Expect controversy to erupt when director Kathryn Bigelow’s undeniably thrilling and troubling Strange Days opens after its New York Film Festival premiere. Although Bigelow is a major filmmaker to anyone who has looked closely at Near Dark, Blue Steel or The Loveless, she is diminished in press clips as that woman who makes action movies. Yeah, and Hitchcock was that old fat guy who liked to scare people.
Strange Days, with a script by Jay Cocks and producer James Cameron — Bigelow’s former husband — is her magnum opus. It’s a visionary triumph set on the eve of the millennium in a Los Angeles of racist cops, rap-star statesmen, armored cars and widespread anarchy. Lenny Nero, the ex-cop played with seductive grubbiness and an incongruously elegant street accent by British powerhouse Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Broadway’s Hamlet), is a black marketeer. This “Santa Claus of the subconscious” sells clips that allow anyone with a headpiece to plug in and play back someone else’s jolting experience. Want to steal, fuck or fight? It’s yours for a price.
The film begins with an electrifying point-of-view clip of a robbery, superbly shot by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, followed by clips of rape, mutilation and murder that will leave you cringing. The walkouts at the screening I attended indicate that some viewers think Bigelow is getting off on what her film is criticizing. Hardly. These clips are shot in glaring light without a trace of eroticism, and they elicit horrific reactions from those who watch them, save the killer who is filming them for his own agenda. Lenny balks at the snuff clips that others hawk. His friend Max (Tom Sizemore) laughs at his timidity. Porno is more Lenny’s speed, although even those clips earn him derision from Mace (Angela Bassett), the bodyguard and security driver who secretly loves him. The script recalls the emotionalism of Cameron’s Abyss in the way Mace reaches out to Lenny in the face of cataclysm. In a film of striking performances, Bassett’s is the standout — she is fierce, funny and heart rending.
Lenny the “goofball romantic” still pines for Faith (Juliette Lewis), the rock singer who dumped him. He is a junkie for Faith clips, reliving a past of lovemaking as his arms reach out into the empty air. Faith is hooked up with Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), the promoter whose rap-star client, Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), has been assassinated. The movie heats up to an apocalyptic New Year’s Eve climax with echoes of Rodney King and Mark Fuhrman that will probably get Bigelow accused of everything from crass exploitation to inciting to riot. Let ’em holler. The dazzling, era-defining Strange Days stands its moral ground.