No one caught in my vicinity when the subject of Strange Days comes up is in any doubt about my views on Kathryn Bigelow films. I reviewed Zero Dark Thirty here for Critic’s Notebook. The substantial differences between it and The Hurt Locker speak directly to her skills as a film maker, given the potential for the two films to be viewed as a conjoined pair; but not as much as does that fractured barrage of the final raid, the first reminder for a while of this director’s feel for abstract imagery and violence. Folks detecting an endorsement of waterboarding seem to me to be filling in the gaps that the film deliberately leaves there for contemplative purposes, gaps which can just as easily produce opinions facing 180 degrees in the opposite direction. This is not a flaw, or even a terrible failing of the film; not when it’s done without the condescension that most mainstream films have trouble keeping out of the mix, and surely not when it’s dealing with the historical record rather an invented fantasy. ZD30 dives headlong into the deep complexities that stew in films portraying actual history and half-real people, from the simplest bio-pic on up. At the very least, it requires you to make up your own mind about something, which means it’s engaged in a conversation with its audience. I’m not sure what else a conscientious film maker is supposed to be doing, if not that.
Lincoln: Or maybe Washington Behind Closed Drapes. Steven Spielberg throttles everything back so far that the film becomes a chamber piece, probably his most low key film for a decade, and one with Oscar stamped through it like a watermark. Unfairly or not, some of us are condemned to never see a screen White House without pondering Jed Bartlet’s, and the gap between Aaron Sorkin’s essential optimism and Tony Kushner’s sense of a disinterested god at the wheel can be tough to chew, even though Kushner’s drama feeds ultimately on the humanity of Mr and Mrs Lincoln. There’s a certain Sorkin too in the wash of dialogue that surges over everything, although the fairly lovable and cuddly version of Lincoln that the director puts on screen seems to tap more directly into Spielberg’s own interest in parental dramas. The balance between woody worthiness and rhetorical persuasion creaks a bit under the weight of all that set-dressing, but the cast is full of actors worth following into any number of constitutional footnotes, the likes of Dakin Mathews and Jackie Earle Haley and David Strathairn. And especially James Spader as Lincoln’s chief off-the-books fixer William Bilbo, best viewed as an ancestor of the redoubtable Alan Shore.
Django Unchained: The best Quentin Tarantino films feel heady and high; this one feels like the hangover you had before the party got started. Has any other Tarantino film contained as many attempts at actual jokes? His movies can be witty as hell, but usually it’s some relevant form of high irony or the inherent fun of wordplay; instead there are bits of business in Django Unchained that arrive dressed as laughs and flop straight onto the floor, laughs at the expense of clods and dimwits and heavy-set fellows. Is this comment or caricature? Laura Cayouette’s tiny cameo in Kill Bill: Vol 2 had me furiously scribbling Who’s That? in the notebook, but her departure from Django Unchained sideways at 100 mph with a bullet in the belly is a desultory sight gag, a punchline from which all life has fled.
The audacity involved in drawing a line between black slavery and blaxploitation movies and using one to interrogate the other is another version of the ambiguous engagement I was praising higher up the page, and this film is a more direct prod at serious issues than Inglourious Basterds ever got round to. But people guffawing inappropriately around me in the audience had clearly found a few certainties that might have been best left alone. The guffawing reached its climax when Samuel L Jackson arrived, in a performance deliberately engineered to have watching white liberals digging fingernails into flesh. Jackson’s acting here is powerful enough to rock you backwards on your casters, a vast atrocious ogre of a character that shunts Django Unchained into such a state of heightened intensity that the fabric of the film is promptly ripped into long shreds. It’s off balance already, Tarantino having neglected to write any interesting female characters while engaged in a parable in which the only person against slavery is a European dentist and all other white men deserve to have their gonads shot off in vast swashes of raspberry. Then SLJ arrives as the wickedest most manipulative monster on display, a black man presumably either brutalized into psychopathy or born that way. He’s the Other from another planet.