it's a film that's stayed with me, and that I find stands up well to re-watching.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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