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🎬 #14 Bigelow & Mann Hurt For More
This week - we have two of my favourite filmmakers. Each film I talk about today has a sense of compulsion central to their narrative drive. Focused on two men obsessed with what they do - so much so that, without it - they fail to live and simply exist in a world that’s outside their understanding. The high stress, life threatening calling they both have is in many ways the only time they feel real. The pain, the potential death, is the thing that keeps them on the edge, closer to something that might be called living.
Happy choosing, happy viewing,
FILM ONE: MANHUNTER
1986 Dir Michael Mann
If you’ve seen the film before this choice of still might not strike you as the obvious iconic image from Manhunter, but for me this is one of my favourite Michael Mann scenes.
A blind woman in intimate contact with a dangerous predator - as the real predator watches on - almost on the brink of ecstasy - such is his love for her. This one still sums up the entire central theme of the film. Will Graham, played excellently by William Peterson [known now mostly for his role in CSI] is called back into action to help track down an infamous serial killer. His life in exile, away from his work, seems postcard perfect but alas that deep need to hunt for something primal - to go near the jaws of the beast is too strong and so he leaves this image of perfection behind.
Like Reba [played by Joan Allen] in the still above, Graham is compelled to seek out a dangerous intimacy with something that could tear him apart. The shot is all the more symbolic because the killer has been named ‘the tooth fairy’ by the media. This speaks to a deep self destructive streak that runs through us all - its exhilarating to be in intimate contact with danger, to be on the brink of oblivion and once you taste that, it’s hard for anything else that life has to offer to match it. And so even though Graham has nearly been killed in a brush with Hannibal Lecter, the first incarnation of the character on screen and embodied excellently by Brian Cox, he’s still driven to leave his life behind for more potential hurt.
Separation is a key visual motif, with Dante Spinotti - Mann’s long running DOP - shooting the film starkly but beautiful, in many ways it’s almost fantasy-like, an echo of a dream Will has to get back to what he does best. Graham is in a cell even in his home, he needs to get out - to get closer to his real self. Characters at either side of the frame - gradually become closer as the film progresses - until Graham is near his prey.
There is a kinship to his prey Graham feels that rivals any loving relationship he has in his life - whether that’s his wife or kid. There is a true primal connection that he shares with the killers - both compelling and repulsive to him. He knows it too - that’s why in the last frame [above] he refuses to look his boss in the eye as he asks him to return. He knows he can’t resist the pull.
I’m a big Michael Mann fan and this encapsulates Mann perfectly. The combination of the synth score, the wide angle, pacific cool cinematography and the drive for a man to finish the job no matter what the cost, is all there on display.
I don’t like to call it a serial killer film, but this is one of the best ever made if you apply that lens to it. It’s a procedural, and in that process of catching prey, the deep seated desire to be at the edge of life takes over anything else. That is the beauty of it, and probably why there is an obsession with true crime, get close to something dangerous and remain safe inside your home. If only Will Graham could have it both ways.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs of my precious life watching this? Michael Mann crafts another crime thriller epic that brings Lecter to the screen for the first time, while Will Graham hunts down an infamous serial killer who’s falling in love as Graham’s life is falling apart.
*Available for free on Sky Go, Sky Cinema and Virgin TV Go, and for a small rental fee on Sky store*
Fact: David Lynch was originally attached to direct. Ironically, Jonathan Demme cast Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs after seeing him in Lynch’s Elephant Man.
FILM TWO: THE HURT LOCKER
2008 Dir Kathryn Bigelow
This frame is the protagonist’s most feared environment in all of The Hurt Locker. He’s out of his depth - truly in a foreign, alien landscape. Will, played by Jeremy Renner, in stand out form, is a man who only loves one thing - disarming bombs in a war zone. When he’s back to reality - he can only think about getting back to where he belongs - where he is most alive and most himself. That place is War torn Iraq.
Kathryn Bigelow has always been on my top directors list. Even before I knew what a director did - I was in love with her work - mostly as an 8 year old watching Point Break over and over again. She’s a filmmaker who gets the job done incredibly well - her style, as William Friedkin said, is of someone ‘who doesn’t mess around'. She’s there to tell a great story using whatever tools that are necessary. Here she shoots with Barry Ackroyd in shrapnel-ed and beautifully raw 16mm. She stays vicersally mobile with rough handheld set-ups, keeping things immediate and on edge - just how the protagonist loves to be.
Will is also a character who doesn’t mess around - like Bigelow he’s there to do a job, in fact it’s the only thing he lives for, including his family. Like Bigelow he travels into harsh environments to do what’s necessary. It’s only in this zone of discomfort, always moving, always pushing at the edge does he get any sense of fulfilment or enjoyment.
In that way it must be similar to the filmmaker’s journey home after such an intense shoot - once they’re back to comfort, to reality, they feel like they’re missing something about themselves. The stimulation of a high pressure environment, where there are stakes - they’re not life and death - but still there are stakes of a different kind involved - creative, financial, wellbeing. The journey of Will and Bigelow are at least analogous.
As we follow Will’s journey to his edge, we can’t help but yearn, whenever we’re away from the battle, to be back there. Just like him - as an audience we want to be where the tension, drama, and obstacles exist. It’s only by being right next to death, by being a hair’s trigger away from red mist can Will truly be alive.
Seeing this incredibly, visceral action film does the same thing for us - being so close to the dizzyingly andrenalized drama that Will goes through is enough to experience the call of the void. The compulsion to meet our end or at least glance at it through dust flung from exploded ordinance.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 11 minutes of my precious life watching this? Get on the ride with Will as Kathyrn Bigelow orchestrates immaculate action cinema that will leave sweat marks on your sofa and a compulsion to drink more water than you usually might.
*Available for a small rental fee on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Sky Store and Curzon*
Fact: Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar after being nominated for The Hurt Locker. It was her ex-husband James Cameron who convinced her to take on the project after reading the script - and she would go head to head with him that year at the Oscars when Avatar was also nominated.