Strange Days deals with some pretty heavy shit.
Long before she became an Academy darling, Kathryn Bigelow was Hollywood’s undisputed queen of the pulps. Bigelow brought a hyper-kinetic style and an unquenchable thirst for blood to big-budget genre excursions, and in the process, earned the admiration of fans and some stern “tsk-tsk-tsk-ing” from critics. Initially released in 1995, Strange Days has long languished in Bigelow’s mid-career limbo, a no man’s land bridging the gap between the cult faves (Near Dark) and blockbusters (Blue Steel, Point Break) of her early career and her more recent politically-charged thrillers (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). It might have remained there too, had recent events not brought the film back to sudden, tragic relevance.
Strange Days is set in the then-near-future of 1999 in a version of L.A. edging ever closer to dystopia thanks to rampant crime and racial tensions. The film’s chief science-fiction conceit is a technology that enables people to record and re-experience their own sense data. Known as “playback” or “wiretripping,” these recordings are traded as “clips” in an underground black market, due to their addictive properties. Navigating this treacherous urban wasteland is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a disgraced ex-cop turned playback-dealer who’s not above getting high on his own supply, especially on home videos from his relationship with Faith (Juliette Lewis), a troubled singer/songwriter who threw him over for skeezy record executive Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). When an old friend leaves Lenny with a clip depicting a murder that she herself witnessed, Lenny finds himself caught in a paranoid labyrinth, pursued by rogue cops on one side and on the other, a twisted serial killer who records himself raping and murdering his victims while feeding his own sensorial experiences into their brains.
The screenplay of Strange Days was written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, and it bears a number of his trademarks: the mixture of hard-nosed action and bleary eyed romanticism; the pervasive themes of distrust for authority; the badass female supporting character, Mace (Angela Bassett). As a director, Cameron is known for his attention to detail (say what you will about the bloated trash-barge that was Titanic, but you’d better believe every piece of silverware on the tables in the dining hall were period-appropriate). Cameron brings that same exacting eye to the construction of his and Bigelow’s shared fictional world. The slang that characters toss back and forth feels lived-in: playback addicts are derisively addressed as “wireheads;” clips that capture the moment of a user’s death are dubbed “blackjack.” Unfortunately, Cameron also finds himself, at times, on the wrong side of the boundary between drama and melodrama, putting the actors in some awkward spots. Juliette Lewis in particular struggles to find her grounding while yelling lines like “Stop trying to save me, Lenny!”
Overall, the cast is the film’s greatest weapon. Michael Wincott, who made a career of playing dirtbags throughout the ’90s is loathsome beyond belief as the dissipated music mogul. Tom Sizemore lends a disheveled gravitas to the part of Lenny’s best friend, ex-cop-turned-private-eye, Max. And despite Lewis’s occasional lapses into bathos, she projects the necessary damage and rock-star swagger to mark Faith as an ambitious but hopelessly lost chanteuse (she even does an impressive job covering a pair of Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey tunes, although this undoubtedly contributed to the later rise of Juliette Lewis and the Licks, so I guess that’s kind of a wash). But Angela Bassett and Ralph Fiennes carry this thing. The role of Mace requires someone with the confidence and power to convey the character’s raw physicality, but also the tenderness necessary to sell her feelings for Lenny as something more than a plot contrivance. Bassett juggles those competing requirements seemingly without effort, conveying a genuine, if complicated, chemistry with Fiennes. And of course, Fiennes himself is magical. As a fast-talking pusher who exploits those closest to him to stay afloat, Lenny could easily have made for a repugnant protagonist, but Fiennes reveals the vulnerability and unmistakable human decency beneath the character’s garish exterior. Lenny’s sales pitch to a new customer near the film’s beginning is as affecting as any of Don Draper’s in the early seasons of “Mad Men,” because, like Draper, Lenny really believes what he’s selling holds the key to a kind of transcendence, however small, however fleeting, and however empty it leaves you feeling once it’s passed.
Despite that urge to transcend, events in Strange Days conspire to keep its protagonists mired in the often unseemly here-and-now. The extremity of the film’s violence is unusual for a Cameron production, and this, perhaps, is where we witness the intersection of his and Bigelow’s sensibilities. The rape and murder of Lenny’s friend Iris, while not quite Gaspar Noé-caliber, is still lurid and brutal and all the more unnerving since the audience witnesses it through the eyes of the perpetrator. As in her other films, Bigelow demonstrates a willingness to play to the male gaze, evidenced by the way her camera’s hungry eye lingers on Lewis, who spends much of her screen-time in various states of undress. Iris’ death, however, sees that gaze weaponized in a very literal fashion, bringing us into complicity with the horrendous act.
Bigelow’s exploration of her audience’s appetite for and desensitization to violence is an important theme throughout, but it’s the concerns that the film raises regarding the role of police in society that have brought it into new relevance. The film provides us with glimpses of the present state of police militarization, as well as explicit depictions of black victimization through police violence, which create easy parallels with Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, Sandra Bland and countless other named and unnamed victims of state-sponsored murder. To call the movie “prescient” would miss the point; the destruction visited upon vulnerable minority populations has been occurring all along. In fact, Cameron’s inspiration for the screenplay was the Rodney King case and the riots that ensued in its wake, which should give you a sense of how little progress has been made over the past two decades.
So Strange Days deals with some pretty heavy shit. Even outside of the explicitly political themes, there are questions about memory and nostalgia that seem more topical today, in the age where every carefully curated moment of our lives is documented across a panoply of social media platforms, and where marketing draws our gaze ever backwards to times when we supposed ourselves happy. Ponderous as all of this might seem, in Bigelow’s hands, it remains an exhilarating ride. Her eye for spectacle is sharp. The first person P.O.V. footage is visceral, the result of painstaking efforts (the cameras they used to capture these scenes were developed by Bigelow and her crew, and the opening robbery scene alone reportedly took the better part of a year to plan and shoot). The film’s stunning climax, taking place during a New Year’s Eve celebration amid a sea of LED screens and a constant rain of rainbow-colored confetti remains one of the most visually stunning and ambitious sequences of the director’s career.
We may be well past the year 1999 that Strange Days looked ahead towards, but in a lot of ways we are still living in its world. For all the anachronisms that one would expect to find in a 20-year-old sci-fi movie, it’s not difficult locating our present moment in the personal and societal turmoil that animates the film. But beyond the social commentary, Bigelow and Cameron present a captivating mystery with a surprisingly human center: a story of wounded people trying to protect the things they love from a cruel and treacherous world.