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Ultimate Guide to Christopher Nolan and Directing Techniques

Nolan has built a reputation in the film industry as a grand showman and visual magician firmly in command of his craft.

He’s infamous for assembling his complex and intricately layered plots like a puzzle, presenting them in such a way that respects the audience’s intelligence while simultaneously indulging their desire for exhilarating escapist entertainment.  He tells stories on a tremendously large scale, and it’s all too easy to be swept away the sheer scope of his vision and ambition.

Best known for his record-shattering, paradigm-shifting DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan’s meteoric rise to consistently unprecedented heights of financial and cultural success has established him as one of those rare filmmakers who are able to harness the full power of the Hollywood studio system to his benefit.

It wasn’t always this way, however– Nolan’s ascent to the stratosphere of visionary directors was preceded by a long period of obscurity and rejection that any aspiring filmmaker can relate to.

Christopher Nolan was born in 1970 in London, the 2nd of 3 boys born to a British advertising executive and an American teacher.  The jarring culture split that the Nolan boys experienced through their childhood is perhaps best exemplified by the difference in accents between Nolan and his younger brother, Jonathan– who would go on to become his writing partner and a close professional collaborator.

Also, check out Chris Nolan’s Screenplay Collection for PDF Download

Nolan speaks in an elegant British lilt, while Jonathan’s all-American speech patterns reflect the fact that the Nolan boys spent a great deal of time living in Chicago as well as the UK.

From an early age, Nolan found himself enamored with cinema, and after seeing George Lucas’ STAR WARS at age 7, he was inspired to make Super 8mm stop-motion movies with his father’s film camera.  He would go on to attend University College London, where he studied English literature in the absence of a film program.

In lieu of a formalized education in filmmaking, he established an on-campus cinema society with Emma Thomas– his classmate, future producing partner, and future wife– in addition to devouring the works of key influences like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Orson Welles, and Michael Mann.

At age nineteen, he made his first film, TARANTELLA– an 8mm short that was eventually shown on English television.  That development encouraged the burgeoning director to make another short called LARCENY, which debuted at the 1995 Cambridge Film Festival.

For quite some time afterwards, Nolan toiled in obscurity, paying the bills with corporate and industrial films he was able to commission.  All the while, he was applying to various British film organizations in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain grant money for another narrative effort.

Perhaps disheartened by the rejection, and emboldened by the take-no-prisoners, do-it-yourself attitude of the 90’s indie scene, Nolan decided to take matters into his own hands.


THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational/editorial collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl, dedicated to appreciating and deconstructing the work of contemporary and classic film directors.

5.1: THE NON-LINEAR NEO-NOIRS is the first chapter of THE DIRECTORS SERIES’ examination into the films and careers of director Christopher Nolan, covering his pair of breakout independent neo-noirs:


Nolan: DOODLEBUG (1997)

After marrying Emma in 1997, Christopher Nolan enlisted her help to produce his third short film, DOODLEBUG.  The three minute piece– the earliest of Nolan’s publicly-available works– stars the British actor Jeremy Theobald, who would go on to headline Nolan’s first feature a year later.

Shot on grainy 16mm black and white film, Nolan imbues the film with a kinetic energy at odds with the claustrophobic setting.  Nolan’s idea of a man chasing a bug around his apartment, only to find out the bug is a smaller version of himself, foreshadows the narrative sleight of hand he’d bring to his feature work as well as his inventiveness with practical visual effects.

Also check out: Christopher Nolan’s Micro-Budget First Films: Doodlebug & The Following


Nolan: FOLLOWING (1998)

Around the time of the making of his short DOODLEBUG (1997), director Christopher Nolan found himself the victim of a burglary.  Whereas most people would be understandably distraught if their apartment had been broken into and their belongings stolen, Nolan’s chief reaction was curiosity.

He wondered what the burglars were thinking as they rifled through his things– what conclusions could they come to about his life based solely on the artifacts and totems of his existence?  In time, he would shape these musings into a story for a feature-length film he called FOLLOWING.

Having learned his lesson not to rely on the favor of unsympathetic British film institutions, Nolan fashioned the film as a lean, mean, razor-taut little thriller he could shoot for as little money as possible.

Taking the idea of a low-budget production to its very extreme, Nolan self-financed the film with the earnings from his day job– stretching the value of his dollar by shooting on weekends, employing friends and family as cast and crew, and commandeering their homes and flats as free locations.

This approach naturally caused the shoot to drag on in fits and starts over the course of a year, but when all was said and done, Nolan had his first feature film in the can– and it only cost him six thousand dollars.

Jeremy Theobald’s protagonist is not given a name– a fitting choice for a lonely writer who lives vicariously through the strangers he follows around his grimy London neighborhood.

Owing to the down-and-dirty nature of the film’s production circumstances, Theobald’s performance isn’t exactly the most natural or convincing, but it’s compelling enough to sustain the audience through the breathlessly-brief 70 minute runtime.

It helps that he’s given a charming and enigmatic antagonist in the form of Alex Haw’s Cobb.  Cobb is an impeccably-dressed, charismatic thief– his cavalier philosophy towards burglary as a cathartic form of human connection is presented as seductive and cool, almost like a boarding school Tyler Durden.

FOLLOWING borrows many elements from the well-trod noir genre, not the least of which is the inclusion of a blonde, morally-ambiguous femme fatale– played here by Lucy Russell.  There’s a photograph by Theobald’s character’s desk of Marilyn Monroe, and one can’t help but notice Russell’ eerie resemblance to the iconic movie star.

Like Theobald, Russell also isn’t given a name– she’s credited only as The Blonde, a conceit that lends some fuel to critiques that Nolan’s female characters on the whole are not particularly well-developed.

Russell is perfectly convincing within the film’s framework, but the stock-character nature of The Blonde’s personality doesn’t afford her many opportunities to transcend the material. Funnily enough, however, Russell would be the only member of FOLLOWING’s cast to go on to a larger acting career.

Nolan has pioneered the use of large-format film mediums like IMAX to create a super-sized canvas for his high-stakes narratives, but even within the square confines of FOLLOWING’s 16mm frame, he’s able to convey a palpable, larger-than-life approach.
While the scope of his later work would command some of the highest budgets the industry has ever seen, the single largest expense for FOLLOWING’s scrappy production was the 16mm film stock itself. Nolan and his crew conserved as much of their precious stock as possible, rehearsing extensively prior to shooting so they could nab what they wanted in one or two takes.

Indeed, his insistence on celluloid is what separates Nolan from his peers, most of whom got their own no-budget projects off the ground by embracing the relative cheapness of digital video.

FOLLOWING’s photochemical cinematography points to Nolan’s purist attitude towards the medium, and foreshadows his eventual position as one of the industry’s most vocal defenders of celluloid in the face of digital’s unstoppable advance. In shooting FOLLOWING, Nolan acted as his own cameraman, utilizing mostly natural light to expose his grainy black and white images.

The majority of Nolan’s camerawork is handheld, which gives the film a kinetic and swift energy thanks to the fluid mobility and quick setup time afforded by the technique.

While Nolan used handheld camerawork primarily as a way to keep costs down, he was concerned that his choice might also lead to the impression that the film was amateurish, or that he didn’t know what he was doing.  To counter these concerns, he employed the smooth, polished movement of a dolly track during the interrogation scene that opens the film as a way to communicate to the audience that the predominant use of a handheld camerawork was a deliberate, stylistic choice.

While Nolan essentially acted as a one-man crew during production, he used post-production as an opportunity to enlist the collaborative efforts of musician David Julyan, who provides FOLLOWING with a pulsing, grimy score comprised of droning synths and jittery staccato tones.

By virtue of its shoestring budget, FOLLOWING’s aesthetic is easily the most radical within Nolan’s canon.  It speaks in a language born of necessity and deprivation, a world apart from the style that he’d solidify in his studio work.  However, FOLLOWING does establish techniques and ideas that Nolan would further develop in the years to come.

For instance, he’s gained a bit of a reputation as a meticulous dresser, showing up to set in a business-casual wardrobe he’s refined into something of a uniform.  This aspect of his personality makes its way into his films, as many of his characters are given a palpable sartorial sensibility that’s high on functional style and low on extraneous embellishment.

Even in the context of a no-budget film like FOLLOWING, Nolan still places an emphasis on his characters’ costuming, using it as a story tool to highlight the strategic advantages of a presentable appearance in the world of burglary.

The structuring of FOLLOWING’s narrative signals another key component of Nolan’s aesthetic: the non-linearity of time.  Simply put: time is never a straight line in Nolan’s films– whether it’s BATMAN BEGINS utilizing a recurring flashback motif, MEMENTO unfolding entirely in backwards chronological order, INCEPTION playing out against multiple parallel planes of space-time connected by a relativistic relationship, or INTERSTELLAR exploring gravity’s ability to warp our perception of time itself.

Christopher Nolan cites this aspect of his aesthetic as being inspired at a very young age by Graham Swift’s novel “Waterland” and its parallel structuring of time.  FOLLOWING pays tribute to this conceit by jumbling the order of its scenes non-sequentially– a decision made in large part to disguise the story’s major twist.

Indeed, the only visual clue Nolan gives to clue us on in which shard of the fractured timeline we’re in is via Theobald’s changing appearance from scraggly slacker to polished businessman and then to his final form as a defeated mound of ground-up beef.

While presented as something of a random shuffling of loosely connected scenes, Nolan’s ordering of the narrative is actually rather surgical, meticulously designed to enhance the impact of the mounting drama while constantly challenging our assumptions about what’s going on.

And just to show that the integrity of his story isn’t dependent on the gimmick of its nonlinear presentation, he even goes as far as assembling the scenes into proper chronological order in a completely separate linear that’s no less surprising or structurally sound and including it on the Criterion Collection’s 2012 Blu Ray release.

Just as the Batman logo on Theobald’s apartment door foreshadows his eventual cinematic involvement with the Caped Crusader, FOLLOWING’s unique structure portends the puzzle-like, revelation-based storytelling style that Nolan would build his career on.

Like so many no-budget films of its kind, the completion of FOLLOWING in 1998 wasn’t greeted with instantaneous acclaim or a great deal of attention.  It almost even didn’t get finished in the first place, had it not been for the saving grace of indie producer Peter Broderick, who secured completion funds after screening Nolan’s rough cut.

Thanks to its lack of star power and technical polish, FOLLOWING was shut out from several major film festivals– event those devoted to truly independent cinema like Sundance or Slamdance (in Slamdance’s defense, however, they would eventually accept the film into their festival after Nolan submitted his completely re-tooled final cut a year after his rejection).

FOLLOWING would ultimately premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, gathering modest (yet consistent) praise as an engaging, if obscure, little thriller.  The film would find a distributor in Zeitgeist Films, who would release it to a tepid box office haul of fifty thousand dollars.

Nolan didn’t have much cause for concern though– by the time FOLLOWING had wound through its interminable festival circuit and theatrical release window, he had already optioned the script for a follow-up that would give him the breakthrough he needed and desired.

As Nolan’s career has since played out, the thematic similarities between FOLLOWING and his 2010 dreamscape thriller INCEPTION have become more pronounced.  In his essay “‘Nolan Begins”, former chief film critic for Variety, Scott Foundas, goes so far as to dub FOLLOWING a first draft for INCEPTION, citing that both films are in effect “a heist of the mind” masterminded by a slickly-dressed career criminal named Cobb.

On its own merits, FOLLOWING is a fascinating insight into the early voice of a massively influential contemporary filmmaker and the raw directorial powers he could exert with minimal resources and a tireless drive.


Nolan: MEMENTO (2000)

As if shooting and releasing his first feature film (1998’s FOLLOWING) wasn’t momentous enough an undertaking, around this time director Christopher Nolan was also undergoing a big move across the Atlantic to pursue his aspirations as a filmmaker in Los Angeles.  He stopped first in Chicago to meet up with his brother Jonathan, who would be accompanying him on the cross-country drive.

As they drove west, Jonathan pitched an idea for a short story called “Memento Mori”, about a man suffering from acute short-term memory loss.  Instantly taken with the idea, Nolan encouraged his brother to continue developing it even as he repurposed the concept into an entirely separate story. The brothers worked independently from each other for some time afterward, giving each other notes on their respective stories while not directly adapting what the other was doing.

As such, the two finished works are very dissimilar.  Nolan’s finished screenplay– simply titled MEMENTO– was taken by Emma Thomas to Newmarket Films, where executives reportedly hailed the script as one of the most innovative they had ever read.  With a greenlight to make MEMENTO for $4.5 million over 25 shooting days,  Nolan finally had a chance to make his big break– but in order to make the best of it, he had to move quickly.

MEMENTO marks the first time that Nolan would work with established talent, but very few know just how big of a name he almost had.  Before scheduling conflicts caused him to drop out, none other than Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in the role of protagonist Leonard Shelby, a former insurance claims investigator suffering from anterograde amnesia.

The role was eventually filled by Guy Pearce, who delivers a breathlessly fierce performance as a man out to avenge the brutal rape and murder of his wife, despite the fact that he can’t remember what he did two minutes ago.  The character of Leonard Shelby is one of the more peculiar protagonists in American cinema– driving a Jaguar he doesn’t remember how he obtained, and wearing an ill-fitting suit that he’s pretty sure he didn’t buy.

Incapable of storing memories in his mind, he instead tattoos his flesh as a way to remember the clues he needs to find his wife’s killer.  As such, he’s vulnerable to the designs of others with malevolent intentions, and the nature of his illness means that he can’t fully trust any relationship he has.  One of these ambiguously-defined allies is Carrie-Ann Moss’ Natalie, a cocktail waitress whose boyfriend troubles might have more to do with Leonard than he realizes.

Fresh off the breakout success of THE MATRIX, Moss was imaginably quite helpful in securing her co-star Joe Pantoliano for the role of Teddy, an undercover cop whose eagerness to help Leonard find his wife’s killer can’t shake a profound sense of suspiciousness about him.

Seasoned character actors Stephen Tobolowsky and Mark Boone Junior also appear, with the former as a case study of Leonard’s with a similar condition and the latter as a self-advantageous motel clerk who is surprisingly honest about how he profits off Leonard’s memory loss.

MEMENTO represents a huge step up for Nolan in the visual department, thanks to a budget that’s quite generous by indie standards. On the most basic level, Nolan graduates from the square 16mm frame to the anamorphic 35mm gauge– an upgrade boosted by his first collaboration with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to become an integral creative partner for Nolan throughout his subsequent work.

Pfister’s eye for stark contrast, subdued color, and naturalistic lighting mesh perfectly with Nolan’s gritty vision of a slightly-heightened reality.  MEMENTO’s use of color informs its innovative and distinct non-linear structure, alternating between color and monochromatic sequences in an effort to orient the audience as to where they currently stand in the timeline.

The color blue in particular becomes a potent visual signifier, appearing on doors, hotel room walls, bars, and even Leonard’s suit, almost as if they were signposts for him to follow.

Nolan scraps FOLLOWING’s shaky handheld camerawork in favor of an elegant, fluid approach that favors dollies, cranes, and steadicam shots and signals his desire to merge classical filmmaking techniques with radical, almost-Cubist storytelling structures.  Returning composer David Julyan serves as one of the few stylistic carryovers from FOLLOWING, crafting a brooding suite of Vangelis-style synth cues that manages to evoke old-school film noir despite its inherent electronic modernity.

MEMENTO is perhaps best-known for being “that film that plays in reverse order”, but the conceit is far from a gimmick employed to sell tickets.  Building from FOLLOWING’s earlier innovations with the idea, MEMENTO solidifies the use of nonlinear storytelling devices as a major component of Nolan’s artistic aesthetic.

Just as FOLLOWING’s deceptively-random ordering of scenes proves an effective way to navigate its labyrinth of deception, so too does MEMENTO’s unique structure become a key factor in the successful telling of its story.

In order for the audience to empathize with his protagonist’s condition, Christopher Nolan felt the most appropriate course of action would be to tell the story in backwards chronological order– thus emulating, in a cinematic sense, what it would be like to have no short-term memory; deprived of crucial orientating information and context that we usually take for granted.  It’s a radical idea– one that requires a delicate balance of finesse that a lesser filmmaker could easily stumble over.

Nolan wisely uses the opening titles as an opportunity to prep his audience for his unconventional storytelling, lingering over a closeup shot of a hand shaking a developing Polaroid picture — or rather, un-developing, as the audience slowly realizes they’re watching the action unfold in backwards motion.

He then shows us the immediate aftermath of Teddy’s cold-blooded execution before showing us the crucial moment itself.  Its also worth noting that this opening sequence wasn’t simply shot and and then reversed in the edit suite.  Nolan and company actually ran the film backwards through the camera on set– an act that reinforces his career-long commitment to capturing special effects in-camera as much as possible.

Discontent with simply presenting the film in backwards order, Nolan takes an extra step: the insertion of a parallel, forward-moving storyline that sees Leonard languishing in his motel room while talking into a telephone about his condition.

Nolan separates these scenes from the A-plot by rendering them in expressionistic black and white handheld photography, in effect creating a bridge between FOLLOWING’s scrappy shoestring style and the ambitious classical style he’d adopt for the rest of his career.

These brief, recurring interludes give us crucial bits of backstory and context about Leonard’s memory loss without subjecting us to tedious or unnecessary exposition.

However, its within these scenes that Nolan plants the seeds for MEMENTO’s big narrative twist.  This pair of parallel timelines almost-effortlessly converges at the story’s apex– a transition point that Nolan marks with a color fade so subtle that many viewers tend to miss it entirely.  As he did with FOLLOWING, Nolan would subsequently assemble an alternate, aprochryphal cut of MEMENTO in proper chronological order, including it as an easter egg on the film’s home video release.

MEMENTO premiered at the 2000 Venice Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim.  Executives from the major studios echoed the festival circuit’s warm embrace of the film, yet they were reluctant to claim it for distribution.

The sheer power of Nolan’s vision was undeniable, but they feared that audiences would be too confused by the backwards ordering of the film.  Eventually, Newmarket Films took it upon themselves to distribute– a risky move that paid off in spades when MEMENTO debuted to healthy box office and rave reviews that hailed it as one of the most original and refreshing films in years.

Come awards season, MEMENTO took home several Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director, Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Female.  It would also go on to score Academy Award nominations for Nolan’s screenplay and Dody Dorn’s groundbreaking edit.  All these plaudits earned Nolan the attention of fellow indie maverick Steven Soderbergh, who would soon become instrumental in helping him transition into studio pictures.

Simply put, Nolan was on the map– in a big way.  He was leaving behind the independent sphere on a high note, with MEMENTO demonstrating his taut sense of control and vision while avoiding the distractions and indulgences that come with a significant leap in budgetary resources.

FOLLOWING and MEMENTO– Nolan’s breakout pair of non-linear neo-noirs— may be small in size and scope, but Nolan’s desire for larger-scale filmmaking is already apparent In their DNA.  It would only be a matter of time until he made his mark in the studio realm, but no one– not even him– could’ve ever predicted just how big that mark would be.

Nolan: INSOMNIA (2002)

MEMENTO caught the eye of many established Hollywood players– most notably, actor/director George Clooney and indie iconoclast Steven Soderbergh.  Their frequent collaborations together, especially as producers, cultivated a shared taste in talent, and they both saw in Christopher Nolan the perfect candidate to helm a project they had in development over at Alcon Entertainment– a remake of a Norwegian film from 1997 named INSOMNIA, about a detective investigating a grisly murder in an isolated town located so far north that the sun doesn’t set for months at a time.

Alcon’s development deal with Warner Brothers effectively meant that INSOMNIA would become Nolan’s first studio film– a testing ground to see if he really had what it took to play in the big leagues.  As such, he would have to make a few concessions on the production methods he was predisposed to; namely, working from a script that was not his own.

While he would ultimately perform his own pass on credited screenwriter Hilary Seitz’s draft just prior to shooting, INSOMNIA was, more or a less, a work for hire.  Nevertheless, Nolan finds plenty of artistic common ground with Seitz’s prose– enough that his first big budget effort would feel apiece with the puzzle-esque nature of his earlier work and empower him to deliver a uniquely captivating thriller on par with its Swedish counterpart.

The wet evergreen mountains of British Columbia stand in for the majestic landscape of Alaska, where a pair of LAPD detectives have been sent in to investigate the murder of a young local girl.  Nolan’s successful collaboration with the likes of Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano in MEMENTO begets here a cast with a higher industry profile and a sterling pedigree.

Indeed, INSOMNIA begins Nolan’s enviable habit of attracting award-winning talent, boasting no less than three Oscar winners among its ensemble. Al Pacino headlines the film as Detective Will Dormer, a driven yet compromised cop besieged by an internal affairs investigation back home.

Pacino plays the part liked a subdued, run-ragged version of his character from Michael Mann’s HEAT– an aspect that no doubt wasn’t lost on Nolan, a self-styled disciple of Mann’s.  A big city cop in a small frontier town, Dormer is literally and figuratively adrift in a mental fog, isolated from any semblance of a familiar surrounding and lost in a perpetual state of exhaustion thanks to a winter sun that never sets and refuses to let him sleep.

To further complicate matters, his inability to think coherently leads to the tragic accidental killing of his own partner during a raid on on the suspected killer’s hideout. The local Nightmute police investigate the circumstances of the accident, led by the doggedly determined and fiercely insightful Ellie Burr.

Hilary Swank imbues the character with a palpable sense of independence cultivated by a life lived on the outermost boundaries of civilization; the alpha to Nicky Katt’s beta– a fellow Nightmute police officer with a wispy mustache named Fred Duggar.  Meanwhile, Dormer pursues his suspect, a local crime novelist named Walter Finch.

Played to chilling effect by the late Robin Williams in one of his rare serious turns, Finch uses his occupational insights into the law enforcement profession to become a formidable and unpredictable adversary to Dormer.  He’s a killer, yes, but he’s not barbaric– Williams projects the same warm sense of paternal authority he had in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING, albeit turned on its ear to emphasize its innately creepy undertones.

Finch differs from other murder-thriller heavies in that his guilt is never in question– he admits his deed to Dormer openly and without shame, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Williams’ performance is the standout of the film and, in light of his recent passing, stands as a somber reminder of the great talent we lost far too soon.

INSOMNIA is arguably Nolan’s most overlooked major work, but the impeccable quality of its craft lets it to stand toe to toe with his best efforts.  It certainly helps that the lush, pristine Alaskan wilderness provides a stunning and majestic backdrop entirely unique within the larger canon of crime thrillers.

The production values afforded by studio backing amplifies the scope of Nolan’s stylistic choices, which begin to coagulate here into an identifiable aesthetic.  He brings back MEMENTO’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, in the second of what would be many more subsequent collaborations; filling the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with sweeping panoramas and earthy texture.

Working in conjunction with production designer Nathan Crowley, who would also become a key collaborator in Nolan’s filmography, they cultivate a distinct color palette comprised of stark whites, blacks, and earth tones– with the surrounding evergreens in particular evoking that particular blue-green color characteristic of the lush Pacific Northwest. Warm colors are typically avoided, concentrated mostly within the interior hotel sequences to convey a cozy, hearth-like atmosphere.

The overall effect is one of majestic beauty pervaded by gloom and unease, especially so when a heavy fog envelopes Dormer during the pivotal raid sequence.  Nolan’s camerawork here is much more ambitious, perhaps even a little incongruous considering the staggering sense of scope he imposes on what’s otherwise a relatively grounded story.

His films frequently employ lofty aerials, and INSOMNIA marks the point in which Nolan’s camera finally takes flight, soaring through the dramatic vistas via a combination of helicopter mounts and cranes.

On the ground, Nolan alternates between handheld camerawork and classical dolly moves, making full use of his new toys to convey an epic scope as well as the unique cultural character of his setting.

Editor Dody Dorn and composer David Julyan round out Nolan’s returning crew, with Dorn’s expressionistic approach reprising MEMENTO’s quick-cutting technique as a means to jar the protagonist’s thoughts with flashes of violence, while Julyan’s last collaboration with Nolan moves away from the electronic nature of their earlier work to embrace a big-budget orchestral sound reminiscent of a brooding Hitchcock film.

INSOMNIA may not have initially sprung from Nolan’s mind, but his artistic character permeates every aspect of the film.  As previously noted, Michael Mann is a key influence on Nolan’s aesthetic, and INSOMNIA allows the burgeoning director to play in his idol’s wheelhouse.

Aside from the shared casting of Pacino in a similar character archetype used by Mann, Nolan also evokes his spirit in the detailed and tactical accuracy imposed on even the most minute aspects of policework.

For all his virtues as a man of justice, Dormer is also profoundly corrupt; he plants evidence to justify his own version of events, and even goes so far as to cover up his role in the accidental killing of his own partner.  Nolan’s interest lies in Dormer’s struggle to achieve his objectives without sabotaging himself, continuing the tradition he established in both FOLLOWING and MEMENTO where the fundamentally-compromised nature of his protagonists allows him to better access the psychological underpinnings of their actions.

The twisting nature of INSOMNIA’s plot also evokes the revelatory, puzzle-like character of Nolan’s storytelling, which allows him to turn time itself into a compelling narrative and structural device.

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Perhaps rightfully so for his first mainstream Hollywood film, INSOMNIA is the first of Nolan’s features to unspool in linear, chronological order.  Nevertheless, time still plays an important factor in the drama– by setting the story in a place where the sun doesn’t set for months at a time, the circadian day-to-night rhythm is utterly disrupted.

In other words, Dormer is literally removed from the dimension of time itself.  This wreaks havoc on his ability to function, which, in a profession that’s entirely dependent on clear-eyed critical thinking and razor-sharp reflexes, becomes a formidable antagonist in and of itself.

Just like he did for the home video releases of FOLLOWING and MEMENTO, Nolan would also assemble an alternate, apocryphal cut of INSOMNIA– rearranging his scenes in the order that they were shot and overlaying his commentary.

Unlike those prior alternate cuts however, the narrative and logical cohesion of the story completely falls apart in this particular version of INSOMNIA.  Thankfully, clarity isn’t Nolan’s purpose here– rather, this version marries its disjointed order with his astute commentary to provide a unique glimpse into the day-by-day challenges of mounting his first big studio effort.

The commentary also yields intriguing insights into his personal growth as a filmmaker. If his increasing directorial confidence wasn’t palpable enough in the film itself, he reveals that, during the shoot, he didn’t use crucial preparation tools like storyboards, shot lists, or video monitors.  Instead, he let the choices of his actors organically block the scene for him, which he’d then think up coverage for on the fly while he stood by the camera and watched their performances directly instead of behind a screen.

Indeed, these techniques require an astonishingly high degree of confidence to embrace, and aren’t typical of a director on only his third feature… but yet, there he was, pulling it off quite effortlessly.

That gamble of confidence paid off when INSOMNIA debuted in May of 2002 to critical and financial success as one of those rarest of remakes that managed to match, if not transcend, its original material.

Roger Ebert perhaps summed up the sentiment best in his review, hailing it not as “a pale retread, but a re-examination of the material, like a new production of a good play”.
INSOMNIA may have been easily and overwhelmingly eclipsed by anything Nolan’s made since, but it’s nonetheless a strong and notable addition to his canon– and an important one, too, as it would serve as an audition for his next high-profile film, setting the stage for the crowning achievement of his career thus far.

Nolan: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

After the completion of INSOMNIA, Christopher Nolan used his newfound access to studio resources to develop an ambitious project on the life of Howard Hughes.  The film would purportedly have starred Jim Carrey as the reclusive billionaire, if he hadn’t scrapped it following his discovery that Martin Scorsese was about to embark on shooting THE AVIATOR with Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was around this same time that he learned Warner Brothers was looking to make a new Batman picture– the property was one of the studio’s crown jewels, but had lain dormant ever since Joel Schumacher effectively bludgeoned it into a coma with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, a two-hour consumer products department memo and toy masquerading as a movie.  Various pitches had already been made by other such high-profile directors as Darren Aronofsky, and spanned a wide range of ideas from Schumacher’s continuation of his run with a third film titled BATMAN TRIUMPHANT, to a live-action adaptation of the animated television series BATMAN BEYOND.

The closest any of these pitches came to reality was Aronofsky’s own riff on the iconic BATMAN YEAR ONE graphic novel, which explored Batman’s origins and early forays into crimefighting from the perspective of the future Gotham City police commissioner Jim Gordon.

Aronofsky’s take would have dramatically reworked some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore, to the point that executives ultimately got cold feet and abandoned his vision.  Nolan, like many others of his generation, had grown up adoring the Caped Crusader and his surrounding universe of villains, so his interest in the vacant director’s chair was more or less a foregone conclusion.

He wasn’t interested, however, in making a quote/unquote “comic book movie” — indeed, he made no effort to conceal his lack of knowledge with the medium.  Rather, he was interested in imbuing the character of Batman with what he called a “cinematic reality”, giving the story the weight and gravitas of a real-life event.

His initial pitch meeting with Warner Brothers apparently lasted a mere ten minutes, but so confident in his vision of a realistic superhero film was he, that the executives cast aside their doubts about his relative inexperience as a studio filmmaker and hand over their most valuable piece of intellectual property to his control.

Nolan’s next move would pave the way for his eventual reputation as a Hollywood trendsetter.  He did away entirely with the continuity of the previous Tim Burton and Schumacher films, opting to reboot the story from square one so he could tell it his way with no compromises or obligations.

Rebooting a failing franchise has now become the go-to trick for frustrated development executives (especially those assigned to the Spider-Man franchise), so it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking of an idea this was in the early 2000’s.

This decision, combined with the fact that money was essentially no object, allowed Nolan to envision a boundless Gotham City against which he could stage an epic story exploring Batman not just as a character, but as an idea.

Ridley Scott had always served as a chief influence in Nolan’s artistic development, and Scott’s seminal classic BLADE RUNNER became a key reference in imagining a new kind of cinematic Gotham — a living, breathing city densely populated by diverse subcultures desperately in need of a hero.

Whereas Gotham City had generally been understood in previous iterations to be a fictional version of Manhattan, Nolan modeled the soaring architecture of his Gotham after Chicago, the city in which he’d spent a great deal of his upbringing.

With its deep ties to the colorful history of organized crime and bureaucratic shadiness, Chicago would prove an inspired fit for Nolan’s grandiose vision of a once-great city mired in corruption and decay.

By grounding the action in a tangible place, he could inject the necessary gravitas into his story while immediately differentiating his Gotham from the crumbling Art Deco spires of Burton’s Gotham or the garish day-glo labyrinth of Shumacher’s.

Developing a  project as high-profile as Batman, with so many rabid fans angling for a big scoop, naturally required a high degree of secrecy — a requirement that dovetailed quite harmoniously with Nolan’s own showman-like penchant for strategic opaqueness.
He adopted Stanley Kubrick’s late-career practice of working from home, developing the story in his garage with a small team that included returning production designer Nathan Crowley, Nolan’s producing partner and wife Emma Thomas, and seasoned superhero genre screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Indeed, Nolan and company were so insistent on their veil of secrecy that Warner Brothers executives had to travel to them, forced to read the script on Nolan’s couch in an effort to prevent unwanted copies from leaking.  When the necessities of the pre-production process finally required him to send out physical copies of the script, he did so under a fake title — “The Intimidation Game — to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

This unconventional process, while admittedly unwieldy, ultimately proved fruitful, empowering him with a dream cast and crew and a budget in the hundreds of millions to help realize the majestic vision he would come to call BATMAN BEGINS.

Christian Bale essentially beat out every eligible actor in the business for the title role by formulating his approach based on, what seems now in retrospect, the obvious concept of the character’s dual nature.  Far from the elegant and assured playboy embodied by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a tortured young man whose psyche was profoundly fractured by the murder of his parents when he was a small boy.

The hoarse growl he adopts as Batman is the object of frequent parody now, but Bale’s choice to differentiate the speaking voices of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego came as something of revelation to Nolan during the casting process, immediately setting Bale apart from the pack of candidates.

Bale brings his signature commitment to the role, fully inhabiting the character in mind, body, and soul to arguably create the definitive screen version of the iconic hero. As the newly-orphaned son of a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Bruce grows up in his parents’ mausoleum-like mansion, his every need and desire attended to by his caretaker and butler, Alfred.

In his first of several collaborations with Nolan, esteemed British actor Michael Caine effortlessly also creates a definitive version of the character, giving his young charge the necessary warmth and support he needs to one day take take over the reigns of his late father’s business empire, Wayne Enterprises.

Whereas prior Batman movies had audiences simply counting the minutes between the Caped Crusader’s crimefighting forays, Nolan makes the radical choice of delaying our first glimpse of Bruce in full Bat regalia until the halfway mark.

Instead, he traces Bruce’s formative years as his restless desire for justice prompts him to drop out of college and travel the world, giving himself a firsthand education in the nature of crime so that he can deliver said justice himself.  After landing himself in a Chinese prison, he is approached by Ducard, the urbane and charismatic face of a secret vigilante syndicate known as The League Of Shadows.

Liam Neeson proves an inspired choice in the role, becoming a firm yet compassionate mentor to Bruce while dispensing sage advice and virtuous platitudes that slowly reveal their inherently malevolent nature.

He presents himself as an underling to Ken Watanabe’s Ra’s Al Ghul, the enigmatic and Sphinx-like figurehead of The League Of Shadows– but appearances can be deceiving, and Bruce’s refusal to complete his final test (the execution of a common thief) brings his ideological compatibility with Ducard into urgent question.

Ducard’s lessons nevertheless prove influential when Bruce returns to Gotham and begins to formalize his own vigilante identity.

Of all Ducard’s teachings, Bruce’s biggest takeaway is that he is more powerful as a symbol than as a man– a key concept of Nolan’s vision that would fundamentally inform the remainder of the trilogy.  For Bruce, that symbol takes the form of a bat, inspired by a formative moment of fear from his childhood.

Combining his flinty determination for justice with the nigh-bottomless technological resources of Wayne Enterprises at his disposal, Bruce sets out into the night as Batman, intent on eradicating the cancer of organized crime that has infected the Gotham Police Department with corruption.

Batman’s will to act inspires clandestine partnerships with a cop named Jim Gordon and Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes, who has grown up to become an ambitious district attorney.  Renowned for his many villainous turns, Gary Oldman initially seemed an unusual choice to portray Gordon, the only decent cop in a police force besieged by compromise and corruption, but he would deliver a brilliant performance that cuts straight to the core of the character.

The character of Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes, is an original creation of Nolan’s with no comic book counterpart.  She’s an ambitious district attorney and the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, stretching all the way back to their childhood.  As such, she is the only person besides Alfred who can penetrate his veneer of AMERICAN PSYCHO-style narcissism and nonchalance to access the broken little boy at his core.

The Batman universe has always been known for its rich world of well-developed allies and enemies, a grand tradition in which BATMAN BEGINS easily follows.  In his performance as Wayne Enterprises R&D head Lucius Fox, Morgan Freeman takes one of the most underappreciated characters in Batman comic lore and transforms him into one of the property’s most indelible personalities and a key ally on par with Gordon or Alfred.  By supplying Bruce with the gear he needs to function as Batman, he becomes analogous to “Q” from the James Bond series, and a vital tool for Nolan to ground Batman’s fantastical tech in the real world.

Nolan is gracious enough to give Freeman his own character arc, as well as his own nemesis in the form of the smug chairman of the Wayne Enterprises board, played memorably by Rutger Hauer in yet another nod to BLADE RUNNER’s key influence on the picture.

MEMENTO’s Mark Boone Junior embodies the Gotham PD’s shameless corruption as Gordon’s slovenly partner, Flass, while Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone serves as the refined face of the city’s organized crime epidemic.

With his appearance here as the psychopathic psychiatrist Dr. Crane, Cillian Murphy would join Caine and Bale as a recurring collaborator in Nolan’s larger body of work.  Crane, of course, is better known by his supervillain alter ego The Scarecrow– a rogue who employs fear as a weapon, imposing terrifying hallucinations on his victims.

Like Ra’s Al Ghul, Scarecrow is one of the more fantastical villains in the Batman canon and doesn’t necessarily lend himself to a grounded cinematic reality, but Christopher Nolan creates a highly effective adaptation while staying true to the character’s comic roots.  His ability to incite fear stems not from a supernatural source, but from a chemical that he’s weaponized into a spray that paralyzes his targets with debilitating waking nightmares.

Whereas prior BATMAN films chose their villains first and forced the script to twist itself into narrative pretzels to accommodate their pairing, Nolan avoids marquee villains like The Joker or Penguin to place the focus squarely on Batman himself.

Besides the obvious benefit of using villains never before seen on the big screen, Nolan’s emphasis on story allows him to create a rather harmonious pairing between Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, linking the former’s fear spray directly to the latter by revealing its active ingredient to be a mysterious blue flower that grows in the mountains where The League Of Shadows has established their temple.

This unique pairing also allows the ideological concept of fear to emerge as the central theme of BATMAN BEGINS, a pillar upon which every narrative decision can revolve around.  Part of what makes THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY so resonant is Nolan’s ability to distill each individual installment into a singular, unifying theme.

In the case of BATMAN BEGINS, that theme is fear, and it doesn’t just make for a convenient justification of Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul’s master plot– it’s also an entirely appropriate prism through which to explore the genesis of Batman himself.

Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS is the first Batman film to truly understand and portray the character’s nature as something that strikes genuine fear in the hearts of criminals. Finally, Nolan uses the opportunity to include a few minor cameos that are nonetheless notable in the context of his artistic growth.

For instance, FOLLOWING’s Jeremy Theobald and Lucy Russell make fleeting appearances, the former being a technician for the Gotham Water Board and the latter being the elegant foil of a heated political discussion at a fancy restaurant.

GAME OF THRONES fans will also recognize the inclusion of King Joffrey himself, Jack Gleeson, as a small boy growing up in the Narrows who encounters Batman outside his back porch.

If INSOMNIA’s majestic cinematography hinted at Nolan’s ambitions towards classic Hollywood spectacle, then BATMAN BEGINS makes those designs clear for all to see.  Nolan is something of an iconoclast in the film industry, in that he vigorously bucks modern trends in favor of old school techniques.

He’s become a valiant defender of celluloid film, resistant to the relentless advances of digital filmmaking.  He endeavors to ground his stunts and set-pieces in practical effects as much as possible, where the vast majority of his peers prefer the surgical precision of computer-generated imagery.

He dismisses Hollywood’s convictions about 3D as the way to attract modern audiences to the theater, presenting an alternate argument for larger 2D formats like IMAX that are capable of staggering clarity.

This aspect of his artistic profile is why the release of a new Nolan is regarded as such a cultural event– his methods simply give his films the kind of weight and gravitas we accord to monuments.  BATMAN BEGINS is the first instance of this, harnessing the full power of a nine figure budget and putting it all up on the screen in a way that would popularize the concept of the “dark and gritty reboot”.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister returns for his third collaboration with Nolan, capturing the action on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and coming away with an Oscar nomination for his trouble.

Deep wells of inky shadow, low-hanging clouds of impenetrable fog and torrents of rain conjure up an appropriate film noir look that’s less THE THIRD MAN and more BLADE RUNNER in its rendering of a dystopic urban landscape.

Nolan packs his story with epic compositions and soaring camerawork, further peppering his signature helicopter aerials throughout to find Batman’s majestic silhouette amidst Gotham’s towering spires.  A color palette of earth & metal tones further grounds BATMAN BEGINS’ aesthetic in realism while immediately differentiating itself from prior cinematic iterations of the Caped Crusader.

While Nolan actively avoids replicating the frenetic handheld camerawork typical of action films of the time, he works with editor Lee Smith to bring a chaotic quick-cut approach to the film’s action scenes, especially in fights that aim to convey Batman’s mastery of hand-to-hand combat as an unstoppable and disorienting force, doling out a barrage of street justice in handy bite-size form.

The challenge of reinventing Batman goes much further than overhauling his iconic cape and cowl.  It also means redefining all the other little things that make Batman “Batman”: Wayne Manor, the Batmobile, his grappling hook, and the fantastical theatricality of his villains amidst a myriad of other aspects.

It’s a very intimidating task, but production designer Nathan Crowley proves up to the challenge, reinforcing Nolan’s grandiose vision of a cinematic reality.  All of Batman’s gear is based off real military tech in some capacity, the Batmobile (referred to within the film as The Tumbler) is completely overhauled into the bastard lovechild of a Hummer and a Lamborghini, and the sheer size of the practical sets — indeed, spanning the size of multiple city blocks — would require one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world to house them in.

Composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard tackle the unenviable task of following Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, one of the most instantly recognizable music cues in recent film history, but their efforts result in a score that obliterates our musical memories of Dark Knights past and provides the necessary lift for Nolan’s interpretation to soar.

Zimmer and Howard are excellent composers with highly celebrated individual careers, so their pairing here must’ve seemed very unusual in theory.  In practice, their partnership —  an idea brought to the table by Zimmer when Nolan initially approached him —  proves quite inspired, reflecting Batman’s fragmented psyche with a bifurcated approach that sees Howard tackling dramatic sequences with sweeping strings and mournful brass instruments, while Zimmer fuels the action with an urgent orchestral staccato and atonal electronic rhythms inspired by flapping bat wings.

The score has since become widely recognizable and imitated in the wake of the success of the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, so one could be forgiven for failing to remember just how visionary it truly is — it’s so radical in its adherence to the story’s key themes and willingness to experiment that it’s something of a minor miracle that Warner Brothers ever allowed it anywhere near their most prized property.

BATMAN BEGINS, and the larger DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, is not content to simply detail the exploits of the iconic hero as he romps through Gotham fighting crime.  It aspires to something greater, using its pulp framework to explore heavy ideological concepts.

Indeed, BATMAN BEGINS often plays like a law school thesis paper masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  While this has an unintentional side effect of forcing its characters to contort themselves into unwieldy “idea delivery machines” rather than sound like living, breathing people, the overall effect is nonetheless one of profound resonance that must have felt quite relevant at a time when news headlines were dominated by overreaching surveillance measures and the controversy of pre-emptive war.

With its exploration of of the urban landscape’s relationship to crime and justice,  BATMAN BEGINS provides an opportunity for Nolan to fully inhabit the wheelhouse of a key influence, Michael Mann.

He uses Batman as an entry point into a philosophical deconstruction of justice itself– what is justice, especially when delivered outside the bounds of conventional law enforcement or the court system?

When it comes to vigilantism, do the ends ever justify the means?  The justice system is just one of many that Nolan utilizes to tell BATMAN BEGINS’ story, taking inspiration from HBO’S THE WIRE in detailing how corruption spreads its tendrils into the various infrastructural systems that support a city.

This can be seen most immediately in the villains’ plot to use Gotham’s water supply as a delivery mechanism for an inert chemical agent that, once activated, causes anyone who ingests it to go insane with fear.

Gotham’s transportation system is also utilized, with an elevated subway car being another delivery mechanism for the machine that will catalyze Scarecrow’s fear drug upon reacting Wayne Tower. We also see social systems, represented by diverse economic castes and the varying appearances of different districts, giving Gotham a tangible, realistic quality that eluded Burton or Schumacher’s rather theatrical interpretations.

There’s an elegant, modern financial district anchored by Wayne Tower and inhabited by Gotham’s privileged class, while the poor and other undesirables are condemned below ground to a seedy, forgotten underbelly that appears to have been, at one point, the street-level Gotham before it was built over by the current one.

There’s also the Narrows, a densely-populated island of slums and abject poverty set apart from the mainland; home to Arkham Asylum and the majority of Gotham’s criminal population.

The inclusion of such a destitute neighborhood as the setting for the film’s climax contrasts directly with the mask of privilege and wealthiness Bruce bears to the public, further illustrating the extent to which he must depart from a life of luxury in order to purge himself of his interior demons.

BATMAN BEGINS’ exploration of urban systems and the malleability of the built environment has come to be a prominent theme in his subsequent work, culminating in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES with characters physically re-sculpting cities to their own singular designs.

A common image throughout Nolan’s filmography is that of imposing architectural monoliths brought to rubble by a fundamental weakness, an aspect of his artistic character no doubt profoundly affected by 9/11.

BATMAN BEGINS establishes this conceit rather literally, defacing the city streets around Wayne Tower by crashing a runaway subway train into it.  The fact that The Narrows is an island is also important– its isolation from the mainland becomes a critical flaw when Scarecrow’s fear gas is unleashed, instantly transforming the island slum into a confined labyrinth of terror.

In an oblique way, this aspect of BATMAN BEGINS also hits on the magician-like, puzzle-esque nature of his artistic persona, in that he takes something exceedingly mundane like the subway or an urban island and turns it into something of a spectacle.

That same nature also causes him to take what might otherwise be a fairly linear story and jumble up the timeline into a highly strategic non-linear order.  BATMAN BEGINS ostensibly covers Bruce Wayne’s long transformation into Batman, from his first encounter with bats in an old well as a child, to his first victory as a vigilante, and finally to the solidification of his new identity after saving Gotham from an insidious crime syndicate.

However, Nolan doesn’t quite tell the story in that order– at least, not during the first half.  We first meet Bruce as an inmate in a Chinese prison, detailing the circumstances leading up to his meeting Ducard and becoming involved in The League Of Shadows.

While he trains to become one of them, Nolan peppers in flashbacks that fill out the backstory, showing how Bruce’s parents were murdered and how his frustration over being unable to avenge their killer himself led to his travels abroad.

The ordering of these sequences is quite deliberate, calculated in such a way so as to maximize the emotional power of BATMAN BEGINS’ first half by feeding us visceral nuggets of backstory that underscore the context of the scene at hand.

This is what director Guillermo Del Toro is referring to when he calls Nolan an “emotional mathematician”– he evokes emotion by structuring his stories in a way that’s precise and measured– almost to a fault, as his detractors tend to find his films devoid of organic warmth, akin to the gut level revulsion of encountering the uncanny valley.

As Nolan’s filmography has grown, there indeed appears to be a formula for how he structures his stories for maximum emotional impact.  One of the most evident products of this formula is the specific manner in which he ends most of his films, riding an emotional wave conjured by a cathartic montage and swelling score before smash cutting to the film’s title (which is usually the first time we actually see the title itself onscreen).

BATMAN BEGINS marks the first time that Christopher Nolan employs this formula, a choice that’s quite apt for the subject matter and, in particular, the closing scene at hand.

The film naturally accommodates other thematic fascinations of Nolan’s, both established and emerging. BATMAN BEGINS continues a tradition seen in all of his work since FOLLOWING by positioning the protagonist as profoundly flawed.  Admittedly, this has always been a core aspect of the character since his creation by Bob Kane in 1939, but previous Batman pictures mostly chose to overlook it in favor of highlighting his heroic qualities.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is a man haunted by a horrible tragedy and desperately in need of a guiding purpose in his life.  His solution to dress up as a bat and fight crime, then, requires an intimidating amount of philosophical reflection in order to combat the sheer psychosis of the idea.

Even then, Bruce knows his quest is doomed– he’s well aware that no amount of crimefighting can bring back his parents or heal his psychological wounds, yet he can’t help but become utterly consumed by his desire for justice.

Nolan’s sartorial fascination with functional style finds plenty of opportunity for indulgence in BATMAN BEGINS, not just in the various utilities of the Batsuit’s design but also in the amount of screentime he allocates to the discussion of what the suits means on a symbolic level.

Finally, BATMAN BEGINS’ expansive, almost operatic scope allows Bruce to be seen travelling the world before settling back in Gotham, whereas previous Batman films never left the city limits.  Nolan would bring this same globetrotting sensibility to his subsequent work, orchestrating his stories so as to require frequent travel to exotic locales that help to convey a larger-than-life scale.

As his career has grown, his travels have extended beyond the confines of Earth itself, venturing to entirely new worlds in INTERSTELLAR’s outer space as well as the lucid unconscious of INCEPTION’s inner space.  BATMAN BEGINS has its sights set on far more modest horizons, employing the dramatic and almost-alien vistas of Iceland as a stand-in for the majestic Himalayan Mountains of Asia.

All of this led up to what was easily the most ambitious film of Nolan’s still-fledgling career.  His ability to convey scale had grown from FOLLOWING’s modest back-alley origins to that of a sweeping overview of an entire city under siege.

His self-confidence as a director, evidenced by his refusal to storyboard or sit in video village during the production of INSOMNIA, enabled him to execute his vision with awe-inspiring clarity while further bucking long-established studio filmmaking practices– indeed, he felt that every shot was so vital to telling his story that he dispatched with a second unit altogether, gathering every single action beat, establishing shot, or insert himself.

While not without its fair share of criticisms, BATMAN BEGINS debuted in the summer of 2005 to very positive reviews, many of which claimed that the Caped Crusader had finally been done cinematic justice.  The film also established Nolan’s enviable ability to create box office juggernauts, earning $373 million in worldwide receipts.

Far from simply being just another summer blockbuster, BATMAN BEGINS has proven highly influential, causing a chain reaction of events still being felt across the cinematic landscape nearly fifteen years later.

Hollywood’s trend of comic book adaptations had truly begun with the success of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000, but BATMAN BEGINS showed the world that these properties could be something more than just escapist fare– they could be legitimate forums in which to explore complex social and political issues.

Furthermore, it pioneered the now-stale trend of “rebooting” a dormant or failed property as a way to restore its freshness– indeed, CASINO ROYALE and the Daniel Craig-era of the James Bond series was a direct reaction to BATMAN BEGINS.

The success of its limited IMAX run also established a viable market for large format presentations of narrative features, offering a technical advantage suited to huge spectacle that conventional theaters or television simply couldn’t match.  Nolan himself would become enamored of the format previously best known for short-form nature documentaries, beginning a love affair that would fundamentally shape his career.

For audiences, BATMAN BEGINS would begin their love affair with Nolan himself– the character of Batman became, for many, an entry point into the burgeoning director’s particular style of filmmaking and created a whole new wave of Nolan admirers and acolytes.

For the Nolan faithful who had already seen the light with MEMENTO, the massive success of BATMAN BEGINS reinforced their convictions in his formidable technical skill-set and narrative dexterity.

In one fell bat-swoop, Nolan had gone from indie maverick to the biggest VIP on the Warner Brothers lot, well on his way towards a destiny as a director who would revolutionize and revitalize old-fashioned spectacle filmmaking for a new generation of audiences around the world.  The Hollywood machine demanded a sequel, and quickly, but a return trip to Gotham wasn’t on Nolan’s itinerary just yet.


Nolan: THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Director Christopher Nolan didn’t have to search very far to find the subject material for his follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS– his fifth feature film had already been in development since MEMENTO, and would have been his fourth after INSOMNIA, had Gotham City not beckoned so urgently.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan had been working intermittently over the previous five years adapting Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel “The Prestige”, a tale about dueling magicians in London at the turn of the twentieth century.

The brothers no doubt felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a fitting adaptation, considering that they had been chosen by Priest directly over higher-profile filmmakers like Sam Mendes, who wished to make the picture as his own follow-up to the Oscar-winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999).

Nolan benefited from Priest’s preference for up-and-coming filmmakers, wowing the author off the strength of FOLLOWING alone, as MEMENTO was still in post-production at the time.  The Nolan brothers attributed the length of their writing process to the complexity of their ambitions, wishing to reshape the form of their screenplay to the thematic structure of the book in a bid to become the cinematic embodiment of the magic trade’s core principles.

Capturing these ideals proved teasingly elusive, to the extent that the brothers delivered the final shooting script only three days before the start of production.  Thankfully, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed– THE PRESTIGE has gone on to become one of Nolan’s most closely-scrutinized efforts, regarded not just as a compelling and complex dramatic thriller, but also as a revelatory expression of Nolan’s own artistic character via the philosophies that inform his craft.

THE PRESTIGE continues Nolan’s symbiotic working relationship with Warner Brothers, who co-produces with Touchstone Pictures, but it also sees him reuniting with Newmarket Films, the entity that launched his career with MEMENTO.

The story is concerned with the sustained game of one-upmanship between rival magicians– the aristocratic American, Robert Angier, played by Hugh Jackman, and the coarse, working-class Englishman, Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale.

Bale’s casting, as well as Michael Caine’s as a paternal stage engineer named Cutter, reflects how quickly THE PRESTIGE came together once BATMAN BEGINS got off the ground: both actors are able to parlay the creative momentum of their prior collaboration with Nolan into compelling performances that bring the period alive with fresh immediacy.  As the game of wits between Borden and Angier escalates, they draw their friends and family into the fray to increasingly devastating results.

Rebecca Hall fares better than her role as Borden’s increasingly put-upon wife might otherwise suggest, taking what very little she has to work with in terms of dramatic meat and chewing it vigorously.

Scarlett Johansson pulls heavily from the “femme fatale” archetype in her performance as Olivia Wenscombe, a double-crossing magician’s assistant whose allegiance is– to put it politely– fickle.

David Bowie, Andy Serkis, and Ricky Jay round out Nolan’s cast of note;  an inspired trio, considering all three are illusionists in their own right.  Jay is a magic enthusiast in real life, and helped to coach Bale and Jackman in the trade while serving in his role as a fellow magician named Milton.

Serkis is well-known for his innovations with motion capture performance, using digital effects to transcend what the human body can physically do, or transform it into something else entirely.  However, he gets no such opportunity to practice that trade in THE PRESTIGE, in which he plays Nikola Tesla’s decidedly human assistant, Alley.

Bowie plays Tesla himself, the eccentric real-life inventor who is fictionalized here as something of a reclusive wizard of the electric occult– the mastermind behind a mysterious technology that allows Angier to harness a power far beyond his ability to truly understand it.

Returning cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley cement their status as core members of Nolan’s inner collaborative circle, each scoring a respective Oscar nomination for their efforts here.

THE PRESTIGE expectedly reinforces Nolan’s reputation for impeccable cinematography and unrivaled production value– but this time, it almost comes in spite of the significant budgetary resources at his disposal.  Stylistically-speaking, the film has more in common with his earlier independent work than his two recent studio efforts, often employing a handheld camera that finds the 2.35:1 frame organically instead of imposing precise and deliberate compositions on his subjects.

Nolan and Pfister complement this approach by avoiding artificial light whenever possible, which works in unison with the handheld camerawork to bring Nolan’s first recreation of a historical period to vivid life.

Whereas Nolan’s prior reliance on natural light on FOLLOWING was born of practical necessity, his adoption of it here exhibits his supreme confidence as a filmmaker, in that he’s actively choosing to deprive himself of the luxury of a controlled lighting scheme.  It also serves as thematic reinforcement for the story itself, being set in a world that was coming out of the industrial revolution and into a bold new era of electricity.

All this being said, Nolan doesn’t quite fully embrace his indie roots– he still delves regularly into the studio toybox, pulling out dolly tracks, crane arms, and helicopter mounts to imbue his picture with a majestic, classical sense of scale.  Angier’s journey to see Tesla in his isolated compound at Colorado Springs also allows Nolan to dabble with the iconic visual language of the western genre.

Just as he had done with BATMAN BEGINS, production designer Nathan Crowley spent a great deal of THE PRESTIGE’s development process working out of Nolan’s garage, working intimately with the director to establish the physical aesthetic as manifest in the sets, props, and costumes.

THE PRESTIGE utilizes a similar color palette to BATMAN BEGINS, rendering the 35mm film image in earth & metal tones, warming up interior sequences with a cozy amber hue while lathering exteriors in a cold, cobalt veneer.

The color red is used sparingly, saved for the interiors of the majestic theatres or Angier’s Colorado stagecoach so as to better evoke the romanticism of their profession while contrasting it against the grimy working-class environs from which their shows provide a fantastical escape.

Unlike his work on BATMAN BEGINS, Crowley built only one set for THE PRESTIGE– the under-stage section of the theatre where Angier, Borden, and Cutter congregate after a hard day’s work of amazing the unwashed masses.

With the exception of the Universal backlot subbing in for the muddy streets of London, much of THE PRESTIGE was shot on location, giving the film a smoky, industrial texture that simply can’t be replicated on a soundstage.

Some might be surprised to learn that the majority of THE PRESTIGE was shot in Los Angeles, utilizing well-chosen locales that handily pass for 1900’s-era London, like Greystone Mansion– a grand oil tycoon’s estate in Beverly Hills often seen in a variety of other films like The Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1988) or Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007).

The various theatres seen throughout the film were found amidst the opulent, forgotten auditoriums and movie palaces of downtown LA’s Broadway Theatre District– many of which had been sitting unused for years, ready to play the part with little need for additional set dressing.

Post-production offers yet another opportunity for Nolan to reteam with previous collaborators.  BATMAN BEGINS’ editor Lee Smith reprises his duties here, effortlessly juggling the complicated machinery of Nolan’s narrative.

Composer David Julyan also returns for his fourth collaboration with Nolan after sitting out the scoring job on BATMAN BEGINS.  Julyan’s suite of cues for THE PRESTIGE bears a heavy resemblance to his prior work for Nolan, foregoing any sort of melodic shape in favor of a brooding, orchestral drone.

Of all the creative aspects that make up THE PRESTIGE, most critics agreed that Julyan’s work here was the weak link, content to be regularly overwhelmed by Nolan’s visuals while offering up very little in the way of its own character.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of THE PRESTIGE’s music is the fact that Nolan uses the Thom Yorke track “Analyse” over the credits– notable by its rare exception to Nolan’s otherwise-established preference for original score over licensed needledrops.

As of this writing, THE PRESTIGE marks the last time Nolan would work with his oldest collaborator, with the consensus of critical disappointment surrounding Julyan’s score perhaps solidifying Nolan’s burgeoning partnership with Hans Zimmer as a more appropriate fit for the big-budget studio filmmaker he was becoming.

THE PRESTIGE may have been overshadowed in the wake of the larger success of his subsequent films, but it stands to reason that it’s also a highly personal work that most intimately convey’s Nolan’s artistic worldview towards his own profession.  He clearly sees undeniable similarities in the stagecraft behind both magic and filmmaking, like a shared emphasis on sleight of hand and visual trickery to make the audience believe in something unreal, or impossible.

The central philosophy of magic that gives the film its title consists of three prongs– The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.  Nolan weaves this philosophy into the structure of the screenplay itself, assigning each prong to its corresponding act.  The Pledge presents the audience with a seemingly normal object, just as Act 1 introduces the status quo of a particular story’s setting and characters.

The Turn finds the illusionist doing something extraordinary with that object, like making it disappear– a fitting allusion to Act 2’s need to present the protagonist with a problem that must be solved.

But as the film continually reminds us, it’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring it back.  Act 3 and The Prestige serve the same purpose: to return to the status quo via extraordinary, and sometimes even supernatural, effort.

In typical Christopher Nolan style, however, THE PRESTIGE doesn’t present it sequence of events in such a simple or linear fashion.  The story rests on a series of key revelations, many of which become more effective or intriguing when the audience doesn’t yet have full context.

Just as he did in his previous films, Nolan and editor Lee Smith chart the rise and fall of both Angier and Borden out of sequence, jumbling up the chronology for strategic effect much like a magician will employ distraction techniques and sleight of hand to conceal the machinery that makes the trick possible.

Angier and Borden also follow in Nolan’s grand parade of profoundly flawed protagonists– both men are consumed by their ambition and competitiveness, driven to do great things that give them renown and acclaim, but also horrible deeds that tarnish their careers with infamy.

Their shared desire for greatness, no matter the cost, becomes their Achilles heel, forcing them to new lows even as they struggle to one-up each other.  Nolan’s interest in functional style takes a necessary turn towards opulence in THE PRESTIGE, dressing his protagonists in peacocking threads that reinforce their strategic need to dazzle their audiences with flash and elegance.

Their garb even serves to conceal complicated undersuits vital to executing dramatic, impossible tricks; best seen in a primitive, mechanical contraption of Cutter’s design that looks like something Batman would have worn had he been born a century earlier.

Nolan’s direction clearly benefits from the confidence and wealth of experience he accumulated on the set of BATMAN BEGINS, navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of THE PRESTIGE’s narrative with effortless ease and dexterity.

Interestingly enough, THE PRESTIGE was one of three films released in 2006 to deal with the world of magic, the other two being THE ILLUSIONIST and Woody Allen’s SCOOP (which also starred Jackman and Johansson).

The film enjoyed a robust run at the box office and a slew of positive reviews from critics, attaining a level of success it might not have had otherwise, had interest in Nolan’s artistic character not been fueled by the monster hit that was BATMAN BEGINS.

In the years since its release, THE PRESTIGE has only grown in critical and cultural regard, continuing to reveal new layers of thematic complexity and technical mastery with each repeat viewing.


Nolan: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The runaway success of BATMAN BEGINS in 2005 revitalized the flagging Batman movie franchise, leaving fans clamoring for more of director Christopher Nolan’s expansive and groundbreaking vision.

A sequel was inevitable, but rather than capitalize off the resurgent Batmania by pushing out the next chapter as fast as possible, Warner Brothers executives did something quite unimaginable by today’s standards– they gave Nolan the space and time he needed to regroup and refresh his artistic approach.

THE PRESTIGE served as an effective palette cleanser in this regard, its warm reception further consolidating Nolan’s influence and bolstering his directorial profile as a breakout visionary.  Now that his artistic deck had been cleared, Nolan was ready to consider what a return trip to Gotham City might entail.

There were certain expectations, of course– a sequel would no doubt find Batman operating at the apex of his powers, and BATMAN BEGINS’ ending teaser scene suggested he would finally do battle with his arch-nemesis, The Joker.

Beyond that, Nolan had near-limitless creative and financial freedom to realize his vision.  As it would turn out, that vision would grow to become so complex and ambitious, it would require a canvas no less than four stories tall to properly contain it.

In crafting a fitting follow-up to BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan once again looked to classic graphic novels for inspiration– specifically, THE KILLING JOKE and THE LONG HALLOWEEN, which respectively detailed the origin stories of two iconic Batman villains The Joker and Two-Face.

While he didn’t adapt those stories outright, certain aspects of these comics nevertheless served as touchstones for Nolan’s second foray into the wider Batman universe.  Receiving another story assist from David S. Goyer, Nolan set about crafting the screenplay with his writing partner and brother, Jonathan.

The brothers were intent on using this opportunity to depart significantly from established Batman lore and remake the Caped Crusader in their image, to the extent that they dropped the word “Batman” from the title of their screenplay entirely– a first in the property’s cinematic history.

The title they would use instead — THE DARK KNIGHT –simultaneously invoked one of Batman’s alternate mantles while signaling their intention to transcend the confines of the character’s comic book origins.

To make a Batman movie without “Batman” in the title is an admittedly risky move, and the fact that Warner Brothers allowed this to come to pass speaks volumes about the total trust they placed in Nolan as the current steward of their most-prized property.

As we all know now, their faith would be rewarded many times over, with THE DARK KNIGHT becoming a financial and critical juggernaut that not only installed Nolan as one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors, but fundamentally changed the course of American studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future.

THE DARK KNIGHT picks up roughly nine months after BATMAN BEGINS left off, with the revelation of Batman’s existence compelling the citizens and bureaucrats of Gotham City to build a better, more-just society.

The cobwebs of organized crime that once riddled the city with corruption have been largely swept away to the fringes, held in check by a debilitating fear of an unexpected appearance by Batman (or one of his many knockoff impersonators).

From his vantage point in a spartan penthouse high above the city, Bruce Wayne overlooks a cleaner Gotham and eagerly anticipates the day when Batman’s brand of vigilante justice can be replaced by legitimate agents, like the ascendant District Attorney, Harvey Dent.

Christian Bale reprises his role from BATMAN BEGINS, finding the iconic hero at the peak of his powers.  As this particular incarnation of Bruce Wayne, Bale appears much leaner– gaunt, even–  than he did previously.  This Bruce is a man who is deep into his obsession with justice, burdened by the philosophical weight of his calling and the growing realization his work may never be done.

His best hope for retirement lies in the efforts of Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart in a performance that draws heavily from the legacy of tragic political idealists like Robert F. Kennedy.  Hailed as a “White Knight” and a legitimate response to Batman’s shadow campaign,  the city’s new top cop sets about ridding Gotham of corruption through the court system and a relentless zeal for prosecution.

The relationship between Batman and Harvey Dent is the emotional backbone of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story, with both men bound to each other by principle, ambition, and their love for Rachel Dawes.

Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces BATMAN BEGINS’ Katie Holmes, arguably delivering a superior performance that ably evokes the nuanced heartbreak of loving two men who aren’t just willing, but eager to risk their lives in the name of justice.  She continues to be a key figure in Bruce Wayne’s life, with the switch in performers hardly registering thanks to the compelling and unexpected way in which Nolan expands and develops the character’s arc to its logical — and tragic —  endpoint.

BATMAN BEGINS closed on a triumphant, albeit cautious note– taking great pains to warn of the perils of escalation.  Naturally, THE DARK KNIGHT details how this manifests in a world where the good guys dress like bats and leap off of rooftops.  As the city’s various criminal factions are squeezed to their breaking point, they turn to a man they don’t understand– a psychotic criminal with no allegiances or backstory and known only as The Joker.

Easily the most recognizable and influential of all Batman’s various villains, The Joker as manifest in Nolan’s universe is, first and foremost, an agent of chaos.  He matches Batman’s theatricality even as he positions himself as the Dark Knight’s philosophical antithesis.  He spreads his nihilistic worldview by finding and using the weaknesses that lie in his opponents, turning them against themselves and each other.

After teasing his presence at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, there was much anticipation as to just how exactly Nolan would portray The Joker through the prism of his grounded, real-world approach.

The casting of Heath Ledger, then, was met with a significant amount of premature criticism from the blogosphere– here was a good-looking actor who, while generally regarded as a talented thespian, was so completely outside the physicality expected of someone entrusted to play Batman’s most iconic nemesis.

On top of that, Ledger had to compete with Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989)– a performance that many considered to be the definitive screen depiction of The Joker.  To prepare, Ledger reportedly locked himself away in an isolated motel room for six weeks, keeping a journal he wrote in character and drawing inspiration from figures like Sid Vicious and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as he developed and perfected a slithery, serpentine energy all his own.

Topped off by a mop of greasy green hair, smeared face makeup, and a sinister Glasgow Smile, Ledger’s performance immediately silenced the critics the moment he appeared on screen and performed his now-infamous Magic Pencil Trick.

A budding director in his own right, Ledger  went as far as directing the Joker’s hostage videos himself– a rare instance of Nolan ceding total directorial control, and an illustratration of both Ledger’s complete command of the character and Nolan’s unwavering trust in him as a collaborator.

The collective interest in Ledger’s depiction of the Joker was no doubt magnified by his untimely death in January 2008, which fueled something of a morbid fascination considering he was playing such a ghoulish character.

When the final product was unveiled, Ledger’s last complete performance was met with unanimous praise by critics and audiences alike, generating a wave of appreciation that culminated in a posthumous Oscar win for the late actor in the Best Supporting Actor category– a first for the superhero genre.

Since then, Ledger’s depiction of The Joker has gone on to invade our collective consciousness, leaving behind a legacy of anarchic iconography that’s been used in anything and everything: from political protest memes, to Halloween costumes and, most unfortunately, real-world copycat killers.

Nolan’s handling of the equally-iconic villain Harvey Two-Face was also fraught with peril– a rogue made infamous by the grotesque disfigurement covering half his body and his penchant for flipping a coin over his murderous decisions, the character as established in the comics was already a far cry from Nolan’s vision of a grounded reality.

Tommy Lee Jones’ hamball depiction in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER (1995) was essentially Diet Joker, so Nolan and Eckhart had a low hurdle to clear when it came to molding an adversary who could hold his own against Ledger’s dominating performance.

As mentioned previously, Harvey Dent’s fall from grace is the major dramatic through-line of THE DARK KNIGHT, with his death having profound implications for Gotham’s future that will resonate through the remainder of the trilogy.  Nolan takes great care to establish the monster already lying within before Dent’s fateful transformation, showing how his passion for justice and his friends can be perverted and twisted in a way that betrays his core principles.

The loss of Rachel Dawes and the burning of half his body in a gasoline fire orchestrated by The Joker doesn’t drive him to evil, it only brings out the evil that was there all along– simmering beneath his good looks and cool confidence.  Nolan and Eckhart wisely imbue Harvey Two-Face with a tragic sympathy that allows the audience to swallow the more outlandish aspects of his character, and more crucially, mourn for the loss of Gotham’s bright future during his brief reign of terror.

Owing to the film’s epic sense of scope and vision of a city gripped by crisis, a large  supporting cast anchors Nolan’s core players while serving as a testament to his ability to attract prestigious talent.  Familiar faces like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Cillian Murphy reprise their respective roles from BATMAN BEGINS, their loyalty rewarded with compelling dramatic arcs all their own.

Caine’s Alfred is the same dependable old butler he’s always been, but the burden of keeping Bruce’s secrets is clearly beginning to take its toll on him.  Freeman’s Lucius Fox continues to balance supplying Batman with updated crime-fighting gear while running Wayne Enterprises, but we also find him grappling with the ethical dilemmas inherent in assisting a vigilante unbound by the constraints of legitimate justice systems.
In order to find and combat The Joker, Batman has to resort to ever more-precarious methods of surveillance that blur the line between right and wrong– in this context, Fox becomes something of a cypher for 2008 audiences grappling with their own ideological standing on The War On Terror’s overreaching domestic surveillance measures.  Oldman’s Jim Gordon is more grizzled and battle-hardened since we last saw him, and his continued immunity against corruption sees him finally elevated to his character’s classic rank of Commissioner.

As Jonathan Crane and his villainous alter-ego Scarecrow, Murphy finds his character having fallen on hard times since the failure of his plot in BATMAN BEGINS– his influence reduced to that of a lowly drug dealer hawking his toxic fear compound as a recreational hallucinogen.

A few new faces join the fray, such as Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonell, Anthony Michael Hall, and William Fichtner.  Roberts plays the smug heir to the Falcone crime empire, Salvatore Marone; his general ineffectiveness symbolizing organized crime’s waning grip on the city.

Carbonell draws influence from real-world bureaucrats like then-Los Angeles Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, in his performance as Gotham City’s mayor, Anthony Garcia — a confident and idealistic politician who is eager to usher in a new age of prosperity for his beloved city.

Hall, better known for his turns in various John Hughes movies as a gangly awkward teenager, appears all grown-up here as a prominent news anchor who finds himself ensnared by The Joker’s masterful manipulation of the media.  Fichtner is the first of Nolan’s many nods to Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), cast as a feisty bank clerk during the Joker’s robbery sequence that opens the film.

Whereas BATMAN BEGINS used the idea of fear as its thematic backbone, THE DARK KNIGHT organizes its narrative around the central theme of chaos.  The Joker’s chief objective is to break down the established order by calling attention to the fragility of the ideological pillars that hold it up.

A rigid structure that won’t bend will break instead, rendering itself ineffective against a force that needs no structure whatsoever.  He sows the seed of doubt in his victims, calling into question their inherent natures, and then simply sits back and enjoys the ensuing fireworks as they do the destruction for him.

A perfect example of this is the chaos that ensues when The Joker calls on the citizens of Gotham to murder a Wayne employee who is threatening to reveal the identity of Batman.  If the man isn’t dead within an hour, he’ll blow up a hospital– the identity of which he strategically declines to divulge.  Faced with the prospect of losing their loved ones, the citizens of Gotham turn out en masse to eliminate the employee, besieging the police with an overwhelming and unpredictable wave of opposition.

THE DARK KNIGHT’s expansive canvas allows for the exploration of several other core concepts that inform the greater scope of the trilogy, such as escalation and various sociopolitical systems.  Foreshadowed by Gordon at the end of BATMAN BEGINS, escalation becomes a major driving force of THE DARK KNIGHT’s story– in their desperation, Gotham’s criminal underworld takes on a theatricality to match Batman’s, while their efforts become more pronounced and destructive.

Batman’s vigilantism inspires a slew of copycat wanna-be’s decked out in hockey pads and armed with shotguns.  Even Batman’s crime-fighting techniques become more invasive and unethical as he’s forced to lower himself to combat The Joker’s unconventional campaign.

Indeed, Christopher Nolan uses THE DARK KNIGHT to explore how the cost of justice is higher when doing combat with an agent of chaos– the sheer unpredictability and absence of a pattern necessitates the blurring of the thin blue line that stands between criminality and law & order.  While these ideas resonate regardless of time or context, THE DARK KNIGHT felt profoundly resonant in 2008, drawing clear parallels to the Bush Administration’s use of overreaching measures like the Patriot Act to combat terrorism at home and abroad.

Critics were divided on whether Nolan’s treatment of the subject matter was critical or actually supportive of these policies, which reflects not on Nolan’s ability to convey a stance on the subject, but rather the ethical quandaries that such a complicated subject engenders.  Rather than simply retread his exploration of the justice system from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan finds new avenues to wander, showing how the system is limited by the arbitrary boundaries of jurisdiction.

A city cop in New York simply can’t go and arrest someone in Boston, for example– only an agency with federal jurisdiction like the FBI can do that.  However, a vigilante unaffiliated with an official law enforcement agency has no such limitation.  THE DARK KNIGHT finds Batman venturing outside of Gotham for the first time on-screen, traveling to Hong Kong to forcibly extraditable a corrupt accountant back to Gotham to answer for his crimes there.

As Batman, he can do things the Gotham PD can’t– a power that serves him well when needed, but also casts the nature of his heroism into doubt.  One of the film’s most memorable lines belongs to Harvey Dent: “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”.

The legality of Batman’s crimefighting forays has always been a grey area, but can usually be justified on an ethical level.  The nature of The Joker’s antagonism forces Batman to compromise his ethics, building a giant array of networked cell phones that visualizes signals into a kind of sonar so that he can better track his nemesis.

Indeed, the manipulation of communications systems like cell phones, satellites, and transmission towers as weapons to use against the populace echoes BATMAN BEGINS’ use of water & transportation systems for similar ends.

The blatant privacy invasion of spying on the city’s population via their cell phones has profound implications for the righteousness of Batman’s quest, setting the stage for his self-imposed exile at the end of the film.

The Joker’s self-proclaimed “ace in the hole” is his turning of Dent into a homicidal maniac– a development that stands to destroy the morale of Gotham’s citizens and tear down everything Batman and Gordon have worked so far to build.  In order to beat The Joker, Batman realizes he must take the fall for Dent’s crimes, sacrificing his heroic standing so that the dream of a better Gotham can survive.

THE DARK KNIGHT represents a major turning point in the development of Nolan’s visual aesthetic, establishing a super-sized approach to cinematic spectacle that’s since become his dominant artistic signature.  The bulk of the picture was shot on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but in his pursuit of higher image quality over technical gimmickry, Nolan chose to shoot crucial action sequences and other select shots with IMAX cameras.

A longtime tenant in the nature documentary realm, IMAX had never been used to shoot all or even a portion of a conventional Hollywood feature, and for good reason: the cameras were gigantic, bulky, and cumbersome, and the mechanical noise produced by the 70mm film running horizontally through the camera meant that any sound captured on-set was often unusable.

Shooting a simple dialogue scene, let alone an ambitious action sequence, posed enormous logistical problems that would scare away any filmmaker– but Nolan was undeterred; he reasoned that if an IMAX camera could be lugged up into space, then there’s no reason it couldn’t be used for studio filmmaking.

This understandably caused no shortage of skepticism and trepidation on the part of Nolan’s crew — especially the Steadicam operator, who had to physically mount that monster onto his body on a regular basis — but Nolan’s supreme confidence and eagerness to innovate pushed them through their initial wariness to deliver an awe-inspiring cinematic experience the likes of which had never been seen before.

Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister found they had to adjust certain aspects of their style accordingly, such as designing their IMAX compositions to leave a significant amount of dead space at the top of the frame.

This was done to compensate for their discovery that audiences faced with a four-story screen had to keep their eyes trained towards the center out of sheer necessity.  While the use of IMAX is vital to conveying the truly epic scale of Nolan’s vision, its intermixing with the Cinemascope 35mm footage makes for an admittedly disorienting viewing experience at first– especially on home video.

While he uses IMAX mostly for self-contained sequences like the opening bank heist, he also employs it for select aerials and individual “statement” shots, which causes an abrupt change in the aspect ratio, filling out the screen at one moment and then compressing into the letterbox form factor in another.

To Nolan’s credit, however, one becomes quickly accustomed to the shift, and it ultimately doesn’t detract from the power of his storytelling.  It is a testament to Nolan’s reputation as a visionary that his use of IMAX has only seldomly been adopted by other directors– indeed, shooting a large portion of his films in the format has become a high-profile artistic signature of his, to the degree that anyone else who tries it risks being seen as a copycat or a pale imitation.

Rather than simply replicate the general aesthetic of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan and returning collaborators, Wally Pfister and Nathan Crowley, expand upon its conceit of a cinematic reality by further embracing an air of immediate and visceral realism in the sequel.  Pfister’s cinematography departs from the amber-toned look of BATMAN BEGINS in favor of a colder, steel & stone color palette that consists primarily of greys, blues, and greens.

Nolan maintains his use of classical, spectacle-oriented camerawork, covering Batman’s crime-fighting forays with a mixture of grandiose dolly shots, majestic cranes, and sweeping helicopter aerials while also sprinkling in the occasional handheld move, speeding Russian arm maneuver, or circular dolly.

The circular dolly in particular is an admittedly overused technique in contemporary filmmaking — a quick and easy way to add stylistic flair — but Nolan finds the perfect use for it in a sequence where the Joker taunts Rachel Dawes at a high society political fundraiser, unmooring the audience’s sense of safety and building the suspense with a dizzying loss of control.

In a rather surprising move for a Batman film, Nolan chooses to stage a great deal of THE DARK KNIGHT in the cold light of day.  As such, the film’s aesthetic deals in bright washes of natural light instead of the sculpted theatricality of BATMAN BEGINS’ noir-influenced lighting scheme.

Crowley’s production design echoes this sentiment, foregoing the control of a soundstage for the tactile realism of a location shoot.  Nolan and his team once again use Chicago as the base for their particular conception of Gotham, but refrain from obscuring it behind layers of exaggeration and stylistic artifice as they did on BATMAN BEGINS.

As a result, the Gotham City of THE DARK KNIGHT feels like a real world location, and not one from a comic book.  Just look at the dramatic differences in the facade of Wayne Tower between the two films– BATMAN BEGINS features Wayne Tower as a grand Art Deco spire anchored to the center of Gotham, whereas THE DARK KNIGHT’s rendition is simply just another hulking slab of concrete and glass rendered in a generic, corporate style of architecture.

This isn’t Nolan and Crowley’s only major departure from established BATMAN lore– the sacking of Wayne Manor in the previous installment gives the filmmakers an excuse to relocate Bruce to a spartan penthouse high above the city, which makes for a compelling change of scenery while adhering to the core themes of Nolan’s story.

Gone too is the iconic Batcave, replaced by a minimalist bunker hidden underneath a shipping yard and accessed via an elevator hidden inside an unassuming container.  It’s here that Batman temporarily stores his computers, suits, and his Tumbler, which Nolan has the audacity to destroy during a major chase sequence.

In doing so, he reveals a secondary vehicle hidden inside: the Batpod, which is essentially a futuristic motorcycle built from the machinery around the Tumbler’s oversized front tires and gifted with the kind of supernatural maneuverability that the Hell’s Angels could only dream of.

The major risk in developing Batman’s world out to include more toys and tech is the power it gives to the merchandising department — it is, after all, the original sin that sunk Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN and put the franchise into a coma for nearly a decade.

Thankfully, Nolan’s expansion of Batman’s crime-fighting tools is done first and foremost in service to story, merchandising needs be damned.  This kind of artistic integrity strengthens his overall vision, giving it a palpable weight and gravitas that commonly eludes other comic book adaptations.

On the postproduction side, Nolan retains key collaborators like editor Lee Smith and composing team Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.  Grandiose but understated at the same time, Lee’s work often gets lost in the conversation, upstaged by the more immediate aspects of THE DARK KNIGHT’s craftsmanship.

However, Lee proves himself a crucial contributor to Nolan’s aesthetic, his ability to trace and intercut multiple parallel lines of action across one sustained sequence dovetailing effortlessly with Nolan’s epic scope and penchant for orchestrating the action like a symphony– each character thread becoming, in effect, its own instrument; played in harmony with the others and swelling to a climactic crescendo.

A prime example of this is the fateful sequence where Batman must choose to save Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent, only for his choice to be foiled by The Joker’s tricky manipulations.

There’s several different threads going on here that Nolan and Smith must track– Rachel and Harvey being held captive, each in a separate location that’s primed to explode at the same time; Batman, racing across the city to save Rachel; Gordon with the assist, racing to the other end of the city to save Harvey; and The Joker, stuck in custody at the MCU and taunting his captors even as he puts his escape plan into action.

Nolan and Smith expertly orchestrate a cascading series of events towards their stunning conclusion, cross-cutting between the various threads so as to wring out the maximum amount of suspense.

The original score by Zimmer and Howard works overtime in this regard, driving the action with a thundering orchestral sound that develops and expands upon the themes introduced in BATMAN BEGINS.  A brand new theme for The Joker was to be expected, but Zimmer and Howard manage to produce a unique sound that no one could have expected.

Foregoing any sort of symphonic sound entirely, the composing team captures the anarchic essence of The Joker by distilling his theme down to a single, solitary note.  A mix of string instruments are electronically manipulated to produce an unconventional sound, their pitch seemingly escalating in perpetuity without breaking.

The effect is profoundly — and appropriately —  unsettling, like dancing on the edge of a razor.  The Joker’s theme mirrors the minimalism of Batman’s theme even as it becomes its ideological counterweight, musically reinforcing THE DARK KNIGHT’s emphasis on Batman’s and The Joker’s yin-and-yang relationship in an inspired and wholly unexpected manner.

With its ambitions and successful execution as a sprawling urban crime drama, THE DARK KNIGHT owes a profound debt to the influence of Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, HEAT.  A self-styled acolyte of Mann’s, Nolan finds in THE DARK KNIGHT a prime opportunity to make his own HEAT equivalent, albeit one where the bank robbers wear clown masks instead of ski masks.

Indeed, there are many direct connections to Mann’s film that we can draw from THE DARK KNIGHT.  In both its conception and execution, the opening bank heist sequence reads as a comic book twist on HEAT’s centerpiece scene, right down to the tactical minutiae and precision timing the criminals employ to successfully carry out the operation.

It’s not a coincidence that William Fichtner cameos in this scene, his presence serving as a playful nod to his Van Zandt character from HEAT.  While Van Zandt was a fairly meek criminal banker predisposed to hiding out in his office when the going got rough, here he’s empowered with the braggadocious confidence that only a high-powered shotgun can provide.

HEAT’s influence continues to course through THE DARK KNIGHT, whether it’s the latter inheriting the former’s signature cobalt & steel color palette, or Bruce’s spartan penthouse echoing Neil McCauley’s infamously empty beachside condo.

The fateful interrogation sequence between Batman and The Joker riffs on HEAT’s iconic coffee shop scene, with both staging themselves respectively as a battle of wits between two men sitting around a table and psychoanalyzing each other until they realize they have met their ideological inverse and intellectual equal.

Additionally, Gordon is shown heading up Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, the same department that Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna commanded in HEAT.  Indeed, Nolan lavishes a substantial amount of attention on the inner workings of the law enforcement complex as it pertains to government and the maintaining of order.

Naturally, they have their work cut out for them in regards to The Joker, and must respond in a far more dramatic fashion than Hanna’s crew in HEAT ever did.  Among its many praises during release, critics marveled how THE DARK KNIGHT had transcended the trappings of the superhero genre to become a truly great urban crime drama– even then, the comparisons to HEAT were admittedly immediate, but the fact remains that, by applying HEAT’s storytelling template to the world of Batman, Nolan showed that a comic book movie could be so much more than its source material, and that the character of Batman was more relevant to our current political climate than ever before.

THE DARK KNIGHT echoes Tim Burton’s sequel BATMAN RETURNS, in that both he and Nolan found their sensibilities somewhat constrained on their respective first films by the nature of the property and the expectations of the fans.  In other words, they were compelled to deliver fairly straightforward takes on the Caped Crusader while suppressing certain aspects of their artistic signature.

The opportunity of a sequel repays their good faith, giving them more creative control as a reward for their responsible stewardship.  In this regard, THE DARK KNIGHT is first and foremost a Christopher Nolan film, and a Batman movie second.

The character provides a natural conduit for the exploration and development of many of Nolan’s directorial signatures, to the extent that THE DARK KNIGHT becomes a defining work in his filmography.

Nolan’s narratives have always concerned the personal and intimate plights of profoundly-flawed male protagonists, but BATMAN BEGINS marked the turning point where these plights began to play out on an epic, monumental scale.  The grief and rage that drives Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego had been well-established in BATMAN BEGINS and the decades of comic book lore prior, and those same scars continue to inform the character in THE DARK KNIGHT.

His psychological issues remain unresolved, even after delivering Gotham into a period of relative peace and prosperity– his parents are still dead, and his love for Rachel Dawes remains unrequited.  The events of THE DARK KNIGHT compound his trauma by shattering his hopes for a better life with Rachel, as well as his dream of the day when he can give up the mantle of Batman entirely.

Indeed, Bruce’s emotional trajectory throughout the film revolves around his questioning the necessity of Batman’s existence and the devastating consequences he’s wrought upon the city he swore to protect.  The two and a half-hour running time provides ample room for Bruce’s arc to play out on Nolan’s largest scale yet, showing how his actions reverberate throughout the whole of Gotham.

As mentioned previously, Nolan even finds the time and a justifiable narrative reason for Batman to travel to Hong Kong, further expanding the scope of his story while satisfying his own directorial fondness for globetrotting narratives.  While many other blockbuster spectacles can lay claim to a similar epic scale on running time or narrative sprawl alone, very few deliver it with the visceral weight and tangible physicality that THE DARK KNIGHT and Nolan’s larger filmography does.

His pursuit of practical effects wherever possible is undoubtedly a key contributor to this effect, grounding THE DARK KNIGHT’s astonishing cascade of spectacle with the gravity of real-world physics.

The world of computer-generated imagery allows us to destroy entire star systems or bring back actors long since dead, but as impressive as those visual feats are, they somehow pale in comparison to the visceral physicality of flipping a Freightliner upside-down on an actual city street or physically blowing up the entirety of a full-scale building.

Of course, one simply can’t make a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT without a generous dose of CGI, but by choosing practical in-camera effects wherever possible, Nolan successfully imbues the film with the kind of monumental gravitas that marked the classic epics from which he drew inspiration.

The bulk of Nolan’s larger filmography takes place in urban environs– as such, man’s relationship with architecture and the built environment forms an integral component of his artistic aesthetic.

THE DARK KNIGHT surveys the tapestry of urban life and its various social systems from a birds-eye view, encompassing so much of the city’s sprawl that many critics at the time argued a better title for the film would have been, simply, “GOTHAM CITY”.

Just as he examines how the contours of Gotham shape the flow of his narrative, so too does Nolan use THE DARK KNIGHT to explore the malleability of the urban landscape, and how those same contours can be actively reshaped for the purposes of criminality or justice.

Batman’s ability to glide between rooftops allows him to navigate the urban labyrinth of Gotham in a manner far different than the civilians below.  He can create doors and entrances for himself where there were none previously.

He can take advantage of negative space within a building’s design, turning it into a shortcut accessible only to him. An arsenal of equipment and a re-tooled Batsuit facilitates these abilities, giving him an edge by navigating Gotham in ways that conventional law enforcement officials cannot.

The Joker enjoys similar advantages, albeit through lower-tech tools like gunpowder and gasoline, but his use of them nonetheless positions him as Batman’s equal and a formidable counterweight.

Their mutual ascent to this elevated plane naturally manifests in a palpable theatricality, which Nolan balances with his artistic interest in functional style.  A common complaint shared by previous Batmen like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s current iteration alike is the sheer discomfort of Batman’s latex rubber suit– the outfit was a single, heavy piece that was hot, stuffy, and greatly restricted mobility and vision.

Bale famously channeled the anger and the crippling headaches he felt inside the suit into his performance for BATMAN BEGINS, using the pain and discomfort to his benefit.  For THE DARK KNIGHT, the filmmakers wanted to design a new, functional Batsuit that would reduce these problems, and so replaced the latex with individual plates of armor conjoined by a mesh undersuit.

The final result is a dramatic reinterpretation of Batman’s iconic outfit that maintains the classic silhouette– a design that Nolan actively works into the narrative by having Bruce communicate to Lucius Fox his desire for a more functional suit that can stand up to the elevated threat posed by The Joker.  The Clown Prince of Crime’s sartorial sensibilities also echo the conceit of functional style– his scraggly purple suit pays homage to the character’s classically campy appearance from the comic books while staying within the confines of Nolan’s grounded reality.

As evidenced by the fact that his handmade clothing contains no labels, The Joker’s choice of outfit appropriately conveys his anarchic identity, but it also serves a tactical use– whether it’s the cavernous pockets of his overcoat hiding an array of explosives rigged to his person, or a stinger blade hidden in his boots that can pop out at will.

Finally, one cannot talk about THE DARK KNIGHT as a definitive work in Nolan’s canon without mention of what is arguably the core component of his directorial identity– time, and the manipulation thereof.  BATMAN BEGINS unspooled in somewhat non-linear fashion, incorporating flashbacks at strategic story junctures as Bruce gradually became Batman.

With his vigilante alter-ego firmly established, THE DARK KNIGHT naturally inhabits a constant forward flow of time; its story progressing in linear order.  That being said, the manipulation of time does serve an important narrative function.  The trope of the “ticking clock” is about as cliched as they come, but it’s nonetheless a vital tool to generate suspense for the audience.

The Joker incorporates this tool into his own arsenal, using “the ticking clock” as a way to persuade his victims to act against their self-interests or compromise their principles.  The best instance of this is also one of the highlights of the entire film– a nail-biting suspense sequence where two ferries carrying a load of law-abiding civilians and incarcerated felons respectively are revealed to be rigged with explosives.

The Joker’s characteristic twist on the situation is that he’s given both boats the detonator to the other bomb, challenging them each to blow the other sky-high before a predetermined time– if neither side hits the button before time runs out, then he’ll personally blow both boats with his own detonator.  This sets up an agonizing moral quandary for the occupants of either boat: do they destroy the other boat to save their own lives?  The fact that one of the boats is filled with convicted criminals adds another wrinkle to the dilemma– the law-abiding civilians would be justified in hitting the button, citing their fear that the criminals would not have the same respect for human life as they do.

However, to do so would be to pass blind judgment on the inmates, denying their humanity and capacity for compassion and, in effect, making them more inhuman than the killers and rapists they stand to destroy.

This sequence, which could have made for a captivating feature film in its own right, uses the pressure of a ticking clock to effortlessly distill THE DARK KNIGHT’s core conflict between civilized society and anarchy to its ideological essence.

Additionally, Nolan’s fondness for cross-cutting between parallel threads of action allows him to manipulate time himself, compressing it into one cosmic instance across sprawling distances.  Naturally, this does away with the objective truth that real time provides, but Nolan inherently understands that cinema has the unique ability to subvert the flow of time while uncovering the emotional truth hidden underneath.

To Nolan, time is not an unstoppable, forward-marching force beyond our control — it is merely another storytelling tool; a dimension that can be stepped outside of and manipulated to his will.  THE DARK KNIGHT makes frequent use of this technique, structuring its story around several nexus points of action like the opening bank heist, the Hong Kong extradition, the Wacker Drive chase, or the hostage situation in the unfinished tower, and subsequently compressing time and space into tidy narrative blocks that each build to a cathartic emotional release.

The end result is an experience that some critics decried as a breathless succession of 3rd-Act climaxes– an admittedly reductive judgment, to be sure, but one that aims to convey the impression that a lot happens in THE DARK KNIGHT.

Simply put, Nolan’s vision for the film is exhaustive; his epic ambitions and his tackling of some of the most iconic aspects of Batman lore combine to make what is arguably the ultimate screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader.  Nolan’s ability to compress long narrative distances over short spans of time is a key aspect of his artistic skill set, and in the case of THE DARK KNIGHT, it is a major driving force behind the film’s critical and commercial success.

Indeed, to call THE DARK KNIGHT “a success” is an extreme understatement– it’s essentially THE GODFATHER PART II of superhero films in both execution and critical standing.  By any reasonable metric, the film’s release and reception proved a watershed moment in mainstream studio filmmaking, the effects of which are still reverberating across the cinematic landscape nearly a decade later.

Just as BATMAN BEGINS sparked the trend of the “dark and gritty” reboot, THE DARK KNIGHT inspired a countless wave of bombastic imitators that drew the wrong lessons from Nolan’s success, like equating an epic scope with bloated running times or reveling in misguided dramatic beats masquerading as “bold” storytelling.

Produced for $185 million dollars and scoring over a billion dollars in ticket sales to become the 26th highest-grossing film of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT was a box office success of biblical proportions.  To put this into perspective, it only took six days for THE DARK KNIGHT to surpass the numbers posted by BATMAN BEGINS’ entire domestic run.

The film’s monumental success was the result of a perfect storm of factors: it belonged to an iconic franchise with a rabid global fanbase, it was a highly-anticipated sequel to a well-received predecessor, and it was film by a director known for his riveting storytelling and impeccable technical craftsmanship, to name just a few.

The X factor, the one thing it had that other films of its caliber did not, was Ledger’s tragic death– and the morbid curiosity it fueled at the prospect of witnessing the final performance of an actor as such a ghoulish character.

Nolan’s desire to transcend the confines of the comic book genre propelled THE DARK KNIGHT all the way to the Oscars, where it was nominated in eight categories and would win for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor.

The Academy obviously leaves a tangible impression on the films it honors, but rarely does it happen the other way around– THE DARK KNIGHT’s failure to score a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director was seen by many in the industry as an injustice (if not an outright travesty), and the ensuing chatter was so loud that, the following year, the Academy doubled the number of nomination slots in the Best Picture category from five to ten in a bid to be more inclusive of well-received films that didn’t quiet meet the conventional expectations of an “Oscar-worthy” picture.

It may have failed to enshrine itself in Oscar glory, but THE DARK KNIGHT is a triumph from every conceivable angle.

It’s not hyperbole to call THE DARK KNIGHT the most quintessential mainstream American film of the 2000’s– its identity is profoundly shaped by the ideas and anxieties that drove the course of history around it.

As for Christopher Nolan himself, the film is arguably his most definitive work– the capstone to a towering and influential body of work that still has several decades yet to play out.


Nolan: INCEPTION (2010)

With the staggering success of THE DARK KNIGHT, director Christopher Nolan was in a prime position to make whatever he wanted.  Rather than capitalize off his momentum with a third Batman film, he turned instead to a long-gestating passion project he’d been thinking about since he was a teenager.

He’d always been fascinated by the experience of dreams, drawing many parallels between the nonlinear logic of dreamscapes to his professional practice as a filmmaker.

He pitched his initial kernel of this idea to Warner Brothers after the completion of INSOMNIA, describing it as something of a horror film set within the architecture of the mind.  With the studio’s approval, he went off to write it as a spec that he would simply deliver as soon as he finished it.

That process would ultimately take eight years, its slow pace dictated by the rigorous mind pretzels required in formulating its plot as well as his expansive and time-consuming forays into the Batman universe.  Given the name INCEPTION, the script that Nolan delivered to Warner Brothers in 2009 was a far cry from what he had initially pitched– indeed, he had orchestrated an action thriller so complex and stunningly inventive that it could be thought of as the ultimate “high concept” movie.

Naturally, the price tag to realize such an effort would be enough to stop other filmmakers in their tracks, but INCEPTION’s $160 million budget was an easy ask considering Nolan had just delivered one of Warner Brother’s most successful films in its century-long history.

Even then, the studio had to partner with Legendary Pictures just to cover it all.  In relatively short order, Nolan and his producing partner / wife, Emma Thomas, were off shooting his seventh feature film– one of the most ambitious and original visions cinema had ever seen.

INCEPTION is structured as a fantastical heist set, in Nolan’s words, within the architecture of the mind.  While the story is packed with an overwhelming amount of fantastical imagery, arguably the most outlandish aspect is the proposed existence of experimental military technology that allows people to enter and act within an individual’s dreams.  Nolan’s story focuses on a rogue group that has repurposed this technology to extract information from a target’s subconscious in the name of corporate espionage.

As mentioned in a previous episode, Nolan’s microbudget indie debut FOLLOWING can be read as something like a first draft of the story that would ultimately become INCEPTION.  Both films are structured as heists of the mind, and both feature a slickly-dressed character named Cobb.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the latter iteration– a major score for Nolan personally, as he had endeavored to work with the actor many times before and had thus far been unable to secure his participation.

It’s interesting, then, to note that DiCaprio’s portrayal of protagonist Dom Cobb seems to be a fictionalization of Nolan himself, from his unique intellectual acuity down to the external aspects like a shared hairstyle, goatee, and buttoned-down sartorial sense.

The latest tortured hero in Nolan’s grand parade of them, Cobb is a reluctant expat with a tragic past, and is given the chance to return to his children in the States by a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito.

Played by BATMAN BEGINS’ Ken Watanabe in a role that makes full use of his refined talents, Saito offers Cobb this last shot at redemption in exchange for a journey into the mind of a business rival with the aim to plant the idea of dissolving his company into his mind.
To help him achieve this task, Cobb recruits a crew of professionals, each with their own specialty.

In determining what particular talents would translate to the manipulation of the dream state, Nolan used the roles he knew best:  the various positions of a film crew.  As such, each member of Cobb’s team possesses expertise and experience analogous to the filmmaking process. If Cobb is the director, then his manager / researcher, Arthur, is his producer.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Arthur is cool, calm, and collected under pressure, but finds himself frequently tangling with Cobb over things he couldn’t have accounted for.  The production designer finds her analogue in Ellen Page’s Ariadne, a graduate architecture student who puts her talents to work designing the worlds of these dreams.

A charismatic master of disguise, Tom Hardy’s character, Eames, describes himself as a “forger”, embodying any role needed to manipulate the target much like an actor does.  Saito acts much like a studio, bankrolling the entire operation and insisting on overseeing the process so that he can ensure his funds are spent wisely.

All of the crew’s efforts are focused towards manipulating the emotions of Robert Fischer, the petulant heir to a vast business empire.  Played by Cillian Murphy in his third of many appearances throughout Nolan’s work, Fischer becomes aware of the crew’s attempts to deceive and incept him.

They must suspend his disbelief while appealing to his emotion, to the extent that they eventually bring him into the heist himself as an active participant.  Knowing all this, it becomes clear that Fischer is akin to the audience, albeit a particularly savvy one that’s seen it all before and stands resistant to cinema’s transcendent charms.

Nolan’s supporting cast doesn’t quite deal in the same clear-cut filmmaking metaphors as Cobb’s crew, but they nevertheless turn in compelling performances that reinforce the director’s ability to attract some of the finest talent around. Since BATMAN BEGINS, Michael Caine has become a stalwart presence in Nolan’s work.

His performance here as university professor and Cobb’s father-in-law, Miles, amounts to little more than a cameo in terms of screentime, but his presence injects a profound emotional resonance to the story by making him the last living link Cobb has to his own children.

Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, who killed herself over her inability to separate her dreams from her reality and now lives on as a malevolent projection of Cobb’s subconscious, sabotaging his efforts at every turn.

The character is arguably more of a plot device than a full-fledged entity, but Cotillard nevertheless gives it her all, creating a beautiful, menacing ghost who haunts not just Cobb’s dreams, but every aspect of his waking life.

Lukas Haas, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Pete Postlethwaite round out INCEPTION’s cast of note: Haas as the original architect on Cobb’s crew who’s given up to Saito’s colleagues when he bungles a mission; Rao as the chemist who creates the specialized sedative that enables shared dreaming; Postlethwaite, in one of his final roles, as Robert Fischer’s bedridden father; and Berenger as Fischer’s business partner and an advisor of sorts to Robert.

Visually speaking, INCEPTION is arguably Nolan’s most audacious work, filled to the brim with wild, impossible imagery.  Nolan continues his creative partnership with cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to win the Academy Award for his efforts here.

INCEPTION reinforces Nolan’s commitment to film, as well as his preference for large formats over marketing gimmickry like 3D– indeed, the studio had initially approached him to shoot the film in 3D, but thankfully Nolan had the clout to flat-out deny their request.  Instead, he and Pfister capture their preferred 2.35:1 frame on good, old-fashioned 2D 35mm film.  Despite his positive experiences shooting on IMAX cameras for THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan doesn’t employ the format here, but he does use the 65mm film gauge for select shots.

For an action thriller taking place entirely inside the mind, INCEPTION boasts a staggering, monumental scope consistent with his previous work.  Towards that end, Nolan blends classical and modern camerawork, mixing grandiose crane and helicopter aerial shots with visceral handheld setups and smooth Steadicam runs.

The story also provides ample opportunity to explore varying frame rates, availing Nolan of techniques like speed-ramping and extreme slow motion to better convey the varying speeds of time across parallel tiers of dream space.

A somewhat-neutral stone & steel palette drives the overall color theory behind INCEPTION, but Nolan and Pfister take great pains to establish distinct looks for the various dreamscapes– especially during the climactic sequence, as a means for the audience to better track their orientation across a relentless cascade of cross-cuts and parallel action.

The first tier, in which Yusuf wildly drives a van to evade his pursuers, uses a torrential downpour of rain to justify a foggy, cold look with a heavy cobalt color cast.  The next tier down is the hotel, rendered in a warm amber patina and pools of concentrated light.

Going another level down, a snowy mountainscape topped by a concrete fortress deals in stark monochromatic tones, with little else but the crew’s skin tones to provide color.  Finally, we come to limbo–raw, unstructured dream space where decades can pass in a span of minutes in real time.  Nolan and Pfister use varying shades of gray here, as if to suggest the pure building blocks of the subconscious before we color them in with our experiences and our environment.

Expectedly, a considerable amount of computer-generated imagery is necessary to fully realize limbo, as well as some of the more outlandish visuals the film presents.

However, Nolan stays true to his convictions regarding the supremacy of practical effects, always using an in-camera element as the foundation of the shot and employing digital wizardry only when absolutely necessary.

As such, INCEPTION boasts far fewer digital effects shots than most spectacle epics of its ilk– 500 compared to today’s standard of 2000 plus.

Christopher Nolan goes to great lengths to reinforce his legacy as a visual magician of the highest order– where other filmmakers would simply let computers digitally insert a train ramming through downtown traffic, Nolan drops a physical train onto a real street, rigging it up in the precise manner needed to achieve the shot.

In his pursuit of delivering the impossible through practical effects, he even manages to one-up director Stanley Kubrick by expanding upon the techniques he developed for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s mind-bending space station sequences.

In order to realize a stunning hallway fight sequence in varying degrees of gravity, Nolan builds the entirety of the set on a massive gimbal capable of tilting every conceivable angle while also rotating a full 360 degrees.

By fixing the camera’s perspective to the set and not the actors’, he’s able to create breathtaking images of fighting on ceilings and walls.  This drive to shoot as much in-camera as possible informs Nolan’s overall visual approach, making us believe in the impossible while safeguarding his creation from the inevitable advances in digital effects technology that otherwise might date INCEPTION’s visuals as crude and primitive.

Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley is absent here, leaving Guy Hendrix Dyas to act in his stead.  The rest of Nolan’s core team of collaborators remains intact, with returning editor Lee Smith expertly navigating the labyrinthine and intellectually-dense plotting, and composer Hans Zimmer providing yet another instantly-iconic original score.

Zimmer’s innovative, minimalist inclinations would not only score him an Oscar nomination, but would also go on to influence pop culture in surprising ways.  A blend of old and new sounds, the score finds Zimmer recruiting The Smiths’ Johnny Marr to perform a moody electric guitar riff that recalls the midcentury cool of the James Bond films.

This element serves as the base of a larger electronic and orchestral texture, with thundering brass and lush strings that also would not be out of place in a Bond film.  Nolan doesn’t employ needledrops often, so when he does, the audience would do well to pay close attention to its importance to the narrative at hand.

In this regard, Nolan incorporates an Edith Piaf song directly into the storyline, becoming an audio cue that Cobb’s crew employs to sync up their timescales across multiple tiers of dreamscape.

Zimmer takes this idea and runs with it, slowing down the track to the point where it becomes an unrecognizable texture of raw sound and throbbing percussion.  In the process, he achieves what is easily one of INCEPTION’s biggest contributions to pop culture– the brassy “BRAHM” blasts that countless movie trailers have since copied to the point of parody.

A film stuffed to the brim with the themes and imagery that Nolan has spent a lifetime exploring, it’s not inconceivable to see INCEPTION as the director’s most definitive work– even more so than THE DARK KNIGHT, when considering its original storyline, unencumbered by the constraints of any pre-existing intellectual property.

The narrative affords Nolan the opportunity to explore and indulge in his fascination with the mechanics of time in a comprehensive and integral manner– befitting their place in a heist film, Cobb’s crew naturally races against a ticking clock, but they are uniquely positioned to alter the bounds of the race itself.

The relativistic relationship of time across several parallel tiers of the subconscious becomes their ace in the hole.  By venturing deeper into a dream-within-a-dream, into a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, and so on, Cobb’s crew finds that time slows down in proportion to the tier above it.

What passes for a minute of real time would be an hour in tier 1 of the dreamscape, while decades will pass in limbo during that same span.  Likewise, when Saito is shot early on during the heist, he’s able to regain some of his health, his wounds working slower and slower as he descends the various tiers.

INCEPTION’s unique take on the mechanics of time is a singular signature of Nolan’s– only he could stage a twenty-minute action sequence within the time it takes for a van to plunge off a bridge into the water.

The heist format enables Nolan’s further exploration of functional style, evidenced in the slick, well-tailored suits that Cobb’s crew wear throughout the film as a manifestation of their professional attitude.

The constant presence of suits, tactical combat gear, and even tuxedos can’t help but remind one of the James Bond films– no doubt an intentional move on Nolan’s part as a lifelong fan of the series.  Indeed, INCEPTION at times feels like Nolan’s audition for the director’s chair on the Bond franchise, right down to the snow fortress ski chase designed to pay tribute to his favorite 007 film, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE.

The globetrotting nature of Nolan’s aesthetic, and INCEPTION in particular, reinforces this notion, featuring the characters jetting around to exotic locales like Mombasa, Paris and Tokyo as well as abstract interior spaces like limbo.  Nolan even structures the climactic heist so that it takes place while his characters are flying over the Pacific.

Like THE DARK KNIGHT before it, INCEPTION also draws considerable influence from Michael Mann’s HEAT, in that Nolan stages his own version of that film’s iconic downtown LA shootout– albeit with a degree of restraint that keeps his efforts in service to the story and firmly out of the territory of full-blown homage.

As evidenced by the logo of Nolan’s production company, Syncopy, the iconography of mazes and puzzles have become a defining feature of his artistry– a conceit that INCEPTION revels in with its labyrinthine plot structures that turn the world around its characters into a giant Rubik’s Cube.

Architecture and the malleability of the urban environment plays a big role in this regard, as the characters are empowered via lucid dreaming to actively reshape the environment around them.

This leads to some of the film’s most iconic imagery, such as the scene where Ariadne peels back the horizon as if it were on a hinge, causing whole city blocks to fold over on themselves.  The plane of limbo becomes a veritable playground as the characters build entire cities for themselves, spending decades in an endless sprawl of imposing monoliths that grow more faceless and abstract as they extend outwards.

It is here that architectural styles can clash together, achieving a strange harmony in their impossible pairings.  One need look no further than Dom and Mal’s earthy, craftsman-style home situated high above the city inside a sleek modern tower.  INCEPTION makes brilliant use of this idea of paradoxical architecture, exploring the strategic value of impossible structures like the Penrose stairs, which only become possible from a singular point of view.

No discussion of INCEPTION would be complete without addressing its infamous ending, the implications of which are still hotly debated across internet forums and college dorms.

In a film loaded with symbolic imagery, the closing image of a top spinning on the table– wobbling ever so slightly before abruptly cutting to black– is arguably INCEPTION’s most provoking one.  The audience finds itself left on a sharply ambiguous final note, and an extremely frustrating one for those who prefer their movies to spell everything out for them.  Is Cobb truly free of his dreams, or is he still trapped somewhere in his unconscious?

The question has inspired numerous armchair detectives to suss out an objective truth– most investigations point to Cobb’s wedding ring as his personal totem, and the film’s key signifier as to whether or not we are currently in a dream state.  Cobb sports his ring in the dream sequences, but in his waking reality he appears without it.  When he lands in Los Angeles at the end of the film, he’s not wearing his ring.

This, along with the presence of Michael Caine– who had only appeared previously in a scene ostensibly set in waking reality– should be our chief clue that Cobb has ultimately woken up and joined the objective timeline.  However, even this is a deception– Nolan explicitly states via Arthur that one cannot use another’s totem, for fear of losing touch with reality.  Despite Cobb’s constant use of a spinning top, we know that it is actually Mal’s totem.

This raises the question of whether Cobb has been lost in his own subconscious from the very start.  To Nolan, the question is irrelevant– he’s gone on record to express his sentiment that it’s whether or not the top is going to topple that’s important, but rather, for the first time in the film, Cobb isn’t watching it.  After spending much of the film obsessing over this little spinning top, he has moved on emotionally, finding happiness in his reunion with his family.

Far from a final “gotcha” twist, INCEPTION’s ending arguably hits a precise note, cementing the film’s murky ambiguity between dreams and waking reality while challenging his audience with the notion that our own realities can be just as subjective.
Billed on its release as “the new Matrix”, a staggering $100 million marketing budget endeavored to convey INCEPTION as an explosive head-trip that played fast and loose with the laws of physics.

The number is all the more remarkable considering its release in an era where franchise filmmaking is king– in the absence of any pre-existent intellectual property, Warner Brothers leveraged the success of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT to present Nolan himself as the franchise.  The strategy worked beautifully, driving worldwide box office receipts north of $800 million and generating a wave of critical acclaim.

INCEPTION’s top-flight craftsmanship earned itself a small collection of golden statues come Oscar season, with the Academy celebrating the film’s technical innovations in categories like Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects.  If THE DARK KNIGHT established Nolan as one of mainstream American cinema’s most valuable filmmakers, then INCEPTION chiseled it in stone and enshrined it in gold.


Nolan: DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Despite the record-shattering success of 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, the promise of an early retirement-enabling payday and a higher budget than the GDP of most small countries, the prospect of Nolan returning to the world of Batman a third time initially inspired hesitance.  There was no ill will or negative experience fueling his reluctance, but rather, the demons of artistic integrity.

“How many good third movies of a franchise can people name?”, Nolan reportedly asked of himself; indeed, he was all too cognizant of the hard and simple truth that, more often than not, threequels turn out to be the worst entry of a given franchise.  Case in point: THE GODFATHER PART III, or  SPIDER-MAN 3– even RETURN OF THE JEDI was arguably disappointing in relation to the episodes before it.  THE RETURN OF THE KING, Peter Jackson’s third chapter of his LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, seemed the exception to the rule, what with its several Oscar wins including Best Picture.

Even then, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is usually regarded as a single, unified narrative rather than three separate installments.  Simply put, Nolan valued his artistic integrity over a dump truck full of cash, and if he was going to return to Gotham City for a third time, there needed to be a great — and necessary — story to tell.

He kept the opportunity in the back of his mind as he shot INCEPTION, even going so far as sketching out rough outlines as to what a third Batman film might entail.  His initial plan, which would have seen Two-Face become the main villain after The Joker throws acid on his face during his trial, was no longer an option considering Heath Ledger’s death and his earlier decision to fold Two-Face’s villainous arc into the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT.

Once Nolan hit on the idea of using a third film to definitively end his rendition of Batman, the necessary elements that would ensure his return began to come together.

As they had done for their previous Batman films, Nolan and his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan, looked for inspiration in classic graphic like KNIGHTFALL, NO MAN’S LAND, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

The brothers also drew from unexpected literary sources like Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, braiding its themes of violent revolution and massive social upheaval into their massive script– the first draft of which apparently ran four hundred pages long.

Titled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the project quickly asserted itself as Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date, with a story containing no less than the fall of modern civilization and the potential death of millions within its staggering scope.

Thankfully, Nolan had a crack team of producers at his disposal– his wife Emma Thomas and Atlas Entertainment’s Charles Roven, both of whom had been invaluable allies in making Nolan’s previous Batman visions possible.

Given that this was as close to a surefire billion-dollar blockbuster one could possibly get, Warner Brothers saw little problem in greenlighting Nolan’s massive epic despite a price tag upwards of $200 million.

Their unwavering faith in Nolan’s ability– a faith that’s practically unheard of in modern commercial filmmaking– gave him the creative freedom and near-unlimited funds he needs to fill in his largest canvas yet while ending his groundbreaking DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY on his own terms.

Escalation has been a key foundational principle in Nolan’s take on Batman.  As the stakes of his crusade have intensified, so too has Nolan expanded the scope of the Dark Knight’s world.

With each successive installment, the narrative scale has ballooned exponentially, so where else can THE DARK KNIGHT RISES go but the uppermost strata of epic spectacle?

Eight years have passed since Harvey Dent fell to his death and Batman took the blame, going into exile to protect Gotham’s citizens from the devastating revelation that their White Knight had been twisted into a murderous psychopath named Two-Face.

In that time, Gotham has entered a period of relative peace and prosperity– a city no longer in need of a vigilante savior.  So too has Bruce Wayne gone into exile, sealing himself away in the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor like a Howard Hughes-style recluse.

Christian Bale returns for his third and final appearance as Bruce, bearing the signs of significant wear and tear as he hobbles around on a cane throughout his mausoleum of a mansion.

Without Batman, he’s a sad, lonely figure– a man without a purpose, and after the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, a man with very little left to live for.  He’s finally shaken from his long stupor when a prized personal memento — his mother’s pearl necklace — is stolen by a crafty cat burglar posing as a caterer during a gathering for the anniversary of Harvey Dent’s death and the passing of sweeping anti-crime legislation in his name.

This development coincides with a number of others simultaneously swirling around Gotham, like clouds gathering for a massive storm that will make Bruce’s return as the Caped Crusader not only inevitable, but necessary.

Indeed, Christopher Nolan has many masters to serve in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES– not only does he have to cook up compelling narrative arcs for a suite of new characters; he has to service lingering threads from the previous two installments while bringing everything to a satisfying close.

As a result, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES clocks in at a truly monumental two hours and 45 minutes long– every second being essential to the advancement of Nolan’s narrative.  Naturally, there’s a lot of story to cover, and Nolan doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on huge developments.

The startling revelations and showstopping sequences come so fast and furious that the audience must race just to catch their breath, but that is the magnitude of scale that, unwittingly or not, Nolan has set up for himself.  Indeed, nothing less than the threat of Gotham City’s full-stop annihilation will satisfy Nolan’s narrative and thematic requirements.

This necessary existential threat is embodied in the figure of Bane, an ideological zealot excommunicated from The League of Shadows (previously embodied in Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS).

A relatively new figure in Batman’s rogue gallery, Bane became a high-profile villain instantly upon his comic book debut in the early 1990’s by breaking Batman’s back and putting him out of commission for several years.

The character had made a filmic appearance before, in Joel Schumacher’s disastrous 1997 film, BATMAN & ROBIN, but the filmmakers had stripped him entirely of his formidable intellect and reduced him to a one-note, brutish henchman of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy.

He had been so badly mishandled that the revelation of his inclusion in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was initially met with profound skepticism by fans, if not outright derision.  However, Nolan’s choice of villain had always been informed by the story’s key ideas and formative themes first– he reportedly rejected early pressure from Warner Brothers to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as The Riddler, refusing to build his narrative around a predetermined villain.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES required an adversary who could match Batman on both the physical and mental level, and Bane — at least in his comic-book incarnation — fit the mold.

Like The Scarecrow or The Joker before him, Nolan’s rendition of Bane is informed by a grounded reality that ditches his usual mutant-luchador aesthetic in favor of a militaristic, revolutionary edge complete with a monstrous mask that delivers san analgesic gas to quell crippling chronic pain from a prior injury.

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He arrives in Gotham to finish Ra’s Al Ghul’s mission to annihilate the city, although his strategy — to cut Gotham off from the outside world and use the threat of a nuclear bomb to turn the city’s economic classes against each other — is decidedly more sadistic than his predecessor’s.

He plans to nuke the city anyway, but first he wants to systematically break down the people’s confidence in their own civilization while figures like Batman and Commissioner Gordon are forced to helplessly watch their beloved city tear itself apart.

Tom Hardy, one of three cast members to make the jump from INCEPTION to Nolan’s Batman saga, reportedly gained thirty pounds for the role, transforming himself into a hulking brute with a brilliant, tactically-oriented intelligence.

Hardy faced a considerable challenge in playing Bane, considering the cumbersome mask that covers half his face– all that intellect and unhinged megalomania had to be conveyed entirely with his eyes.

As such, Hardy infuses Bane’s eyes with the quiet intensity of conviction, his piercing stare commanding his small army of mercenaries like a brutish cult leader.  One of the more peculiar aspects of Hardy’s performance is the particular voice he uses, affecting a high-pitched musicality inspired by the voice of Bartley Gorman, a Romani gypsy and Irish bare-knuckle boxing champion.

The choice, while unnervingly effective, wasn’t without controversy– audiences in early screenings of the film’s opening prologue complained they couldn’t understand Bane’s dialogue at all.  The final product alleviated those concerns, thankfully, allowing the full power of Hardy’s showstopping performance to shine through and achieve a pop culture infamy similar to the type enjoyed by Heath Ledger and his interpretation of The Joker.

Nolan also brings back INCEPTION’s Marion Cotillard, who plays a new character named Miranda Tate.  An enchanting member of Wayne Enterprises’ Board of Directors, Miranda is initially positioned as Bruce Wayne’s best hope for the continued operation of his profit-draining fusion energy program.  Cotillard brings her signature elegance to the role, presenting herself as a potential love interest for Bruce who can help soothe the lingering pain of Rachel Dawes’ death.

However, Miranda has other plans in store– namely, using Bruce’s trust and her corporate credentials to gain access to a nuclear fusion reactor underneath the city.  At the risk of spoiling one of the film’s biggest twists, Miranda eventually asserts herself not only as the true mastermind behind Bane’s evil plan, but also as a key figure that links THE DARK KNIGHT RISES directly to BATMAN BEGINS.

With only so much screen-time left to realize the vast universe of Batman characters and plot lines, Nolan risks painting a picture that feels, at best, incomplete. His grounded interpretation of the property naturally would exclude some of Batman’s more fanciful villains like The Penguin, Killer Croc, or Clayface, but there are some characters that are so iconic that any version of the Caped Crusader would feel lacking in their absence.

Thankfully, Nolan is able to smuggle in two more just under the wire, albeit radically reimagined from their comic book counterparts.  The character of Catwoman is integral to Batman’s universe, but is admittedly too theatrical for Nolan’s take on the property.

He strikes a satisfying middle ground in casting Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, downplaying the slinky cat burglar’s feline affectations to the point where the name “Catwoman” is never even uttered.

Instead, Nolan and Hathaway rely on the character’s duplicitous mystique to convey her comic book heritage (in addition to subtle visual cues like a pair of night vision goggles that resemble cat ears when flipped up on top of her head).

Drawing from the classic femme fatale archetype, Hathaway further honors Catwoman’s origins by basing her performance on the Hollywood Golden Age starlet Hedy Lemarr, the original inspiration for Catwoman in the comics.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Selina Kyle attempting to obtain a secret device that will erase her criminal history and allow her to start over with a clean slate– a path that conveniently crosses Batman’s while communicating her murky moral compass.  Additionally, her self-aware cynicism allows Nolan to infuse an otherwise somber and bleak storyline with crowd pleasing moments of natural levity.

The other iconic character whose absence would make for an incomplete depiction of the Batman universe is his sidekick, Robin.  It’s admittedly difficult to imagine how the plucky Boy Wonder would fit into Nolan’s grim and grounded approach– indeed, Bale has gone on record to say that he would leave the franchise if Nolan ever brought Robin into the storyline.

With the inclusion of INCEPTION’s Joseph Gordon Levitt as a driven young cop named John Blake, Nolan gets to have his cake and eat it too.  The fresh-faced rookie doesn’t just share Batman’s burning passion for justice– he also feels a direct kinship with him, having also grown up as an orphan and felt the need to hide his emotions behind a figurative mask.  Indeed, it is this quality that allows him to deduce Batman’s secret identity when no else can.

While he doesn’t become Batman’s sidekick in the traditional sense, Blake’s tireless ambition nevertheless positions him both as a crucial ally in the quest to take back Gotham from Bane’s vice grip as well as an ideal successor to the Batman mantle itself– playing beautifully into Nolan’s vision of Batman as an incorruptible symbol beyond the reach of death or decay.

Nolan throws a brief nod to Robin’s place in the annals of Batman lore by revealing Blake’s real name to actually be “Robin”, thus bringing all of the character’s thematic and functional qualities to his vision of Batman while dropping the sillier, distracting elements.

Nolan’s sprawling supporting ensemble is marked by faces both familiar and new, with the one consistent quality among them being an impeccable pedigree.  Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman all return as Bruce’s triptych of mentors, allies and father figures– their own respective arcs reaching their logical ends in a satisfying manner.

Caine’s reprisal of Bruce’s trusty butler, Alfred, finds an unexpected degree of emotionality, having reached a breaking point in his relationship with Bruce where he can no longer abide his reckless risks.  He regrets indulging his master’s whims, fearing he’s created a monster while betraying his sworn duty to Bruce’s parents.

Oldman’s third turn as Commissioner Gordon sees his character on the verge of retirement– a war hero rendered useless and irrelevant by a prolonged peace.  He too is disillusioned and burdened, deeply ashamed of his role in the cover-up of Harvey Dent’s death and the lies he has perpetuated since.

The events of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES gives Gordon one last chance at redemption, enlisting him to serve his beloved Gotham City as he never has before.  Freeman, as the usually-jovial head of Wayne Enterprises, Lucius Fox, also finds that his association with Batman has dug him into a deep hole, forced by Bane to pervert a miraculous nuclear fusion device into a devastating atom bomb that will decimate the city.

Nestor Carbonnel returns as Gotham’s mayor, Anthony Garcia, and although he doesn’t have much in the way of a compelling character arc, he nevertheless serves as a vital embodiment of civilized law & order– everything that Gotham has to lose when Bane takes the field.

Two major characters from BATMAN BEGINS also make fleeting appearances in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, helping to tie Nolan’s trilogy together into a unified whole.

Cillian Murphy returns as Dr Jonathan Crane — better known as The Scarecrow– and while he doesn’t don his signature mask here, he does find a suitable role for himself in Bane’s new world order as the merciless judge of a kangaroo court, gleefully sentencing his enemies to an icy grave.

Ra’s Al Ghul also appears in two iterations: one being Liam Neeson in a brief cameo as Bruce’s hallucination in the pit, and the other being Josh Pence as the younger Ra’s in a revelatory flashback sequence.

Finally, a handful of faces unfamiliar to Nolan’s Batman series portray notable new characters.  Matthew Modine, best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, plays Foley– a petty, vindictive police officer positioned to take the reins from Gordon.  He manages to just barely fit in a compelling arc within THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ sprawling narrative, ultimately finding the courage and conviction within himself to join the fray against Bane’s forces of destruction.

Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn plays Daggett, a smug billionaire and a petulant business rival who thinks he can use Bane for a hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises, only to find that Bane serves no one unless it also serves himself.  Finally, Juno Temple plays Jen, a low-level thief and Selina’s partner in crime.

From a thematic standpoint, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES must contend with the un-enviably tricky balancing act of fashioning a narrative that resonates with distinct, clear-cut themes within the confines of its running time, while also paying off the themes set up in the previous two installments.

BATMAN BEGINS dealt with the concept of fear, while THE DARK KNIGHT focused on the idea of chaos.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ primary theme is pain– embodied not just in Bane’s brutal methods, but also in Bruce’s quest to overcome his own pain and complete his life’s work as Batman.

Up until this point, Bruce’s pain had been mostly internal– anguishing over the deaths of his parents and Rachel Dawes.  Throughout the trilogy, Nolan has taken great care to show the physical toll that the life of a vigilante takes on Bruce’s body.  Indeed, the success of Nolan’s entire take on the Batman universe rests on the fact that Batman is not a superhero; that he’s flesh and blood like the rest of us.

THE DARK KNIGHT shows bruises and scars pockmarking his body, while THE DARK KNIGHT RISES establishes that Bruce’s knee has basically been destroyed, necessitating the use of a cane.  Bane simply finishes the job, breaking Batman’s back and throwing him down into a pit halfway across the world.  Pain defines the limits of Bruce’s physicality, with each successive installment in the trilogy finding those limits constricting ever-tighter.  In order to meet the extraordinary challenge of Bane, Bruce must fight through his pain and rise above his physical limits.

In this light, ascension also becomes a defining theme of the story– Bruce’s internal quest is externalized by his attempts to climb out of a pit that had only been previously conquered by Bane himself.

An ascent naturally implies a lower starting point, and Bane’s own rise to power begins in Gotham’s labyrinthine sewer system– the perfect vantage point from which to observe the deep social divisions that roil beneath the fabric of the city.  Even with a team of crack mercenaries at his disposal, Bane knows he doesn’t have the manpower to mount a successful siege against the whole of Gotham.

Instead, he turns the population into his unwitting agents by inciting class conflict between the have and the have nots.  He encourages the Gotham rabble to lay siege to the penthouses of the wealthy elite, as righteous punishment for their greed and gluttony.  He also advocates open anarchy, prompting the citizens to liberate criminals unjustly imprisoned by sweeping legislation passed in the wake of Harvey Dent’s death.
Indeed, he does away with conventional justice systems entirely, instituting kangaroo courts that make a mockery of due process in a bid to quickly condemn his enemies to death.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES paints a vivid– and perhaps extreme– picture of what modern life might look like following the violent overthrow of society;  a picture that resonated far more than Nolan could have enter anticipated, considering the film’s release during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In provoking the simmering resentment between the various economic classes of society, Bane is able to expose the fragility of the institutions that keep us from the brink of madness.  THE DARK KNIGHT was released a few months prior to the bottom falling out of the economy at the start of the Great Recession, which sparked a widespread conflagration pitting the poor, working and middle-class population against the wealthy elite class.

In drawing inspiration from this conflict, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES becomes something of a cathartic experience for those hit hardest by the recession.  Nolan allows audiences to revel in sequences like Bane’s stock exchange heist and images of wealthy Gothamites being forcibly pulled from their penthouses and thrown out onto the street.

This plot point also makes for compelling character development on the part of billionaire Bruce Wayne, whose ability to maintain his superheroic exploits has always rested in his immense wealth.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finds Bruce stripped of that wealth, forced to save Gotham with whatever meager resources  remain at his disposal– only at this point is Bruce able to ascend to the realm of the “superhero”,  transcending the limits of his mortal physicality and securing the legacy of Batman as an incorruptible and enduring symbol.

As the conclusive chapter of the trilogy, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES also uses its thematic foundation to connect directly with BATMAN BEGINS.

The first film painted Gotham as a dark, filthy, and crime-ridden city where the police force was universally corrupt– an environment primed for a solitary vigilante intent on taking justice into his own hands.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES comes full circle, with Batman’s efforts having inspired the police to clean up their city and act out en masse against the tyranny of evil.

It’s noteworthy that Batman — a character often depicted as operating only at night and in the shadows — faces Bane for a final standoff in the bright light of day.  The various forces that have been swirling around Gotham all these years are finally out in the open, fighting with the crystal clarity of conviction and purpose.

Batman finally fights side by side with his comrades in blue, united in their effort to pull Gotham back from the brink.  Nolan had taken great care with his previous Batman films to flesh out the urban tapestry of Gotham via its various infrastructural systems– the villains of BATMAN BEGINS repurposed water and transportation systems towards their own ends, and Batman harnessed the power of communications systems in his fight against The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.

When combined with Bane’s utilization of underground sewer systems as a hidden staging ground and his perversion of a fusion-based energy system into an atomic bomb, we as an audience stand to know exactly what Batman and the citizens of Gotham are fighting for.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES furthers Nolan’s exploration of IMAX in the narrative realm, shooting in the format as much as possible.

Emboldened by the substantial punch it gave THE DARK KNIGHT, Nolan and returning cinematographer Wally Pfister employ IMAX frequently– essentially, any shot that doesn’t require dialogue due to the operating noise of the camera itself.

That being said, the filmmakers are well aware of the format’s visceral impact and are careful not to dilute it, carefully staging full action sequences and select shots in order to play to IMAX’s strength as an immersive experience. As it did on THE DARK KNIGHT, this makes for a viewing experience that frequently switches between the full IMAX frame and the standard 2.35:1 35mm film frame– many times from shot to shot.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES would be, at least as of 2017, the last collaboration between Nolan and his longtime cinematographer, with Pfister graduating to the director’s chair himself in 2014 with his debut, TRANSCENDENCE.

This final collaboration finds Nolan and Pfister building upon the aesthetic they developed for THE DARK KNIGHT, adopting a neutral, desaturated color palette dominated by steel and stone tones.

With the trilogy now complete, it becomes evident that the filmmakers have fashioned a transitory lighting scheme that gradually moves from the darkness of BATMAN BEGINS to the snow-capped brightness of day in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, echoing Batman’s deliverance of Gotham from moral decay to virtuous law & order.

So too has Nolan’s scope expanded appropriately, ballooning to stakes that are nothing less than apocalyptic as Bane mounts his revolutionary siege on an entire city.

Nolan’s camerawork ably conveys the sweeping scale of his narrative, employing a mix of classical dolly and crane moves with handheld maneuvers and majestic aerials to capture stunning images like the movement of huge crowds doing battle in the streets, or a series of coordinated explosions detonating across the city.

As we’ve come to expect by now, Nolan captures most of these astonishing visuals in-camera via practical effects, supplementing with CGI only when absolutely necessary.  The plane hijacking sequence that opens the film serves as a prime example, with Nolan and company painstakingly staging an high-altitude heist over the Scottish countryside.

Visually speaking, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES represents the aesthetic apex of Nolan’s particular style– since his lo-fi debut with 1998’s FOLLOWING, he has steadily built upon his visual skill set and developed his ability to realize epic spectacle while managing the intimidating logistics that such efforts entail.

While critics may argue over the logical integrity of an admittedly overstuffed narrative, the excellence of Nolan’s technical craftsmanship is never in question. Returning production designer Nathan Crowley marks his seventh consecutive collaboration with Nolan by partnering with Kevin Kavanaugh.

The art department maintains aesthetic continuity with the previous two entries while subtly building upon them, giving a slight update to THE DARK KNIGHT’s iteration of Wayne Tower and the corporation’s cavernous R&D department.

Crowley and Kavanaugh update other iconic aspects of Batman lore like Wayne Manor and The Batcave, giving each a fresh appearance that feels nonetheless similar to how they looked in BATMAN BEGINS.  For instance, Wayne Manor retains its familiar Gilded Age architectural flourishes while expanding upon the mausoleum concept from BATMAN BEGINS.

In the first film, the idea of Wayne Manor being in a constant state of mourning was communicated chiefly by the white sheets draped over the furniture.  With THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the lack of color has seeped into the walls themselves, as if happiness and passion have left Wayne Manor entirely.

Indeed, the appearance of Wayne Manor is a manifestation of Bruce’s initial interior state, which is one of aimless despair and endless sorrow.  The Batcave has been upgraded to include a computer platform that rises up from its hiding spot underneath a natural pool of water.

No doubt installed shortly after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, it’s evident that this equipment hasn’t been used in several years.  Crowley and Kavanaugh’s fresh-but-familiar approach extends to Batman’s fleet of vehicles, which now includes a revisionist take on the classic Batplane that transmogrifies its usual sleek silhouette into that a steroid-addled bat crossed with a military helicopter.

Ever true to form, Nolan chiefly uses CGI to augment what is predominantly a practical effect– production footage reveals the Batpod to be a full-size anchored atop a truck that would later be digitally scrubbed from the shot.  The filmmakers had even built an animatronic Batman to sit in the cockpit, giving their illusion that much more of a tactile believability.

The Batpod from THE DARK KNIGHT makes an encore appearance, becoming Batman’s vehicle of choice after the Tumblr was destroyed in the previous installment.  Indeed, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the first Batman film in which his signature Batmobile is absent entirely, save for the desert camo R&D models owned by Wayne Enterprises and later stolen by Bane’s mercenaries.

The appearance of Gotham City also evolves, with Nolan’s vision of the fictional city changing rather radically from the one that drove its design in the previous two films.

The influence of Chicago, so deeply felt in the bones of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, here gives way to the iconic spires of New York City.  Since the conclusion of BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has been steadily chipping away at the layers of stylistic artifice he’d initially imposed on Gotham.

THE DARK KNIGHT  RISES envisions an entirely new Gotham– one that drapes a thin veil of fiction over famous Manhattan landmarks like Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, and 1 World Trade Center (then still under construction).

This particular rendition of Gotham also incorporates sections of other cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, which editor Lee Smith seamlessly cuts together to form one cohesive urban environment.  In addition to other key sequences, the concrete arteries of LA’s downtown host the concluding beat of Bane’s Wall Street heist– which, thanks to the magic of editing, began 3000 miles away in New York.  Here, LA’s multi-level network of highways provides Batman a convenient escape route when he’s cornered by an armada of police cruisers.

The urban interior of Pittsburgh is the stage for the film’s climactic battle, while Heinz Field doubles as the home stadium for the Gotham Rogues football team before it becomes the unwitting site for Bane’s explosive debut.

When blessed with a virtually-bottomless production budget, one might wonder why Nolan and company saw fit to disguise their locales as the fictional city of Gotham by simply spraying a little fake snow on the streets and calling it a day.

However, those who might feel disappointed or even cheated by their perceived lack of imagination fail to realize that this was Nolan’s endgame all along.  As far back as his initial pitch to Warner Brothers executives, Nolan’s take on Batman was always built upon the notion of the character existing in reality.

Rather than build an elaborate, fantastical world to draw the audience into, he means to draw Batman into our world.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES achieves this aim once and for all, juxtaposing the Caped Crusader against a landscape we can very much recognize as our own.

In regards to the film’s score, one could be forgiven for expecting the composing team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to finish what they started with BATMAN BEGINS.  However, after Nolan paired with Zimmer exclusively on INCEPTION, Howard reportedly felt he would be a third wheel, and decided to bow out.

While this act arguably streamlines the score’s creative process, Howard’s absence is palpable– gone are the romantic swells of strings that find Batman or Bruce in a quiet moment of introspection, depriving the score of a crucial emotional resonance.

This isn’t to say Zimmer fails to deliver of his own accord, however– the dynamic of the score simply shifts to favor the militaristic and intense nature of his prior contributions.

He appropriately builds on the themes established in the previous entries, developing them towards their logical conclusions.  Naturally, new characters mean new themes, and Zimmer once again manages to embody the characters of Bane and Selina Kyle in musical form.

Expectedly muscular and percussive, Bane’s theme immediately communicates an overwhelming sense of strength and power, his background in the League of Shadows and his apocalyptic ambitions conveyed through a hypnotic male chorus chanting the Moroccan word for “rise”.

Selina Kyle gets a slinky, playful theme that echoes her comic book heritage as Catwoman, employing light flutters on a piano bolstered by quietly urgent strings.  While not as well-rounded as the scores for BATMAN BEGINS or THE DARK KNIGHT, Zimmer’s efforts here nevertheless close out Nolan’s trilogy on an epic, triumphant note.

Nolan’s artistic signatures as a filmmaker are on full display throughout THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, from its massive scope to its jet-setting narrative that takes his crew to far-flung locales like Morocco or Scotland.

His take on Bruce Wayne and Batman has always been informed by his penchant for extremely-flawed male protagonists.  The character’s development as seen in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES continues the trajectory Nolan established with BATMAN BEGINS, all the while uncovering new angles of his psyche.

We first find Bruce so disheartened by the loss of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent that he’s exiled himself and Batman away from the world for almost a decade.  He’s lost heart in the myth that he spent so much time, energy, and money building up.

When he decides to once again put on the cape and cowl, his regaining of his life’s purpose ironically makes him too proud.

His conviction about the righteousness of his mission has been warped to such a degree that he drives Alfred, his closest ally and friend, away from him entirely.  This also leads to his merciless beating at the hands of Bane, having failed to do his homework on his opponent beforehand.

Bruce’s story in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of re-earning the mantle of Batman, of gaining a renewed conviction for justice that will enable him to finally fulfill his lifelong quest.

The conceit of functional style that runs through Nolan’s filmography maintains its presence here through Batman’s iconic suit, in addition to other aspects like Bane’s militaristic garb and mask, Selina Kyle’s jet-black burglar outfit, and even a wearable device that allows Bruce to regain the power lost to destroyed cartilage in his knee.

The plot affords Nolan ample opportunity to explore his fascination with architecture and the malleability of the urban environment, with Bane exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of Gotham’s civic infrastructure.

The underground sewer system allows him to move throughout the city undetected while staging his massive operation.  This position allows him to penetrate fortified structures like Wayne Enterprises’  R&D department by tunneling up from below.

The strategic placement of explosives on bridges and other key points throughout the city allow him to effectively shut down Gotham in one fell swoop, cutting it off from the outside world and effectively creating his very own kingdom to rule as he sees fit.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES isn’t as concerned with the manipulation of time as his previous work, opting for a linear narrative that progresses steadily forward– save for a massive time jump in the middle that sees several months pass under Bane’s occupation.

More so than he did in THE DARK KNIGHT before it, Nolan structures his climax around a literal ticking clock: that time-honored movie trope of a bomb counting down to detonation. Considering the inspired turns of story that drove Nolan’s previous two Batman entries, it isn’t difficult to see why some critics felt let down by his use of an admittedly-cliche narrative device.

That being said, the ticking clock nonetheless provides a propulsive framework for Nolan to employ his signature cross-cutting techniques, nimbly tracking multiple threads of action and character as they race to save or destroy Gotham.

A purist attitude towards the supremacy of celluloid film over digital acquisition has always been a crucial aspect of Nolan’s artistic character, but his reputation for active advocacy really begins here, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Thanks to the monumental success of films like THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, he had enough industry clout to gather a number of high-profile directors like himself for a private IMAX screening of the film’s plane hijacking prologue shortly before this film’s release.

With some of Hollywood’s most-celebrated luminaries as his captive audience, he proceeded to make his case about the importance of keeping celluloid alive as a vital option for filmmakers to employ.  In this bold new digital age, film has taken on an inherently nostalgic quality– one that’s easy to romanticize, or take for granted.

Nolan used his platform to underscore the dangers that digital poses towards the continuance of celluloid, the least of which being its appeal to the studio’s bottom line.

Digital may now have the capability to match (and even surpass) the resolution of film pixel-for-pixel, he argued, but there’s a lot that digital couldn’t replicate and that they thus stood to lose– qualities like a wide latitude, an organic texture, and its strength as a long-term archival format immune to the ravages of memory rot and data corruption.

In the wake of major manufacturers like Fuji closing their doors and leaving Kodak as the only game in town, they faced the imminent risk of losing the choice to shoot on film altogether.  Thankfully, his pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears; his colleagues and contemporaries agreed that the preservation of celluloid as an acquisition option was of urgent artistic and cultural importance.

This alliance proved instantly formidable, with their efforts leading to several studios agreeing to a processing partnership with Kodak that would guarantee film’s immediate survival.  Of all of Nolan’s contributions to the art of cinema, his active advocacy to preserve the availability and the magic of photochemical film for future generations stands to become one of his most important and enduring.

Thanks to the bar set by THE DARK KNIGHT and the passing of four years when most sequels aim for two, expectations were understandably sky-high for Nolan’s trilogy capper.  It was, simply put, the most anticipated film of 2012.

It’s box office dominance was a foregone conclusion, with the marketing campaign aptly positioning the film as a major cultural event that was not to be missed.  The moviegoing public responded in kind, the most dedicated of whom turned out en masse across the country for midnight screenings on release day: July 20, 2012.

The overwhelming excitement of the film’s release was immediately tempered by tragedy, however, when a young man named James Holmes dressed up, in his words, as The Joker and opened fire on an audience at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.

Twelve people lost their lives, with fifty-eight more injured.  Nolan and his collaborators immediately issued statements about the massacre, expressing their profound heartbreak.  This unfortunate brush with history no doubt must have deeply affected Nolan– to him, the movie theater was a sacred space, akin to a cathedral.  It was a forum where people could gather and share a communal dream-like experience, and once that bubble had been popped, it was like innocence lost– there was no going back.

Whatever the purpose might have been, Holmes’ barbaric act couldn’t keep audiences away– perhaps inspiring some to go to the theater as an act of righteous defiance against fear and terrorism.

This defiance, coupled with the overwhelming popularity of the Batman property, quickly propelled THE DARK KNIGHT RISES past the billion dollar mark to become the 19th highest-grossing film of all time.  Critics admired the film for the most part, lavishing praise on Nolan’s technical craftsmanship and command of vision while conceding that the narrative was overlong and rather unwieldy.

Individual criticisms aside, critics and audiences alike mostly agreed that Nolan had closed out his trilogy in satisfying fashion. Nobody, however, could deny the impressiveness of his achievement: not only had he shepherded one of the most successful and well-regarded trilogies of all time, he had capably (and seemingly effortlessly) executed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES on the largest and most challenging scale of mainstream studio filmmaking.

In completing THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, Nolan had formed the bedrock of his cinematic legacy, and a solid platform upon which to build his towering works to come.


Nolan: INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Mankind is a race of explorers– from the governmental level on down to the individual family unit, we’re constantly pursuing the expansion of our domain into uncharted territory.

The fundamental desire that drove us across entire continents and oceans has also given birth to the tribal mind-set of nation-states, drawing up arbitrary borders in a bid to separate ourselves and our natural blessings from the nebulous “other”.  It wasn’t until the dawn of space flight in the mid-twentieth century that mankind was able to ascend high enough to observe the entire planet within their field of view.

Up there, they realized that there were no borders, no nations, no distinct divisions of heritages and cultures— there was only, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, a single blue marble suspended in a black void.  The planet Earth is a lifeboat in the middle of a vast, turbulent ocean… completely at the mercy to the fickle whims of the fates.

It is hard for those of us stuck here on terra firma to grasp just how precarious our cosmic existence is.  Thanks to our relatively short lifespans, we are cursed with abysmal foresight– we don’t worry about tomorrow because there’s already too much to deal with today.  But what if there was no tomorrow?

What if the mounting effects of industrialization and civic “progress” had turned our fragile blue marble into a dusty wasteland of blight, drought, and decay?  What if we had to find out the hard way that, unlike our fancy electronic gadgets, there was no cloud backup for humanity?

“Mankind was born on Earth.  It was never meant to die here”.  This phrase, while admittedly devised as an unusually-eloquent bit of marketing tagline copy, is the fundamental sentiment that drives Nolan’s ninth feature film, INTERSTELLAR.  The film dares to show The Last Frontier as it really is: an experience beyond the limits of our wildest imaginations.

While INTERSTELLAR’s heritage harkens back to the tactile innovations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), its actual development history began much more recently, when theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst hatched the initial seed of the story and set it up for further development at Paramount.  In 2006, the studio hired Jonathan Nolan to write the script as a directing vehicle for Steven Spielberg.

Six years later, Spielberg had departed the project for greener pastures and Christopher was in search of his next film after wrapping up his DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.  He was intimately familiar with Jonathan’s aspirations for and frustrations with INTERSTELLAR by virtue of his familial relation, but over time he found that he too had become interested in the project from a directorial standpoint.  When he learned the director’s chair was open, he simply placed a call to Paramount and offered his services.

Having made all his previous studio features at Warner Brothers, Nolan had forged warm relationships with the top executives there.  Unwilling to miss out on the next project from one of their most valuable talents, Warner Brothers took the unorthodox step of co-financing INTERSTELLAR with Paramount.

As such, two of the largest studios in Hollywood threw their combined weight behind Nolan to the tune of $175 million dollars– an astronomical sum considering that Nolan also enjoyed a $20 million salary, a 20% profit share of the film’s gross and carte blanche control over the execution of his vision.

That kind of creative freedom– nearly unheard of at this budgetary level– was a testament to the faith that studio executives had in the significant commercial appeal of Nolan’s aesthetic. The fact that Christopher Nolan ultimately brought the picture in $10 million under budget is, conversely, a testament to Nolan’s disciplined work ethic and goodwill towards his financiers.

INTERSTELLAR finds Nolan working with the largest canvas he’s ever had, which is pretty damn big considering the overwhelming scale of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  Funnily enough, Nolan’s first foray into science fiction succeeds almost in spite of its limitless scope, finding its profound emotional resonance in the simple, intimate theatrics of human connection.

Drawing from iconic sci-fi works like the aforementioned 2001, METROPOLIS, BLADE RUNNER, STAR WARS, and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well as offbeat sources like Ken Burns’ documentaries on the Dust Bowl, Nolan infuses INTERSTELLAR with a Spielbergian wonder towards the mysteries of the cosmos.

Indeed, Nolan strives to evoke the artistic sensibilities of Spielberg by structuring INTERSTELLAR as an ode to spaceflight, a paean to the romanticism of adventure, and a portrait of the special and complex bond shared between a father and his children.  If THE DARK KNIGHT RISES heralded the end of the world with a bang, then INTERSTELLAR sees it arrive with a whimper.

The world, simply put, must be saved– but this time, the responsibility falls not to superheroes but to scientists and mathematicians.  We begin in the back half of the twenty-first century, where the mounting effects of  pollution, industrialization, and other byproducts of modern civilization have ravaged the earth.

Crops are failing, water is growing scarce, society is stagnating. A desperate and hungry world has discouraged frivolous pursuits like space exploration in favor of raising more farmers to till the increasingly-infertile fields.

Short-sighted bureaucrats have even gone so far as to formally disband NASA and publish textbooks that assert the moon landing was faked in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.  There’s a pervading sense that our future is decidedly earthbound.

In America’s blight-plagued heartland, where a new Dust Bowl rages with increasing intensity, an ex-pilot turned corn farmer named Cooper is trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence with his two children and father-in-law.

When Cooper examines the curious phenomena of patterned dust in his daughter’s bedroom, he manages to decode it as geographical coordinates.  Cooper and his daughter, Murph, follow the coordinates to a secret underground bunker, only to discover a secret refuge for the remnants of NASA– an underground facility in which to build the next generation of starships and ferry mankind off the dying planet.  The mission has been spurned on by the discovery of a wormhole near Saturn, placed there by an unknown intelligence.

Almost overnight, an entirely new galaxy has been placed within their reach– complete with three potentially habitable planets orbiting a supermassive black hole named Gargantua.

One of the few pilots qualified to lead a mission of this importance, Cooper is duty-bound to leave his family behind and command an interstellar reconnaissance mission to find a new home for the human race– before we lose the only one we’ve ever known.

The consistent pedigree of Nolan’s work naturally attracts (and retains) high-caliber talent, and INTERSTELLAR serves as yet another prime example.  It’s tempting to assume that the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Cooper was a reactive action on Nolan’s part– jumping on the “McConnaissance” bandwagon and securing the talents of a performer operating at the peak of his prestige.

If the study of Nolan’s filmography yields only one insight, however, it’s that any artistic choice he makes is never a reaction to current trends in filmmaking or Hollywood at large.  Indeed, he’d been aware of McConaughey’s flinty, blue-collar physicality for quite some time– over the years he’s proved himself to be one of the few actors capably of truly embodying the “everyman” persona Nolan felt was so crucial to the proper conveyance of his protagonist.

McConaughey succeeds Guy Pearce, Al Pacino, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio as the latest in a long line of tortured and haunted male heroes within Nolan’s work.  Cooper’s story so far has been one of quiet tragedy; he’s a former pilot who had to give up dreams of spaceflight for an unglamorous life growing a failing crop and raising a family doomed to do the same.

Like MEMENTO’S Guy Pearce, INCEPTION’s DiCaprio, and, to a certain extent, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Cooper is a widower; cursed to wander the rest of his life without his mate.  Also like those characters, he’s whip-smart and resourceful; a natural-born leader with bottomless reserves of courage and a ferocious commitment to his family.

The loss of his wife in and of itself does not make Cooper a tortured protagonist in the typical Nolan mold, however– it’s the fact that he must leave his beloved family behind if he’s to save them, along with the very real possibility that he may never see them again.
As Cooper’s absence stretches from months, to years, to decades, his children grow into disillusioned, bitter adults.

They’re angry at the father who abandoned them, the most vindictive sibling being Murph– ripped from her father’s warmth and guidance at a fragile young age.  Jessica Chastain continues her winning streak of strong performances for prestigious directors here as the adult Murph, a brilliant and driven scientist working for NASA.

Her insightful ability to see patterns where others do not allows her to successfully receive messages sent by the universe and employ them towards the salvation of the human race, all while communicating with her long-lost father in a way that transcends both space and time.

Casey Affleck is even more humorless and bitter as Cooper’s grown son, Tom.  In his father’s absence, the work of maintaining the family farm has fallen to him, and the hard, fruitless work and tragic death of his firstborn son has left him an angry and hollow shell of the optimistic and eager boy he once was.

Well known for his gangly, boyish physicality, Affleck instead conveys an imposing corn-fed frame and a pragmatic coldness that puts him at odds with Murph’s good intentions.
Ever since THE PRESTIGE brought back several members of the cast from BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan has made a habit of retaining key actors for multiple successive collaborations.  Michael Caine is easily the most visible example of this aspect of Nolan’s career, having appeared in all of the director’s films since 2005.

In INTERSTELLAR, Caine plays Cooper’s mentor Professor Brand, the weary NASA scientist in charge of the Endurance mission.  The character is a variation on the archetype he typically plays in Nolan’s work– that of the sagely mentor and charming bearer of exposition– but where the Professor Brand character diverges the most from prior performances is in his intentional misleading of Cooper and his crew about the ultimate impossibility of their primary mission objective.

Anne Hathaway, hot off her first collaboration with Nolan in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, plays Professor Brand’s daughter, also named Brand. As a character who finds herself caught at the intersection of faith and reason, Hathaway capably conveys her character’s vulnerable intelligence and idealistic confidence.

More than just a potential love interest for Cooper, Brand is a conduit through which Nolan presents one of INTERSTELLAR’s key ideas– the idea of “love” as a powerful, quantifiable cosmic concept.  In other words: the idea of “love” being a separate dimension unto itself that can transcend and influence time, space, and gravity.

The rest of INTERSTELLAR’s supporting players are comprised of faces well-known, obscure, and surprising.  Shielded from all marketing materials prior to the release of the film, Matt Damon unexpectedly turns up halfway through the film in a major role as Mann, a team member from a previous reconnaissance mission who is discovered on a desolate, icy planet ensconced in his hypersleep pod.

Upon waking, Mann is initially grateful and overwhelmed that someone came to find him, but as the realization dawns that his planet is ultimately not suitable for Earth’s new home, he reveals the ruthless and cowardly survivalist side of his nature.  His name is no doubt a nod on Nolan’s part to director Michael Mann, a filmmaker who has served as a profound influence on Nolan’s particular aesthetic.

Following the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Nolan’s casting of Topher Grace and John Lithgow here evidences what could seen as a curious fascination with 90’s sitcom stars, with Grace making his way from THAT 70’s SHOW and Lithgow well-known from his stint on THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN (which also starred Gordon-Levitt).

Grace plays Getty, adult-Murph’s NASA colleague, while Lithgow eases into a grizzled seniority to play Donald, Cooper’s father-in-law and grandfather to Murph and Tom.  One of the more interesting aspects of Lithgow’s character is his age in relation to the timeline of Nolan’s story, which would place him as a member of the contemporary Millennial generation.

Veteran character actress Ellen Burstyn is a poignant presence as the elderly Murph, having eclipsed her own father in age thanks to the relativistic aspects of time and space travel.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi play Doyle and Romilly, respectively– two fellow astronauts on the Endurance mission who help explain the film’s brain-twisting concepts about relativity to the audience.

Bill Irwin makes the best of a thankless task by providing the voice and puppetry for TARS, a non-humanoid, artificially-intelligent robot that accompanies the Endurance crew.  Despite having his presence painted out of the frame entirely, Irwin ably injects a genuine sense of lively humanity into TARS, resulting in a memorable silver screen robot in the mold of HAL-9000 and C-3PO.

Nine features into his career, Nolan has solidified a core group of trusted craftspeople in service to his vision: producer/wife Emma Thomas, production designer Nathan Crowley, composer Hans Zimmer, and editor Lee Smith.  However, INTERSTELLAR forces Nolan to make a radical change in a key department.

Wally Pfister, who had shot all of Nolan’s films since MEMENTO, was unavailable to shoot INCEPTION because of the production of his own directorial debut, TRANSCENDENCE.  Understandably, Pfister leaves big shoes to fill, but Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema proves a more-than-capable replacement, reinvigorating Nolan’s outsized aesthetic by virtue of his fresh perspective.

He ably replicates the muted earth and metal color palette of Nolan’s previous films while infusing INTERSTELLAR with a gritty, documentary-style immediacy uncommon to most sci-fi films.  He achieves this by shooting a majority of the film handheld, which results in naturalistic compositions that evoke an organic, lyrical nature not unlike the late-career aesthetic of Terrence Malick.

Hoytema employs other tools like blown highlights and Spielbergian and Abrams-esque lens flares that fan out into concentrated horizontal bands of light– a visual artifact unique to anamorphic lenses.

From the cinematography on down to the final sound mix, Nolan intended for INTERSTELLAR to be his most technically ambitious work to date.  The lion’s share of his attention is lavished on the visuals, building on his innovative use of large-format film gauges in a narrative setting.

If its staggering runtime of 2 hours and 49 minutes wasn’t enough, Nolan projects the unprecedented scale of INTERSTELLAR’s narrative by shooting his largest ratio of IMAX to 35mm film yet.  The supersized IMAX format betters conveys the infinite depths of space, restoring a sense of grandeur and wonder to a genre that’s otherwise been lost in recent years to an orgy of flimsy CGI-fests.

Indeed, when Nolan juxtaposes the microscopic insignificance of human spacecraft against the massive backdrop of Saturn, it’s hard to imagine any other format that can better communicate the awe-inspiring scale of the heavens.

With each successive film, Nolan further innovates and strengthens IMAX’s capabilities for narrative storytelling, and INTERSTELLAR provides him with the opportunity to use it in conventional dialogue scenes or handheld in cramped quarters in addition to grandiose moments of spectacle.

The use of IMAX also highlights Nolan’s preference for celluloid, allowing him to better demonstrate film’s strengths while combating the ballooning resolution of digital formats fast approaching their ten-thousandth pixel.

In a way, Nolan achieves a poetic sublimity in his use of IMAX on INTERSTELLAR– one of his primary motivators for using the format in the first place was his reasoning that if an IMAX camera can be lugged into space, it can be used to shoot a narrative feature film.  With INTERSTELLAR, this reasoning comes full circle, finding Nolan employing the format in service to the depiction of space.
One of the core operating principles of Nolan’s approach to INTERSTELLAR was that anything that could be captured in-camera would be captured in-camera.  Granted, Nolan typically avoids CGI wherever he can, but the particular challenges of making INTERSTELLAR presented special consideration.  As he had done for select scenes in INCEPTION, Nolan once again looked to the model of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a science fiction masterpiece whose groundbreaking practical effects are still convincing after half a century.

While one could certainly make the case that Kubrick would have preferred the control and precision afforded by digital techniques had they been available to him, 2001’s practical, in-camera effects are nevertheless a major component of its longevity.

Following Kubrick’s lead, Nolan mandated that INTERSTELLAR would resort to computer-generated imagery only when necessary.  As such, a grand majority of the film’s spaceships, costumes, sets, and non-human characters are physical builds or miniatures.

INTERSTELLAR’s two robot characters, TARS and CASE, were achieved through a mix of computer graphics and physical puppetry, with actor Bill Irwin giving life to the bulky slab of inanimate metal via an elaborate counterbalance system.

Rather than juxtapose green-screened astronauts against a computer-generated alien landscape, Christopher Nolan simply flew the production to the real-life alien landscape of Iceland, which stood in for the film’s water and ice planets.

This approach also extended to sequences set on Cooper’s farm back on Earth, where he had his team actually build a functional full-scale house and plant fields of corn out in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The spaceship sets, built on a soundstage in LA by returning production designer Nathan Crowley, were designed to be as realistically functional as possible in a bid to emulate the harshly utilitarian conditions of space travel.

This meant foregoing the luxury of breakaway walls while projecting high resolution images of space onto a giant cyc, enabling the cast to look out the windows of the Endurance and actually feel like they were in space.

Even the four-dimensional tesseract sequence– one of the most abstract concepts ever presented in a mainstream Hollywood film– was, surprisingly, built as a practical set.  This isn’t to say that INTERSTELLAR doesn’t contain its fair share of computer-generated imagery, but rather that Nolan’s conscious decision to capture as much as he could in-camera should be celebrated, and has arguably created a piece of work that will hold up considerably well in the years to come.

INTERSTELLAR further echoes 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in striving to depict the challenges and logistics of space travel as accurately as possible.  Towards this end, Nolan brings on Kip Thorne not just as an executive producer, but as a key creative partner on the level of a cinematographer or production designer.

Thorne is one of the leading minds in his field, which makes the ideas presented in INTERSTELLAR not only scientifically accurate, but exceedingly cutting-edge.  These ideas aren’t just limited to technical aspects like the conceivably-realistic spaceship interiors or the accurate approach to sound design in the vacuum of space; every development in the story bases itself upon the established laws of physics and relativity, no matter how fantastical or impossible it may seem.

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Admittedly, the film does deviate dramatically from hard science when Cooper allows himself to drop into a black hole, but the ultimate impossibility of knowing what lies beyond the event horizon is an appropriate enough excuse for a little dramatic license.

To Nolan and Thorne’s credit, the depiction of the black hole itself is derived as accurately as possible from our current understanding of them– Thorne worked out complicated relativity equations for the computer graphics team so they could accurately recreate the warping and luminescence of Gargantua’s accretion disk.

Even the simulation itself was an immense undertaking, generating over 800 terabytes of information and some frames taking a hundred hours or more to render.  In the process, Thorne and the visual effects team managed to make actual, quantifiable scientific breakthroughs in our understanding of the heavens’ most mysterious phenomenon.

INTERSTELLAR goes to great lengths to explain how black holes entwine the forces of gravity and time, using the relativity of time as a major source of emotional conflict.  Each time the Endurance mission faces a delay or unexpected problem, years or decades go by on Earth– and Cooper’s chance of ever seeing his family again drops precipitously.

Naturally, this is a very heady concept that isn’t easily grasped, necessitating frequent expositional and jargon-laden monologues that lay out the challenge our characters face in no uncertain, unsubtle terms.

Yet, these moments never feel like a chore or a burden to struggle through.  Nolan deals with mind-bending plot devices so frequently that he’s made the delivery of bulky exposition into something of an art form.   

Since their first collaboration on BATMAN BEGINS, composer Hans Zimmer has played an increasingly important part in shaping Nolan’s artistic identity.  After spending several years working as something of a journeyman composer for big-budget action films, Zimmer’s collaborations with Nolan have increasingly steered him towards an avant-garde minimalism.  Nolan has pushed Zimmer to reinvent the wheel with each successive project, and INTERSTELLAR just might be the veteran composer’s most ambitious score to date.

Having grown weary of the conventional director/composer collaborative relationship, Nolan employed an inspired tactic: rather than scoring off of the edited film, Zimmer was given a one page brief before the start of production.

The brief did not outline the story of the film, describe the character, or give any indication of the scale– it didn’t even state that this was a science fiction film.  Instead, the brief described abstract sentiments about family, parenthood, and time that zeroed in on the beating heart of the film’s emotional core.

From this barest of sketches, Zimmer generated a beautifully atmospheric, mysterious, and hopeful suite of music.  Advised by Nolan to stay away from the tried-and-true orchestral string arrangements, Zimmer sourced his sounds from a palette of ticking clocks, melancholy piano chords, and most notably, an urgent church organ.

Indeed, the organ (and the particular acoustic resonance gained by recording it inside an actual cathedral) is the defining characteristic of INTERSTELLAR’s score, perfectly evoking the religiosity of the celestial heavens as well as our tireless search for a higher meaning to our existence.

By not tailoring his score to the expectations of the science fiction genre, Zimmer is able to tap directly into universality of the human experience at the center of the story and deliver one of the finest works of his career.

INTERSTELLAR dovetails quite naturally and cohesively with several of the core thematic fascinations that comprises Nolan’s artistic identity.  Time (and the manipulation thereof) consistently shapes the structure of his films, and INTERSTELLAR posits that time is a spatial dimension unto itself– one that can be stepped outside of and looked in on as it stretches and warps in a relativistic relationship with gravity.

Whereas MEMENTO played with the lateral direction of time, or INCEPTION explored how a single action’s effect could compound along multiple parallel timelines, INTERSTELLAR goes one step further by turning time into a physical dimension, embodied in the four-dimensional tesseract that allows Cooper to interact with his daughter across multiple points of her lifespan.

It’s immediately apparent that Nolan sees great dramatic potential in the relativity of time as it pertains to gravity– one of the film’s most emotionally resonant sequences finds Cooper and Brand marooned on a water planet closely orbiting the gravity-dense black hole.

Because the individual perception of time differs according to the strength of gravity’s pull, they perceive themselves as being on the surface for only a few hours.  When they return to the ship in orbit, however, they learn that twenty-three years have passed on Earth, and Cooper has an inbox with a lifetime’s worth of messages from his kids, who have grown up in his absence and have reached the same age he had been when he left home.

Nolan’s fascination with time is also represented by his usage of montage and cross-cutting in pursuit of a subjective emotional experience and the building of dramatic intensity.

Looking over his series of collaborations with regular editor Lee Smith, it’s not uncommon for Nolan to employ cross-cuts that span great distances of time and space, but INTERSTELLAR’s cross-cuts compress whole decades and unfathomable light-years within the space of a single frame.

One memorable sequence late in the film cuts between Murph diverting her brother’s attention by burning his corn crop, while on an icy world in a separate galaxy, McConaughey battles for his life against Damon’s attacks.  They are separated by untold millions of miles and several dozens of Earth-years, but they are united in their singular, cosmic struggle to save the human race.

Nolan’s films explore and subvert our perception of time in pursuit of a greater, unified statement about the subjectivity (and fragility) of our individual realities–  there is no single objective truth in his films, no matter how hard his characters search for it.

Perhaps that’s why his protagonists are always so tortured or burdened with regret… they’ve devoted the entirety of themselves to the pursuit of something they ultimately can never attain.

Nolan has sometimes been called an “emotional mathematician”, most notably by fellow director Guillermo Del Toro.  Beyond his championing of technical precision and a tendency to manipulate the emotions of his audience through calculated technique instead of raw artistic ingenuity, the phrase also alludes to his use of academic disciplines like geometry and science in his storytelling.

In other words, a large portion of his life’s work has been a celebration of the magic of data.  This is true in INTERSTELLAR more so than any of his previous films, with entire plot points hinging around the conveyance of ideas and messages via morse code, binary coordinates, flight path equations, and even gravity as a form of interdimensional communication.

A considerable amount of screentime is dedicated to Cooper and his crew figuring out how to best conserve their limited fuel supply, which isn’t as boring as it sounds when it means we get to see him pull daredevil spin maneuvers to slow down his lander rather than using fuel-consuming air brakes.  This conceit folds in well with Nolan’s reputation for structuring his plots as puzzles his characters must solve.

INTERSTELLAR’s astronauts must summon all their intellect and resourcefulness in order to solve the biggest puzzle of all: gravity.  Architecture plays a significant role in this regard, most notably in the design of NASA’s cavernous underground bunker.

The space is shaped like a massive centrifuge, and for good reason– once Brand solves the problem of gravity, he plans to physically lift the building into space as a 21st century ark that will ensure humanity’s survival.  Its circular shape will allow the station to spin in orbit, generating artificial gravity for its inhabitants.

The exotic world of space travel allows Nolan to indulge in his continued exploration of functional style.  Great consideration was given to the film’s spacesuit costumes, with Nolan striving for a sleeker silhouette than the cumbersome suits employed by modern astronauts.

As a piece of equipment designed to sustain an astronaut’s life systems in hostile environments, these suits are inherently functional, and Nolan finds the opportunity to enhance their functionality towards the film shoot itself by building microphones directly into his actors’  helmets.

Classic literature has also played an increasingly prominent role in Nolan’s work, stemming from his college years as an English Lit major and most recently evidenced in the inspiration that Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” served in the development of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

In INTERSTELLAR, Professor Brand routinely recites Dylan Thomas’ classic poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as a propulsive mantra, continually reminding us of the ultimate cost humanity will pay should the mission fail.

Though Nolan is very mechanically-minded in both the thematics and execution of his story, INTERSTELLAR’s ultimate message is surprisingly organic and optimistically abstract: that love is a higher dimension than both space and time; that we all draw from an interconnected, cosmic soul; that our love for each other gives the human race meaning and significance in the face of a cold, endless oblivion.

By the time of INTERSTELLAR’s release in November of 2014, Paramount had completely ceased the distribution of celluloid release prints in favor of an all-digital delivery to theaters.  However, Nolan harnessed his considerable clout and convinced the studio to make an exception for him, even going so far as providing an incentive to see the IMAX, 70mm and conventional 35mm film prints over digital by making them available a full two days before the film’s official release.

INTERSTELLAR scored mostly-positive critical reviews, most of which praised Nolan’s considerable technical showmanship and awe-inspiring ambition even as they found some faults in the overall cohesiveness of his story.

While the film’s box office performance didn’t post BATMAN kinds of numbers, Nolan’s rabid fanbase and INTERSTELLAR’s buzz as “the most anticipated film of 2014” all but guaranteed a healthy haul.

INTERSTELLAR’s legacy as a technical triumph was confirmed at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.

It would go on to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects– the same category that Kubrick won for his work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  While INTERSTELLAR may not end up as timeless a classic as Kubrick’s masterpiece, it will nevertheless go down as one of the most audacious and ambitious science fiction epics ever made.


Nolan: QUAY (2015)

As a noted champion of practical effects and technical craftsmanship, director Christopher Nolan has a vested interest in supporting similarly-minded filmmakers.  As the director of some of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, Nolan also has the power to shed light on underexposed voices by using the pedigree of his own name to help them find a new audience.

In 2015, Nolan did just for that the Quay brothers, two masters of imaginative puppet animation celebrated for their handcrafted gothic aesthetic that’s less Walt Disney and more David Lynch.

The 8-minute QUAY is Nolan’s first documentary effort, and the first short he’s made since 1997’s DOODLEBUG.  Working with co-producer Andy Thompson, Nolan acts as a one-man crew like he did on his feature debut FOLLOWING (1998), serving as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor as he documents the Quay brothers giving a tour of their cavernous shop and their myriad creations.

Ever true to his purist approach towards celluloid cinema, Nolan shoots QUAY on 35mm film in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio, conforming his high-contrast, desaturated earth-tone aesthetic to a handheld, observational tone.  Nolan is content to simply let the Quay brothers riff on the nature of their work without inserting himself into the conversation or imposing any sort of contrived narrative, ultimately creating an intimate portrait of two artisans and the lo-fi, handmade artistry behind their inimitable body of work.

QUAY screened at the Film Forum in New York before being made available on a boutique Blu Ray release collecting several of the brothers’ iconic shorts.  Nolan’s reverence and appreciation for the Quays is palpable; there’s no question he regards their work as a formative influence on his own approach to filmmaking.

Naturally, the Quays were renowned long before Nolan turned his lens on them and didn’t necessarily need a documentary like QUAY to expose their work to a wide audience, but the film does however reach a different audience– the kind whose diet consists only of mainstream Hollywood spectacles and isn’t particularly inclined to seek out the eccentric deep cuts of indie animation.

In showing us a key influence in his advocacy for practical effects in the face of digital wizardry, Nolan reveals a deeper insight into his own artistic character while suggesting the beginning of a more-intimate and experimental phase in his professional development.

QUAY is available in high definition on the The Quay Brothers Collected Short Films Blu Ray via Zeitgeist Films and Syncopy.

Nolan: Dunkirk (2016)

Along with the mass devastation and the loss of millions of lives, World War 2 brought about something positive: a recognition of the innate heroism in every person.  It wasn’t just a conflict fought by unseen general and soldiers on some distant field by– it was a harrowing ordeal that quite literally hit home for countless civilians around the world.  The European theater, in particular, saw no shortage of battles play out within the confines of its urban centers; no one could say their personal lives weren’t directly affected by the war.

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When we hear about stories of courage in combat, we tend to remember these episodes with a veneer of romanticism, and rightly so– World War 2 is often painted as a necessary “good” war, in which the forces of freedom and righteousness waged a battle against the evil and inhumane virtues of fascism for the soul of the twentieth century.  However, the people actually living these episodes of courage — soldiers and civilians alike — most likely didn’t view their experiences through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.  Indeed, many of these courageous moments were a result of terrified men and women simply trying to survive.

This sentiment– a complex fusion of bittersweet heroism, desperate self-preservation, and corrosive survivor’s guilt —  drives director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film, DUNKIRK (2017).  Structured less as a conventional war film and more like a harrowing survival thriller, DUNKIRK recreates the evacuation of Allied forces from the eponymous coastal town in France as an awe-inspiring story of unfathomable courage and frenzied survival, despite the event itself serving as a tactical loss for the good guys.  This snatching of an emotional victory from the jaws of strategic defeat is precisely the sort of peculiar irony that attracted Nolan to the story when he initially conceived of the project in the mid-’90s, while sailing across the English Channel along the evacuation route with his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.

He envisioned an immersive experience that expanded upon the war genre’s rather simplistic emotional dynamics with a wider range of color, thus achieving a different kind of reverence towards Dunkirk’s participants– one that didn’t reduce their memory to cheap, two-dimensional patriotism.  The idea stayed with Nolan through the subsequent decades, even as his career exploded into the stratosphere following the breakout success of films like MEMENTO (2000) and BATMAN BEGINS (2005).  After the completion in 2014 of his sprawling space epic, INTERSTELLAR, Nolan finally felt he had accumulated enough experience and artistic clout to tackle DUNKIRK as his next feature-length project.

Admittedly, this is something of an absurd sentiment on its face– how could the director of gigantic films like THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR not feel ready or experienced enough to helm a $100 million film about a real-world event?  One only needs to look at the finished product to see the answer lies not in Nolan’s confidence towards his technical mastery, but rather in the amount of creative goodwill he needed in order to take so experimental a tack with such an expensive effort.

Indeed, DUNKIRK stands as something of a culmination of the many artistic strands that Nolan had been developing and perfecting throughout his career and only now was it possible for him to tie these strands together into a cohesive, singular experience.  Here was a director at the apex of both his technical powers and his cultural relevance, empowered to make whatever he wanted at whatever scale he wanted thanks to a long-standing relationship with Warner Brothers that had reached the rarefied air of total creative trust and financial backing previously reserved for such heavyweights as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or even Cecil B. DeMille.

Their partnership had been so fruitful that, at this point, he could have asked for $100 million to direct an adaptation of the phone book and they would’ve cut a check in the room.  Thankfully for the studio —and for audiences —it wasn’t the phone book that Nolan wanted to direct, but rather a harrowing, minimalist story about courage under fire that would showcase the director’s staggering technical prowess while pushing his artistic inclinations in bold, new directions.

In retelling the story of DUNKIRK, Nolan couldn’t escape the fact that the event was technically a retreat— at this point of the war in 1940, Axis forces had taken so much of France that the Allies felt their best course of action was to pull back and regroup for a better defense against the German’s inevitable attack on the British homeland.  In the small coastal town of Dunkirk, close to the Belgian border, this evacuation was met with a relentless assault by well-supplied German forces, intent on decimating their numbers before they could set foot off the European continent.

Having cultivated an effective cross-cutting technique throughout his previous work, Nolan desired to employ it towards the whole of a feature-length narrative, in effect creating one long note of sustained suspense that he described as, in his words: “the story of immediate tension in the present tense”.  Right away, this suggested that the director would have to eschew his tendencies towards increasingly-inflated runtimes and zero in on the most concise, succinct version of the narrative at hand.  Indeed, at an hour and 45 minutes, DUNKIRK is Nolan’s shortest film since his 1998 debut feature, FOLLOWING.

The film is split up into three distinct planes of action: the air, the sea, and the ground (referred to in the film as “the mole”, so named after the dock jutting out from the beach).  Each of these separate strands ducks and weave through each other, only to converge at the end as the battle reaches a fever pitch.

DUNKIRK takes a decentralized approach to its plot, trashing the idea of a singular protagonist in favor of enigmatic figureheads; fictional composites instead of historical accounts.  They have names, to be sure, but we as an audience don’t have the luxury of time to learn them when our very survival is at stake.  I say “our survival” because Nolan intends for these characters to simply serve as windows for the audience to immerse themselves in the harrowing sweep of history as it unfolds.  We never see beyond this limited, subjective perspective— we’re stuck with the Allied forces on the ground, forced to flee with them as chaos and destruction surrounding us.

We rarely even see the attackers, save for the occasional German plane.  In casting DUNKIRK, Nolan mostly ignores his reputation as a director of prestigious, Academy Award-nominated talent in favor of young unknowns like Fionn Whitehead, who anchors the mole sequences as the boyish and doggedly determined grunt, Tommy— so-named not for a specific person, but for the era’s slang term for a rank-and-file British soldier.

Whitehead’s story is one of sheer survival, desperately grabbing for any toehold to safety like a rat fleeing a flood.  His companion in this regard is a fellow soldier named Alex, played by world-renowned pop singer Harry Styles in his first major acting role.  Interestingly enough, Nolan reportedly wasn’t aware of Styles’ fame at the time, having thought he had cast a young unknown like Whitehead off the strength of his talents.

Styles nevertheless proves more than capable, readily eschewing any pretense of rock star glamor or vanity in order to fit in with the desperation and grit that surrounds him.  The sea-based sequences illustrate one of England’s crowning moments of the entire war, in which a small fleet of civilian pleasure cruisers sailed across the English Channel and directly into harm’s way to help evacuate their countrymen in uniform.

DUNKIRK zeroes in on the journey of The Moonstone, a tiny boat captained by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson.  He courageously charts a treacherous course to Dunkirk with both his son and his son’s best friend in tow, only to find himself in a contained chamber drama when he picks up a lone, PTSD-riddled soldier caught adrift in open water.  Played by longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy, the Shivering Soldier (as he’s credited in the titles) is hellbent on getting back to London, and his combative response to Dawson’s insistence on keeping course to Dunkirk leads to drama just as unpredictable and dangerous as the battle they’re sailing into.

The last third of DUNKIRK’s triptych of narratives finds Tom Hardy as a hyper-focused RAF pilot named Farrier, expertly blasting German fighter planes out of the sky in his Spitfire— that is, until he runs low on fuel and risks having to ditch out behind enemy lines.  Another member of Nolan’s loyal repertory of performers, Hardy was no doubt selected in part because of his uniquely expressive eyes— an absolute necessity when the character’s face must be hidden behind a bulky flight mask for the majority of the picture.  Hardy had previously accomplished this same task for Nolan as the menacing masked brute, Bane, in 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and achieves in DUNKIRK a similar effect, albeit one that’s better calibrated to his character’s stoic heroism.  It’s also in Hardy’s storyline that one finds the film’s most cleverly-disguised cameo: Michael Caine, who just barely manages to add another link in his unbroken chain of successive performances for Nolan since BATMAN BEGINS by lending his iconic voice to the role of an officer dispatching commands over the two-way radio.  Out of a cast of literally hundreds, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and fellow director Kenneth Branagh deliver standout performances, with Branagh’s turn as Commander Bolton serving as a particularly compelling reminder of the dignified composure exhibited by the Allied brass even as the world was falling down around them.

With INTERSTELLAR, Nolan borrowed liberally from the Steven Spielberg school of filmmaking, adopting several of his predecessor’s stylistic affectations to imbue the unknowable majesty of space and our cosmic connectivity with a sense of overwhelming wonder and awe.  Spielberg has similarly influenced the war genre, with his 1998 classic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN providing the aesthetic and emotional benchmark for subsequent war pictures to follow.

While DUNKIRK shares inevitable similarities to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in a stylistic sense, Nolan charts his own course, fashioning a visceral experience that speaks to his impeccable technical pedigree as well as his desire to reinvent the visual language of whatever genre he’s working in.  This is evident in the initial references he drew inspiration from— one might expect to see a list of iconic war films, but Nolan draws from a wider, more disparate pool of sources: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS appropriately conveyed the chaos of battle to his collaborators, but other works like THE WAGES OF FEAR, ALIEN, SPEED, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, and SUNRISE asserted themselves as exercises in sustained suspense or unique applications of montage.

SUNRISE, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, proved to be a key reference for DUNKIRK, with the narrative challenges inherent in the absence of sound demonstrated for the benefit of the film’s ambitions as an almost-exclusively visual work.  Towards this end, Nolan also looked to the influence of other silent-era directors like Cecil B. DeMille for his handling of epic spectacle and large crowds.

DUNKIRK retains the stark, austere visuals that Nolan is known for, adopting his signature metal & earth tone color palette while photochemically boiling his chromatic spectrum down to a limited range of cold blues, teals, and greys.  The gloomy daylight that hangs over the English Channel takes on a creamy tinge as it provides the key light for a naturalistic, yet foreboding presentation.  It’s only a matter of time until Nolan succeeds in making an entire picture with large format photography like IMAX, and DUNKIRK naturally represents Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date towards that goal.

Working once again with his INTERSTELLAR cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan uses conventional 35mm celluloid film only when he has to— most notably in dialogue-intensive scenes that take place in cramped quarters like the Moonstone’s cabin below deck.  For the vast majority of DUNKIRK — about 70-75% of the finished product — Nolan, and Hoytema use a blend of large format 65mm and IMAX film.

While this approach retains the abrupt, somewhat-jarring shifts of aspect ratio between the CinemaScope 35mm and the larger full-frame gauges, DUNKIRK’s visceral command of its massive scale keeps the audience fully immersed with a minimum of distraction.

Nolan captures this overwhelming, all-consuming chaos with his signature epic flair, blending majestic classical camerawork with urgent handheld photography that ably evokes the “war is hell” tonality of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN while still asserting an aesthetic character all its own.  Nolan’s love of aerial photography works particularly well in this regard, bringing seasoned and enthusiastic energy to DUNKIRK’s Dramamine-necessitating dogfight sequences.

The film as a whole naturally acts as the latest showcase for Nolan’s advocacy for the supremacy of celluloid’s organic grit over digital’s glossy sheen, putting the format’s resiliency to the test many times over.  One particular instance would involve the loss of an IMAX camera when the plane it was mounted to accidentally sunk to the bottom of the sea.  While the camera was understandably toasted, the film inside was not.  Indeed, the hardy archival qualities of celluloid meant that not only was the footage useable— it was pristine.

While the film is stuffed to the brim with the epic spectacle we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s filmography, there’s also a curious tonal intimacy at play; a touch of the avant-garde that allows DUNKIRK to function as both a compelling dramatization of a historical event as well as an abstract meditation on industrial-scale survival and courage under extreme fire.

The bulk of DUNKIRK was shot in the locations where it actually happened— most notably, the same beach where soldiers lined up to board evacuation boats while bombs fell around them.  Nolan’s longtime production designer, Nathan Crowley, even rebuilt the mole from the original blueprints.  Even when the production moved to the waters off of Holland or a water tank in Los Angeles for select sequences, the crew dedicated themselves to historical accuracy in the details— right down to the last steel rivet.  At the same time, his treatment of landscape reduces his backdrops to two planes of action: above and below.

The shared horizon line that bisects his frames ties the mole, sea, and air narratives together with a thematic uniformity, but it also has the effect of abstractifying the action into an interior realm.  This impression goes a long way towards explaining why Nolan felt he needed to accumulate more experience & clout before embarking on production— especially in the calculated cynicism of today’s studio climate, he wouldn’t have been able to make DUNKIRK as the impressionistic survival & courage allegory that he did, at the level of production value he did, and with a mostly young and unknown cast… unless he himself was the brand that guaranteed a healthy return on investment.

It takes a great deal of experience and confidence to under-develop his characters in the manner he does here; it goes against every grain in our artistic bodies and everything we’ve been taught about writing stories.  However, Nolan recognized that the Battle of Dunkirk was a much bigger story than any one person and that the most effective version of any film recreation would be the one that captured the shared humanity of its participants while installing key avatars through which the audience could immerse itself fully and share in the experience.

This is something that cinema does better than almost any other established or emerging medium, and Nolan recognizes this.  It’s why he eschews cheap gimmickry like 3-D in favor of large film formats that quite literally fill the audience’s field of view.  It’s why he avoids the uncanny plastic sheen of digital and embraces the organic warmth and texture of celluloid.  Immersion demands as few barriers between the image and the audience as possible, and DUNKIRK succeeds in this regard due to Nolan’s artistic precision as well as the subtle abstract touch he brings to the proceedings.

Nowhere is Nolan’s avant-garde touch more evident than DUNKIRK’s original score, composed by longtime music collaborator Hans Zimmer in partnership with Benjamin Wallfisch and Lorne Balfe, among others.  Zimmer and Wallfisch’s foreboding suite of cues is anything but subtle, evoking the dark belly of the military-industrial beast that was World War 2.  Limited melodies compete for air against an expressive industrial texture, with an arrangement of string and brass instruments manipulated so as to recall the alarming whine of an approaching fighter plane or the listless whir of a ship engine as it teeters onto its side.

Simply put, the score is a harrowing, unrelenting juggernaut of abstract musicality, made all the more intense by Zimmer’s deployment of the “Shepard Tone”— an auditory illusion that Zimmer previously used to similar effect on THE PRESTIGEand in The Joker’s theme for THE DARK KNIGHT, wherein a sense of escalating danger is implied by a tone whose pitch seems to escalate towards infinity without breaking.

The effect is one of squirming tension on the part of the listener; an auditory twisting of the knife that corkscrews the anxious feelings in our stomachs, like waiting for the beat to drop in Hell.  As he did previously on INTERSTELLAR, Zimmer also synthesizes the sound of Nolan’s ticking pocket watch and lays it down it as the bedrock of DUNKIRK’s score.  As if the music wasn’t intense enough, the tick-tick-tick sound of time literally dripping away amplifies the desperate intensity of DUNKIRK’s tone while conveying to the audience just how close the world came to an Axis occupation of the United Kingdom— if it hadn’t been for the courageous spirit and dogged resistance of its people.

Indeed, time — the device of the ticking clock  — unifies the thematic whole of DUNKIRK, placing the film as an exploratory apex within Nolan’s career.  Again, the story essentially functions as one large escape sequence, with the Allied forces racing against the clock from the encroaching German menace as they try to get off the beaches of Dunkirk and safely across the English Channel.  In the capable hands of Nolan’s longtime editor, Lee Smith, this exercise in narrative minimalism becomes another forum in which Nolan can actively manipulate the bounds, indeed the very shape, of time itself.  Since his very first feature, Nolan has actively utilized cinema’s unique ability to convey sophisticated storytelling through nonlinear structure.  His primary tool in this regard is the cross-cut, which he’s employed throughout his filmography to tremendous effect.

Whereas Nolan’s previous films tend to use the cross-cut to add emotional heft to key narrative sequences, DUNKIRK basically functions as a feature-length string of cross-cuts.  Rather than numbing his audience to its effects, Nolan instead seems to reach a new level of complexity and sophistication with his approach to montage.  Each component of the story’s organizational triptych — the mole, the sea, and the air — takes place over a different time span: a week, a day, and one hour, respectively.

By dovetailing these sequences into each other as one seemingly-continuous event, Nolan effortlessly compresses and expands time at will.  Admittedly, this is a rather large leap of artistic license on Nolan’s part, especially when so much attention is otherwise paid to historical accuracy within the frame, but Nolan’s approach nonetheless captures the harrowing emotional truth of the battle.  The fractured chronological presentation also allows the story to revisit key moments from earlier in the film, revealing different perspectives that deepen our understanding of the big picture.

One such moment is the scene where Farrier’s co-pilot ditches into the sea.  From Farrier’s perspective in the air, it looks like a stable, almost peaceful water landing; assured of his colleague’s safety, he jets off to another part of the battle.  From the co-pilot’s perspective, however, it’s a very different story: beyond the initial impact of the crash landing, the cabin quickly fills up with water, and he can’t open the cockpit glass to escape.  DUNKIRK is filled with moments like these; moments that convey a complex, dueling subjectivity that amplifies as the various timelines intersect and collide with each other.

Nolan’s creative subversion of chronology is easily the most visible signifier of his authorship, but it’s far from the only one.  DUNKIRK abounds with displays of Nolan’s secondary artistic signatures, like his fascination with functional style as embodied in the military uniforms seen throughout, or Farrier’s on-the-fly calculations about his fuel consumption pointing to the director’s use of math and physics as a storytelling tool.  However, what immediately sets DUNKIRK apart from other films of its ilk is the sheer weight of the picture.

Nolan’s previous films all boast a visceral heft to their impact — a palpable gravity to match their monumental ambitions.  This impression is due in large part to Nolan’s dogged insistence on practical, old-fashioned filmmaking that demands everything that can be captured in-camera will be captured in-camera.  Famously averse to the reliance on CGI that stains the films of his contemporaries,  Nolan commands an intimidating array of practical resources that give DUNKIRK its distinct feeling of inescapable danger.

Make no mistake— the ability to make a film at this scale with the resources he demands is a luxury; a direct benefit of his status as a certified moneymaker and pop culture icon.  Fortunately, Nolan makes these demands always in service to his story, and not his vanity.  DUNKIRK finds Nolan’s deployment of practical FX reaching new levels of challenge, necessitating the director to alter how he conducted his own set in order to create a truly immersive environment for the audience.

For instance, he went so far as to have members of his own crew dress up in the military costumes worn by the extras so that they could hide in plain sight within the shot as he shot in all directions.  He also incorporated old-school techniques to amplify the size of his crowds; whereas now one can simply copy and paste any number of digital extras into a scene, he went to the trouble of creating detailed cardboard cutouts of soldiers to put in the far distance of his frames.

This pursuit of the analog over the digital permeates DUNKIRK, creating no shortage of technical challenges for his crew, like: “how exactly does one mount an IMAX camera to a vintage fighter plane?”.  We should know the answer by now: by quite literally bolting the camera mount to the wing of a specially-modified plane, attaching some specialty periscope lenses and taking that sucker up into the air.  DUNKIRK’s aerial dogfighting sequences boast some of the film’s most gripping moments; we can quite literally feel the G-forces pulling on our guts as we bank, roll, and dive with Farrier’s Spitfire. A substantial portion of these scenes were actually shot up in the air, with the actors in the cockpit.

Most filmmakers of Nolan’s ilk would be happy to throw up a mock cockpit in front of a green screen and call it a day, but his desire to capture as much of his shot in-camera as possible makes for footage that drips with hyperrealism.  In Nolan’s hands, the mounted camera becomes a powerful tool of visual storytelling, generating intense POV shots as well as the kind of surreal images that only cinema can conjure— a standout shot finds the camera mounted sideways to the deck of a ship as it rolls over towards the water, but since the deck is fixed to a stationary point within the frame, the sea appears to coalesce into an intimidating wall of water that rises up to swallow the boat wholly.

In a filmography devoted to the study of heroes in action, DUNKIRK offers a very different portrait of heroism— earnest, quiet courage and hopeful resilience that stands in stark contrast to the theatrical superheroics of THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.  In this way, DUNKIRK represents something so much more than the director’s latest technical tour de force.  Rather, it represents an evolution; an artistic maturation of an intensely-cerebral filmmaker at the peak of his powers.  Despite possessing the monumental scope and bid-budget pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from Nolan, DUNKIRK’s confidence to experiment with narrative structure and concise abstraction make for an unexpectedly intimate and personal experience.  It is, in essence, an art film masquerading as a summer blockbuster.

The reception to DUNKIRK’s theatrical release would reconcile these competing halves of the film’s psyche, with critics like The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy hailing it as an “impressionist masterpiece” (5) and audiences flocking in droves to make it the highest-grossing World War 2 film of all time; generating half a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts.  A slew of accolades and nominations would single out DUNKIRK for its direction, score, and cinematography come awards season, but as of this writing, its final fate in the prestige circuit has yet to be fully determined.

Regardless of its awards season success, DUNKIRK stands as yet another major achievement in Nolan’s intimidating filmography.  Its maximalist production values attain a unique harmony with his minimalistic narrative approach, making for a gripping cinematic experience that stands as one of the best of its genre.  DUNKIRK evidence that, after a lengthy string of mega-successful blockbusters, Nolan seems to be exploring beyond conventional narrative structures and presentations in order to find some kind of intimate, yet universal, emotional truth— a subversive purity that uses modern visual grammar to reinforce timeless artistic ideals.

In a time where critics and audiences alike conflate movies with television and vice-versa as one indistinguishable medium, Nolan’s lifelong quest to preserve the sanctity of the movie house and extoll its superiority to the home theater has never been more urgent.  DUNKIRK is nothing less than a shot across the bow— a slap upside the head that compels us to remember what makes the communal moviegoing experience such a special one.

For all his pop culture significance and ambitious storytelling, DUNKIRK reinforces the idea that Nolan’s greatest legacy of all may be as the man who dedicated his life to saving to the movies, wielding his considerable clout with industry suits and mainstream audiences alike to show that thought-provoking, challenging cinema can be a universal language that is accessible and enjoyable to all.

Nolan: Tenet (2020)

Director Christopher Nolan has spent most of his career imagining and entertaining various apocalypses, manifesting them onscreen via a series of big-budget action spectacles. He probably never imagined that the 2020 release of TENET, his eleventh feature film, would arrive in the midst of a very real one— an all-consuming “end of days” scenario for movie theaters and the medium of cinema, brought about by the devastating, still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, the world that Nolan released TENET into was not dissimilar to one he might have devised for his own work. Early on in the crisis, empty grocery store aisles were a common sight, echoing the famine that brought about a dust-choked existence in INTERSTELLAR (2014). As weeks stretched into months, a collective sense of pulling together to overcome a shared challenge splintered into a bitter divide drawn along political lines, eventually culminating in a failed siege on the US Capitol that — at the risk of making of a reductive comparison to one of the darkest days in American history — was strangely reminiscent of the mass street brawls that marked the climax of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

TENET, then, would become not unlike one of his own protagonists: an individual possessed of elite skill and considerable financial resources, tasked with nothing less than saving the world. In this case, the world needing saving was the conventional theatrical experience— the megaplex. When health restrictions ruled out the ability to sit in a dark, enclosed room with hundreds of strangers for several hours, the beloved ritual of moviegoing collapsed overnight. Theaters around the world closed their doors; some, like LA’s cherished Arclight cinema chain, unwittingly shuttering forever. Even as case numbers dropped in the summer, prompting several chains to open back up and test the waters, auditoriums remained empty. Desperate for revenue and starving for a government bailout that wouldn’t come for several more months, theater chains (and studios) came to see TENET as their last great hope. After all, if Nolan’s latest effects spectacle couldn’t lure audiences back to the cinema, what could?

As if saving the cinema wasn’t enough pressure, TENET also faced a challenge that Nolan hadn’t experienced since 2002’s INSOMNIA: making its money back. At $205 million, it wasn’t just Nolan’s most expensive original film, it was also one of the most expensive original films in history (1). Furthermore, it was the most expensive film ever produced featuring a person of color in the lead role. The stakes had never been higher, and theatrical distribution was the only way a budget this high could hope to recoup its expenses. Rather than dump the film directly to streaming services as other studios had done, Warner Brothers repeatedly delayed the film’s theatrical release in hopes that case numbers would improve enough for audiences to feel comfortable returning en masse. This prospect seemed increasingly unlikely as 2020 slumped over the finish line and the numbers of the infected were higher than ever. Unable to wait a year or more (as other high profile releases like FAST 9 or NO TIME TO DIE had done), Warner Brothers had no choice but to put the film in theaters and let it play to an empty house. Thus, it would seem TENET was doomed to be Nolan’s first financial failure before it even had a chance to prove itself.

Nolan could take some consolation in the fact that the film had lived up to his own exacting creative standards. As an intensely-cerebral, time-bending spy thriller, TENET possesses a Nolan-esque pedigree that verges on the quintessential. The ideas contained within had been percolating in Nolan’s mind for twenty years, only manifesting themselves as an actual screenplay in the last six (1). After the comparatively narrow focus of 2017’s DUNKIRK, he harbored a desire to return to the expansive, globe-trotting scope of his previous epics (2). TENET — inspired by the James Bond franchise and other spy thrillers that had so formative an influence on his youth — would suggest itself as an ideal fit. However, this was not to be Nolan’s take on a Bond movie; this was to be, rather, what he described as a “memory” or a “feeling” of the genre. Not a direct homage per se, but a pure intuiting of its mechanics from a broader exposure, with each of his key collaborators bringing their subjective experiences to the table in pursuit of something more original.

Indeed, there’s never been a spy picture like TENET, what with Nolan’s signature manipulation of chronology as a core plot point. It’s easy to make light of the general concept— “Nolan just discovered Avid’s ‘reverse’ button” — but it’s clear that he is after a much more complicated understanding of time as it relates to physics. Despite soliciting guidance from his INTERSTELLAR consultant and Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist Kip Thorne, Nolan is the first to admit that scientific accuracy is not the goal. Nor is TENET about the concept of time travel in the way that pop culture understands it, grounding its central idea in the concept of reverse entropy as a way to assign backwards chronological travel to individual objects rather than our timeline as a whole. The end result is as intellectually elusive as it is viscerally engaging; a two-and-a-half hour embodiment of an expositional character’s exhortation to TENET’s hero: “don’t try to understand it. Feel it”.

Like a true spy film, TENET zips around the world in its chronicle of The Protagonist, a rather cheeky moniker given to John David Washington’s elite field operative who is tasked with preventing a future war his handlers only know about because its detritus is peppering our present. Washington, son of the great Denzel, plays down his celebrity lineage to deliver a star-making turn all his own as the unflappably cool, enigmatic hero. He’s emotionless, but not cold; the embodiment of the word “spook”, he seemingly has no personal life to speak of, having devoted the entirety of his existence to the shadows. When a counter-terrorist operation at a Ukrainian opera house results in his capture, The Protagonist attempts suicide by cyanide capsule to avoid giving up crucial information to his captors. The afterlife that awaits him on the other side is a bit unexpected, to say the least: after waking up in a tanker in the middle of the ocean, the mysterious stranger at his bedside (INSOMNIA’s Martin Donovan) recruits him for a top secret mission with an enigmatic code word: “tenet”. The word is also the name of an equally-secret organization that has been collecting various objects evidencing a state of reverse entropy; that is, they move backwards. The organization believes these objects to be the detritus of a devastating war in the future, and the only way to avert it is for The Protagonist to track down a Russian oligarch named Sator.

Played with an icy intelligence by fellow director (and DUNKIRK performer) Kenneth Branagh, Sator is a nasty piece of work— a cruel, abusive, nihilist with the financial means to satisfy any earthly desire. There’s two things his fortune can’t buy him, however. One is time, as he’s slowly being consumed from within by terminal cancer. The other is love; unable to earn the affection of his wife, Kat, he’s opted for her fear instead. As the film’s chief feminine presence, the 6’3 actress Elizabeth Debicki quite literally towers over her co-stars as Sator’s kept companion. She’s a professional art appraiser who effortlessly glides through high society circles, none of whom have any idea about the bitter abuse she endures for the sake of her son. She proves a valuable partner in The Protagonist’s mission, granting him access to Sator’s inner circle at great risk to her own life. Robert Pattinson’s Neil is another valuable asset to The Protagonist. Cavalier, laidback, and rakishly disheveled, Neil is an elite agent for Tenet who seems a little too well-equipped to follow along with the mind blowing revelations of the mission at hand. His laidback attitude balances rather nicely with The Protagonist’s buttoned-up focus, leading to the warmth of unexpected friendship that counters the aesthetic coldness frequently levied against Nolan by his critics.

As the gargantuan scope of The Protagonist’s mission becomes clear, Nolan’s supporting cast responds in kind, giving the audience a handful of additional characters who each contribute another piece of the central puzzle. Aaron-Tyler Johnson goes full commando as Ives, a brusque, hipster-bearded special ops officer who helps The Protagonist acclimate to the unworldly working conditions of a reverse entropic state. Dimple Kapadia, a prominent Hindi actress making a rare appearance in an American studio picture, plays Priya, a wealthy, Mumbai-based arms dealer who counters the moral bankruptcy of her profession with a warm elegance and matronly demeanor. Nolan mainstay Michael Caine makes a brief cameo as the bespectacled Crosby, a British intelligence officer who conveys early intel about Sator. Jeremy Theobald, the protagonist of Nolan’s lo-fi debut FOLLOWING (1998), also makes a brief cameo in the same sequence, playing a buttoned-up concierge and waiter at Crosby’s dining club.

TENET reunites Nolan with his INTERSTELLAR and DUNKIRK cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, with those prior works becoming a platform upon which to further experiment with large-format filmmaking. The pair switch confidently between 65mm and IMAX film, the latter deployed primarily for action sequences and awe-inducing establishing shots. Also like all of Nolan’s prior films since THE DARK KNIGHT, the mixing of formats would require a constant switching of aspect ratios— 2.39:1 CinemaScope for the 65mm and 1.43:1 for IMAX (further matted to 1.78:1 for home video). Beyond setting a personal record for the most amount of IMAX footage shot at 1.6 million feet (1), TENET doesn’t attempt to expand Nolan’s stately technical aesthetic beyond the reverse conceits required by the narrative, choosing instead to deliver the weighty big-screen experience that we’ve come to expect (and demand) from him. Whether mounted to a crane, a helicopter, or atop the operator’s shoulders, the camera maintains its dogged focus on spectacle and scope as the characters push the story forward. The familiar stone & steel color palette of Nolan’s previous films gives TENET a washed-out, earthy feel, while pops of red & blue are used as visual signifiers of the flow of time— a reference to the Doppler shift, which points out how light moving away from the observer takes on a reddish quality due to longer wavelengths, whereas the shorter wavelengths of incoming light reads as blue.

There’s a case to be made for TENET as Nolan’s ugliest film, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Though the desaturated color palette certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of vibrant color, the deliberate choice to shoot primarily in the Eastern European city of Tallinn, Estonia (1) imbues the film with a grey, Brutalist quality reminiscent of the utilitarian edifices of the Soviet era. Supplementary locales like Mumbai further add to this feeling, with a sweaty, overcrowded populace laboring underneath the shadow of Priya’s looming residence— a needle-like high-rise built for a single family that serves as a physical embodiment of globalism’s treacherous side effect: runaway income inequality, which has paved the way for a handful of billionaires like Sator to bend society to their exploitative whims. Nolan’s longtime production designer Nathan Crowley uses these unfamiliar locations to his advantage, subsequently fashioning a kind of abstract urbanity that anonymizes their surroundings akin to INCEPTION’s monolithic cityscapes. This particular aspect finds particular resonance in TENET’s climax, which finds The Protagonist and his colleagues undertaking a massive operation in both conventional and reverse chronology amidst the towering ruins of a decimated ghost city that was once Sator’s home.

Though TENET benefits from the expected pedigree of longtime collaborators like Crowley, Hoytema, and Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner in production as well as life, two other key figures — editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer — abstain from the proceedings, the former already committed to Sam MENDES’ 1917 and the latter turning Nolan down so as to score Denis Villeneuve’s DUNE (1). Rather than lament the temporary loss of valued colleagues, Nolan would take this opportunity to inject some young blood into the film, replacing Smith with Jennifer Lame and Zimmer with Ludwig Göransson. Known previously for her work on Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, Lee proves her editing chops are just as capable in the action arena as they are in drama or horror. She deftly handles TENET’s display of reverse entropy in action, helping us make sense of where (and when) we are in sequences that could just as easily be a cumbersome and confusing succession of images.

Göransson further cements his reputation as arguably the fastest-rising star in film composing, creating a rather stunning original score that favors percussion and experimental electronic textures over conventional orchestration. Composed of crashing synth waves, aggressive drums, sirens, and dubstep-adjacent rhythms, the overall effect is not unlike having a bad trip at a warehouse rave… but in a good way. Indeed, the score’s most conventional element is a guitar accent that evokes James Bond without emulating John Barry’s iconic theme. The massive character of Görannson’s sound is even more impressive considering that its orchestral elements were recorded separately by individual musicians working around strict lockdown measures (1). For the character of Sator specifically, Göransson employs an inspired leitmotif that sounds like someone gasping for breath, musically reinforcing his terminal condition as well as the story’s conceit that one must rely on an oxygen mask while in an inverted state. The effect was reportedly achieved through heavy electronic distortion of the original recording, which funnily enough, featured Nolan himself breathing heavily into a microphone (1). To cap things off, Göransson repurposes the score’s unique sound as the backing track to a collaboration with rapper Travis Scott, resulting in an original single titled “The Plan” which boasts the distinction of not only being the first hip-hop song to be used in Nolan’s filmography, but also the first time that the director had used a companion single in conjunction with any of his works (1). Though it’s tempting to imagine what Zimmer might have contributed to Nolan’s latest opus, Görannson’s Herculean efforts keep us from dwelling too much on the elder maestro’s absence.

Beyond his demonstrable mastery of filmmaking’s technical conceits and the visual grammar of epic spectacle, the aura of “timeliness” that envelopes Nolan’s storytelling seems to be rooted in his ability to harness our modern anxieties and transpose them onto a gigantic apocalyptic canvas. Unlike the shock-and-awe, landmark-destruction porn engineered by disaster-movie contemporaries like Roland Emmerich, Nolan’s apocalypses are rather intimate, the sharp end of their spears angled directly at the individual even as the rest of the world hangs in the balance. Even without the threat of coronavirus looming over its release, TENET’s central macguffin — the so-called “algorithm” that Sator seeks to reassemble from pieces sent to our present by mysterious agents from the future — evokes the rapidly-destabilizing nature of the social media age. Just as Sator’s efforts are veiled under the guise of benevolent climate change reversal, so too are the data-based algorithms that build our timelines and newsfeeds being twisted away by bad actors from their original community and relationship-cultivating purposes in order to mislead, disinform, and divide; instead of connection, these algorithms are ultimately fostering isolation, siloing us off into our respective echo chambers and alternative realities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem, subsequently imbuing TENET with an eerie prescience that seems to predict the age of sickness to come. Images of The Protagonist wearing an oxygen mask that serves to sustain him in the face of an inhospitable reverse entropic state unwittingly transcend Nolan’s personal artistic fascinations to coincide with our new masked reality. Likewise, the aforementioned gasping leitmotif that Göransson builds into the score loses its impressionistic storytelling quality as it transforms into a breathless dispatch from hospitals overwhelmed by respiratory failure on an unimaginable scale. Furthermore, the isolating effects of a year in lockdown served to obliterate our collective perception of time, robbing it of meaning while entombing us in a suspended state of waiting— waiting for case numbers to decline, for vaccines to arrive, for our lives to resume. It was almost as if we had been “incepted” into one of Nolan’s films, with the strings that constitute our sense of temporal continuity and progression being manipulated by some unseen puppetmaster for reasons beyond our comprehension.

TENET’s exploration of reverse entropy, the latest snaking tendril in Nolan’s careelong fascination with the manipulation of time, also finds an oblique relevance in the broader cultural obsession with nostalgia. It seems in recent years, the comfort of looking back on supposed “better times” has become a kind of drug, and media conglomerates its dealer. Popular shows like STRANGER THINGS, or reboots/remakes/reimagining of beloved properties from our youth consume the media landscape, delivering continual hits of pleasure and dopamine. In recognizing and profiting off our collective desire to travel back in time, they have effectively weaponized our nostalgia against us, lulling us into willing complacency as the world burns; they keep us jonesing for the next entry, the next installment… the next hit. TENET recognizes this danger, building its backwards-moving story progression around the idea of reverse radiation as a byproduct of nuclear fission. In short, what’s promised to be the next great technological leap forward in civilization — the achieving of cheap, clean, and infinite energy via the replication of the sun’s natural processes on earth — is a double-edged sword that threatens to destroy our past & present even as it promises to save our future. The film repeatedly makes clear the perils of moving backward in time; it could be argued that our desire to do so is rooted in wanting to return to a simpler state than our complicated present allows. What TENET tells us, then, is that the past contains the seeds of said present; nostalgia is a false illusion that, while admittedly pleasurable, ultimately inhibits growth— and as the protagonists of our own stories, forward movement is the only way we will achieve our various objectives.

In the context of Nolan’s own growth, TENET is another prime example of the unique artistic traits that distinguish him as an undeniably compelling voice. The use of entropy as a means of manipulating time speaks to his reputation as a kind of “emotional mathematician”. He roots the fantastical in the practical, turning to physics, science and data as storytelling tools in their own right. At times, TENET is a touch too dense for its own good — I’m no rocket scientist, but I’ve at least been able to follow along with the various plot convolutions of Nolan’s previous films until now. The climatic “temporal pincer movement”, in which one team moves forward in conventional time using intel derived from a second team simultaneously moving backward, requires the closest of attention be paid to fully understand its narrative intricacies. To his credit, Nolan understands the intellectual unwieldy-ness of his setup, and the aforementioned scene in which the Protagonist is urged to “feel” the reverse entropic state instead of understanding it serves as an urging of his audience to do the same. It’s an acknowledgment that TENET is far more enjoyable as a visceral experience than an intellectual exercise, and the film is all the better for it.

This loosened, near-self-aware approach extends to other signature aspects of Nolan’s artistry, such as the functional style of his characters. Though The Protagonist is well-dressed to the extent that anyone wouldn’t hesitate to call him stylish, his sartorial sensibilities are nevertheless muted and utilitarian; they favor shape and structural integrity over color or flash. His clothes speak to his singular focus on his profession and strategic advantage (a key plot point sees him need to wear an expensive designer suit to even gain an audience with Sator). At the same time, another beat sees The Protagonist casually dismiss a Tenet operative’s urging to wear tactical protective clothing before venturing outside in his reverse entropic state. It’s Nolan’s way of telling us to not take things too seriously, and it’s advice directed as much towards himself as it is his audience; a self-regulating bid to prevent TENET from being too obtuse for its own good.

It likely wouldn’t have mattered whether or not TENET was too convoluted or conceptually dense; it was the latest Nolan film, after all, and it would be the biggest hit of the year outside of Marvel. But this wasn’t a normal year. This was the pandemic year— the year of global crisis that affected all of humanity and yet seemed perfectly-engineered to imperil the most personal aspects of our individual lives. To Nolan, champion and defender of the theatrical experience, the forced closure of cinemas across the world was a direct attack against the core of his artistic being. “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain”, Harvey Dent famously intones in 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, and a figure who insists on audiences seeing his work in his preferred viewing experience while putting them at risk of exposure to a deadly, out-of-control virus could certainly be described as something of a villain. As other studios and filmmakers shifted gears, embracing a gradual shift towards streaming that had only intensified in lockdown, Nolan insisted that the cinema was the only place his new film could be seen. As such, the release was delayed no less than three times while case numbers ebbed and surged in relentless waves. In the end, TENET was indeed released theatrically, but only to the handful of theaters that were still open— most of them in international markets that had done a much better job controlling case numbers than the US. Considering all of that, its $363 million worldwake box office take should be impressive, but pales in comparison to Nolan’s billion-dollar track record. A disappointment, even one with several caveats, is still a disappointment, and the occasion of Nolan’s first true professional disappointment is cause for reflection on mainstream filmmaking’s high-stakes, unsustainable addiction to immense returns… which requires ever-higher production and advertising budgets to generate.

As the pandemic began to recede into the rearview of history, TENET has enjoyed the opportunity to be seen by more people, and for its many positive qualities to be embraced. A collection of generous reviews would sing the film’s praises, with The Ringer’s Keith Phillips notably proclaiming that its bungled release actually positioned it well as a future cult favorite (3). Nevertheless, the occasion of TENET’s release came coupled with an unexpected development. In their haste to embrace the newfound flexibility of the streaming age, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 release slate would be available to subscribers on their proprietary streaming platform, HBO Max, the same day the films would hit theaters. In so doing, they ran afoul of the talent they otherwise proclaimed to value, robbing them of significant shares of theatrical revenue they had previously negotiated for. While this development came too late for Nolan to be personally affected, Warner Brothers’ spurning of the theatrical window was nevertheless a bridge too far— and presumably the end of the road with the studio that had been his home for most of his career. He publicly eviscerated their decision, even going so far as to call HBO Max “the worst streaming service”. It remains to be seen whether feathers can be unruffled, and the question of his next move is a rather large one. Whatever his next project may be, it will undoubtedly emerge into a profoundly-changed exhibition landscape; his lifelong quest to “save the movies” will face its biggest challenge yet. From our current vantage point, it’s unclear whether or not he will ultimately succeed, but one thing is certain: in trying, he is ready to risk everything.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

The success of 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS sent director Quentin Tarantino off on another career-high.  It was the realization of an idea that had been a long time coming, with Tarantino purportedly first conceiving the idea around 1994, after the production of PULP FICTION.  In 2012, he realized yet another idea he had been developing for a long time.  For years, Tarantino had talked about his take on the spaghetti western, a genre that had profoundly influenced him.  However, he wanted to use the genre to explore America’s uneasy relationship with slavery using a revenge story set in his native Tennessee—a concept he dubbed a “southern”.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

The final result, 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED was a massive commercial and critical hit, eclipsing that even of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (at least financially).  True to the director’s form, its release also ignited a firestorm of controversy over it subject matter and the heavy use of the racially-loaded “N” word.  It continued a prestigious phase in his career (one which he currently still enjoys), netting him his second Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, as well as actor Christoph Waltz’s second consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscar.   Few directors remain relevant within a twenty-year period of their careers, and the fact that Tarantino keeps scoring hit after massively-influential hit is a testament to the man’s innate talent and unique vision.

Set in 1858 in America’s deep South (the antebellum years before the Civil War), DJANGO UNCHAINED concerns itself with the plight of its namesake—a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who’s wife was ripped away from him after a failed escape attempt and sent to another plantation, never to return.  He is sent to auction himself, but on the way, he is rescued by an eccentric bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist: Dr. King Schultz (Waltz).  Schultz needs Django to identify a number of targets he’s pursuing, but soon enough Django proves to be a formidable partner and a skilled bounty hunter in his own right.  The pair find Django’s wife—the demure Broomhilda Von Schaft (Kerry Washington)—has taken up residence as a house slave to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of Mississippi’s wealthiest and most-feared slave traders.  They infiltrate Candie’s plantation compound under the guise of wealthy dealers of gladiator slaves—also known as mandingos—and set about trying to secure Broomhilda’s freedom through duplicitous means.  Unbeknownst to them, Calvin’s confidante—an elderly slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)– senses their treachery and works to root them out before they con his beloved master.

This being a Tarantino film and all, the performances are expectedly top-rate.  The part of Django was initially written for Will Smith, but he turned it down because he rather foolishly thought Django wasn’t the lead.  Instead, the part went to Jamie Foxx, who is an exponentially better choice.  His self-serious, grim demeanor gives the comedic moments an ironic flair, making it all the more hilarious.  Foxx always surprises me when he really applies himself to his performances.  He seems to have this narcissistic, over-confident persona in public that he continually subverts with the kind of roles he plays in films like RAY (2004) or COLLATERAL (2004).  In DJANGO, he is convincing as the humorless badass archetype, but he also shows a considerable ability to poke fun at himself (see the Lord Fauntleroy costume he wears early in the film, which got a huge laugh in the theatre).

Christoph Waltz’s two Oscars have both stemmed from his collaborations with Tarantino, and while I admit I was (pleasantly) surprised to see him take home the gold statue again this year, he certainly earned his keep as Dr. King Schultz. Waltz steals nearly every scene as Schultz, a radically different character from the Col. Hans Landa role he made famous in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.  He’s still a German, but Schultz sports a full beard and a dandy’s approach to monotone clothing.  He’s every bit as eccentric as Landa, prattling on in a verbose manner as he scuttles about the frontier in a rickety wagon with an oversized tooth swinging around on top.  However, his jovial nature belies his deadly ferocity as a bounty hunter and marksman.  Many thought it would be for hard Waltz to top his performance in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and while I don’t know if this one necessarily supersedes the former, it definitely rivals it.

Tarantino had been trying to work with Leonardo DiCaprio for a while—he had been the first choice to play Landa before Waltz was cast.  In a rare villainous turn, DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie as a dandy playboy.  A wealthy Southern charmer, DiCaprio hides his villainy behind a warm smile and a hospitable nature.  Make no mistake, though—he is a ruthless, volatile man who must not be crossed.  DiCaprio commits himself entirely to Tarantino’s demented vision, unabashedly digging into his character’s inbred, racist leanings and nefarious desires.  The extent of his commitment can be witnessed in a scene where he smashes a skull in front of his dinner guests, bleeding out all over his hand.  During the take used in the film, he cut his hand badly upon smashing the skull, yet continued to stay in character despite his own, very real, blood leaking all over the place.

Tarantino’s supporting cast is rounded out by a cadre of new and familiar faces alike.  As Broomhilda, Kerry Washington brings a much-needed sense of femininity to Tarantino’s machismo revenge tale.  She appears to Django throughout the film as an ethereal vision amongst the cotton fields, and we feel that we’ve come to know her just as well as the other characters when we finally confront her flesh-and-blood form.  Frequent Tarantino performer Samuel L. Jackson is fabulous as Candie’s key confidante, Stephen.  Acting under heavy prosthetics and makeup, he assumes an elderly, feeble affectation that enhances the comedic value of his impotent rage and suspicion.  After not being prominently featured in a Tarantino film since 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, Jackson’s presence is a welcome one that helps to reinforce Tarantino’s signature charms.  Seasoned character actor James Remar plays two roles, one as Ace Speck—a gruff slave poacher—and Candie’s silent associate, the bowler-derby’d Butch Pooch.  MIAMI VICE star Don Johnson plays Big Daddy, a rival Colonel Sanders-Esque plantation owner and progenitor of the Klu Klux Klan.

There are also a few notable cameos peppered throughout the film.  Jonah Hill is funny and memorable as Big Daddy’s son and a fellow proto-Klansman.  DEATH PROOF’s (2007) star Zoe Bell plays a deadly, masked tracker that silently lurks in the fringes of her scenes.  She initially had a much larger subplot, but for whatever reason, it was cut and her screen-time became significantly reduced.  Michael Parks, who was so memorable as Texas Sheriff Earl McGraw in KILL BILL: VOLUME 1(2003) and DEATH PROOF, plays a sunbaked poacher here.  Tarantino himself also pops up in the same scene as an Aussie-accented poacher.  The accent isn’t terribly convincing, and he’s carrying a few extra pounds., but I don’t say that as a necessarily bad thing; it’s just a far cry from his well-acted and talkative cameos in PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS(1992).  Even powerful Hollywood directors are subject to the ravages of old age.

I remember when I first saw a trailer to DJANGO UNCHAINED, my immediate reaction was that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a Terrence Malick film.  By this, I mean that DJANGO UNCHAINED is easily Tarantino’s most beautiful film to date.  Working again with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he captures the expansive vistas of the West and the sun-dappled willow trees of the South in stunning 35mm filmic beauty.  Utilizing the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Tarantino opts for a richly-realized cinematic look, complete with deep contrast and natural earth tones and bold, saturated primary colors.  A sepia tint casts a nostalgic glow over the Mississippi sequences during the day, and at night is replaced by handsome amber candlelight that romanticizes the otherwise horrific Candieland plantation.

Flashback sequences are even more stylized, employing a low-contrast bleach-bypass technique to suggest faded, heat-baked film.  The camerawork adapts to the scale of the story, favoring sweeping crane shots reminiscent of old spaghetti westerns as well as frenetic rack zooms typical of the grindhouse genre.  Tarantino’s signature compositions of characters in profile are considerably less present here than in his previous work.

DJANGO UNCHAINED finds Tarantino working with a host of new collaborators, replacing several of his key craftspeople for reasons unknown to this devastatingly handsome author.  For the first time in Tarantino’s career (not counting DEATH PROOF), Lawrence Bender isn’t a producer.  This responsibility instead goes to Pilar Savone and Stacey Sher (in addition to regular executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein).  Tarantino’s usual production designer David Wasco sits out this round as well, with J. Michael Reva filling in to recreate an authentic sense of the antebellum period.  Tragically, Reva passed away midway through the shoot, but he leaves behind a strong legacy and a singular vision for Tarantino’s revisionist take on history.  And finally, due to Tarantino’s editor Sally Menke passing away in 2010, DJANGO UNCHAINED finds him working with a new editor for the first time since his career began.  It remains to be seen whether this new collaborator, Fred Raskin, will become Tarantino’s new Menke, but he more than makes up for the lack of Sally by crafting an explosive, exhilarating edit that proficiently captures Tarantino’s storytelling dynamics in a way that feels continuous with his earlier films.

The soundtrack is classic Tarantino, featuring obscure needle-drops that give the film a unique, offbeat, and vintage vibe. For the first time, Tarantino also uses original songs commissioned for the film (but not an original score).  As a result, contemporary artists like John Legend and Rick Ross share album space with Johnny Cash, Wagnerian opera, and the spaghetti western sounds of Ennio Morricone.  It’s an incredibly eclectic mix that favors Morricone’s sound more than any others due to the genre it deals in.  Oddly enough, Morricone has since stated that he would not desire to work with Tarantino again due to his “incoherent” approach to film music.  I would imagine that Tarantino would be greatly dismayed and disappointed to hear one of his heroes and primary influences publicly disparage him in so personal a manner.

Despite its pitch-dark reckoning with America’s original sin of slavery, DJANGO UNCHAINED is absolutely hysterical.  One of the best scenes in the film is an extended sequence lampooning the Klu Klux Klan and the absurdity of their disguises.

Like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, the violence is gleeful to an almost-cartoonish degree.  The film is absurdly gory, with veritable geysers of blood vomiting from bullet wounds; the climax even utilizes an expressionistic sound design that likens bullets striking flesh to bombs dropped on loose soil.  Despite being grotesque, the violence is almost cathartic in a way.  Like the riddling of Hitler’s face with hot lead in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, the messy obliteration of white slave-owners serves as a safe fantasy for a group of people who were so horribly wronged and dehumanized by their oppressors.  It may not be the most tasteful tack to take with such delicate subject matter, but Tarantino exhibits no reservations about being an agent for bloodthirsty indulgence.

With the success of DJANGO UNCHAINED, Tarantino doubled down on the notion that he is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.  The notion of a white man taking revenge on slavery on behalf of the black man is understandably offensive to some (Spike Lee is still furious about it).  However, racial relations have always been an integral part of Tarantino’s work, and the only ones who really seem to be offended are the advocates of so-called political correctness (and knee-jerk reactionaries like Spike Lee).  Yes, it’s true that the N-word flies around carelessly throughout Tarantino’s work, but he has always leveled with us about why, citing his responsibility to write his characters true to personality—regardless of their own politics.  White, black, or Asian, he treats all as equals but has the courage to openly acknowledge that there are social customs, language, and habits exclusive to their respective races.  These characters feel inherently authentic, as opposed to a “politically-correct” character who is whitewashed of any racial identity whatsoever.

With each new entry, Tarantino manages to satisfy his acolytes with the continuity of creative/profane dialogue, explosive violence, punchy insert shots, or vintage touches (such as the use of old studio logos at the start of his films).  However, he has also become a master of subversion, surprising even those who think they’ve got him all figured out.  One never truly knows what they’re in for when they go to see Tarantino’s films, but it can be guaranteed that it’ll be a wild ride.

Unlike his contemporaries, the middle-aged Tarantino isn’t content to rest on his laurels.  He’s still actively prepping his next magnum opus, excitedly dropping tidbits to the hungry press that he loves to engage.  We don’t know what it is yet (as of this writing) but rest assured it will be every bit as challenging and entertaining as what came before it.  DJANGO UNCHAINED marks Tarantino’s eight films, and if his recent comments about stopping at ten films are to be believed, then the world only has two more Tarantino creations to look forward to.  But what an incredible set of films those ten will be.  Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker’s oeuvre been so small yet so consistently excellent.

From indie maverick to incendiary provocateur, to seasoned craftsman of international prestige, Tarantino has carved out quite the legacy for himself.  Not many people can claim two screenwriting Oscars in one lifetime.  He’s reinvigorated the careers of many “washed-up” performers.  His characters and dialogue have captured an entire generation’s imagination and woven themselves into the fabric of American pop culture.  He could retire tomorrow and still remain one of the most profoundly influential voices of the medium.  Quite a remarkable set of accomplishments for a former video-store clerk with no connections, a VCR full of classic films, and a head full of dreams.

Sponsored by: Special.tv – Stream Independent 


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. 

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

Director Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature film, 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, is a very personal film for me, in that various facets of its existence coincided with my own at the time.  I had moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2008, and my first job was as an intern floater at Lionsgate Entertainment.  During this period, I was assigned to cover reception for weeks at a time, where I developed a strong rapport with the co-receptionist, who has gone on to a successful writing career and has also become a very dear friend and writing partner.  He was always getting his grubby little mitts on high-profile scripts that were typically shielded from public consumption, and one day he slipped me the leaked script for Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (I’ll never forget the title as it looked on the cover page, scrawled haphazardly by Tarantino’s own hand).

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

It was the first time that I got to see this angle of Tarantino’s work—the script itself.  The man had always been hailed as a visionary screenwriter, beginning from his early days when he famously sold the scripts to TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS to Tony Scott and Oliver Stone, respectively.  His talent for dialogue had always been well-known, but this was the first time I got to see it on the page with my own eyes.  It was like having intimate, unrestricted access to Tarantino’s brainwaves, undiluted by the restrictions of production or budget.

My personal connection to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS continued in the wake of the film’s release the next summer.  A few days before, I was killing time browsing the sea of DVDs in Hollywood’s Amoeba Records, oblivious to the surging crowd that was buzzing in the hangar-like space below me.  Then that familiar, manic voice boomed over the PA system.  Tarantino took the stage of the store’s little performance space and began whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his infectious enthusiasm.  I couldn’t believe it—Tarantino had such a formative effect on my filmmaking development and here I was looking at the man himself, in the flesh.  He was just like how he is in interviews, all antsy and motor-mouthin’, even a little sweaty.    I’ve seen very few great directors in person (the others being Gus Van Sant and Ridley Scott), so this was an electrifying moment for me.  Like being nailed by a bolt of lightning.

There’s a third connection that I didn’t even realize I had until today.  The film’s centerpiece sequence, the massacre of Hitler and his top lieutenants, takes place in a French theatre that Tarantino and his production designer, David Wasco, modeled after the Vista in Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood.  The Vista is my favorite theatre in all of LA, which is saying something for a city that boasts veritable film cathedrals like the Arclite and the Cinerama Dome.  The Vista is a small, Art Deco one-screen theatre on an unassuming block in Silverlake, but its marquee signage and the auditorium’s hokey Egyptian design theme are anything but.  It’s an endlessly charming cultural landmark that I love seeing movies in any chance I get. The $6 matinee price doesn’t hurt either.

Tarantino had been gestating the concept for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for nearly a decade prior to its release, scratching out and scuttling numerous drafts in the pursuit of perfection.  He came to see the film as his magnum opus, and he felt that every word had to be perfect.  After the disappointment of 2007’s DEATH PROOF, Tarantino felt that it was an appropriate time to seriously tackle his long-in-development WW2 film and return to cinemas with his guns blazing.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was initially conceived as a men-on-a-mission film, similar to THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) or its own namesake, Enzo Castellari’s THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).  Tarantino mainstay Michael Madsen was supposed to star as a character named Babe Buchinsky, and Adam Sandler was intended to play a role that made it into the finished film:  Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a role eventually filled by Tarantino’s filmmaking colleague Eli Roth.  As it did with his KILL BILL saga before it, Tarantino’s script inevitably got away from him.  It sprawled in scope and size, and before he knew it, Tarantino’s small band of Nazi scalpers found themselves as supporting characters in a larger ensemble piece about the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Tarantino’s finished film follows two separate threads that eventually combine.  The first is the story of the Basterds, headed by a tough SOB named Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who charges his men with a personal debt to him—one that can only be repaid in 100 Nazi scalps.  Meanwhile, a young Jewish girl named Shoshanna hides in plain sight under an assumed name and occupation as a French theatre owner after escaping the massacre of her family at the hands of the ruthless Jew Hunter, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).  When events conspire to hold the premiere of a prestigious Nazi propaganda film at her theatre, she hatches a plot to burn the theatre down with the Nazis inside.  The Basterds learn of this premiere separately, hatching their own plot when they learn from their German film star-turned-double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) that Hitler and his top officers will be in attendance.  What follows will change the course of history as we know it.

For a film about World War 2, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is infamously short on action, choosing instead to create a handful of setpieces featuring the actors sitting around a table and talking.  Naturally, the performances have to be compelling, and Tarantino coaxes career-best performances out of every single one of his cast members.  Even though he gets top billing on the poster, Pitt is simply one cog in Tarantino’s complex machine of a plot.  The widely recognizable film star crafts perhaps his most outlandish persona yet as the Tennessee-bred Lt. Aldo Raine, better known by his enemies as The Apache.  Pitt plays the character as a charmingly vengeful force of nature—a tough, gruff proto-American with a mysterious neck scar that’s never explained but alludes to the magnitude of his resilience and grit.  He’s a perfect avatar to convey Tarantino’s cartoonish take on history.

I initially found Tarantino’s casting of the remaining Basterds to be surprising, given the earlier rumblings about Madsen and Sandler.  In retrospect, the casting is inspired and fits the tone very well.  Eli Roth had left a bad taste in my mouth after seeing his film HOSTEL(2005), but he won me back over after performing as the Bear Jew, Sgt. Donny Donowitz.  He assumes a boarish demeanor and a heavy Masshole accent as he bashes in Nazi brains with a bat bearing the names of Jewish friends and family back home.  He’s not the best actor in the world, but he has an unexpected degree of talent in this arena that serves the film very well.

THE OFFICE’s BJ Novack gets his first high-profile film role here as Pvt. Smithsen, as does DEATH PROOF co-star Omar Doom as Pvt. Omar Ulmer.  Finally there’s Til Schweiger as the stoic Nazi hunter Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz.  In addition to getting his own grindhouse-esque backstory sequence, Schweiger gets some of the film’s best lines, like “say goodbye to your Nazi balls”.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS also features some fierce females, in the form of Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent.  Kruger uses her natural glamor to striking degree as the elegant German film star, Diane Von Hammersmark.  In such a testosterone-laden film, she’s a breath of fresh air—but make no mistake, she’s just as tough as any Basterd, if not more so. She plays a crucial role as the Basterds’ inside woman, and her participation helps pave the way for Hitler’s downfall and the end of World War 2 (at least in Tarantino’s timeline).

Equally as determined is European revelation Melanie Laurent, who is heartbreaking as the vulnerable Shoshanna.  After suffering the horror of having her family massacred by Nazis, she channels her trauma into a strength that helps bring down the entire Nazi regime.  It’s a career-making performance, and I hope to see her utilized in more American films down the line.  Shoshanna is a perfect example of Tarantino’s nuanced understanding of the fairer sex and his penchant for empowering them.

Less fierce is Julie Dreyfus, who serves in a similar capacity to her Sofie Fatale role in KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (2003).  Here, she plays Francesa Mondino, Joseph Goebbels’ French interpreter and sexual plaything.  It’s really more of a small cameo, but her reprisal of the glamorous assistant/interpreter/confidante archetype points to running themes and in-jokes across Tarantino’s entire body of work.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender finds in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS his mainstream breakout role as British film critic and serviceman, Lt. Archie Hicox.  He only appears in one chapter, but, Christ….what an appearance.  Fassbender effortlessly assumes the droll, aristocratic nature of his character.  He has a subtle confidence that somehow makes him even more badass than his Basterd colleagues.  There’s a moment in a tense Mexican standoff at a basement bar crawling with Nazis, whereby Fassbender has a pistol pointed directly at him under the table.  Sensing his impending demise, he calmly takes a shot of whiskey and drops his cover as a fellow Nazi officer by stating: “since it appears I’ll be rapping at death’s door very shortly, I hope you don’t mind that I go out speaking the King’s.”  Ugh, so badass.  So fucking classy.  In this single sequence, Fassbender assured his stardom in addition to capturing the lusty hearts of women (and men) the world over.

Suprisingly, Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as Hicox’s commanding officer, General Fanny.  Prior to seeing the film for the first time, I was aware that Myers was in the film.  However, I strained to find him until I suddenly realized that the balding British general giving Fassbender his orders was in fact, Austin Powers himself.  Myers serves up a positively chameleon-esque performance that makes great use of his comedic talents to subtle, engaging effect.

And then there’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERD’s big revelation.  The man that anybody who saw the film could not stop raving about.  The man whose performance was so striking that it launched him from European obscurity to American Oscar-winner overnight.  Yes, I’m talking about Christoph Waltz, the seasoned character actor who until recently was completely unknown to our shores.  As the chief antagonist Col. Hans Landa, Waltz is positively electrifying.  He’s at once both charming and cold-blooded, concealing a very deadly ferocity with a dandy, effete demeanor.  He goes against every single villain expectation in the book, even going so far as to defect to the Allied side when he realizes the Nazis can’t win.  Waltz is endlessly entertaining in the role, and it’s baffling to think that Tarantino once wanted Leonardo DiCaprio in the role. Literally no one else could have played this part as well as Waltz has.  His performance single-handedly elevates this film from a great film to cinematic history.

Tarantino once again utilizes the talents of cinematographer Robert Richardson to render the somber French locales in vivid, bright color.  They style the film as a modern-day spaghetti western, albeit set in World War 2.  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio allows for dramatic, expansive compositions, and the high-key lighting scheme allows for a deep contrast that gives the film a palpable weight.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS boasts an autumnal look, with desaturated greens and wet, drab stone-greys that allow for the bright red of blood and Nazi flags to really pop.  Camera-wise, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Tarantino’s most low-key work yet.  He chooses to keep the camera locked-off for a vast majority of the film, employing the strategic use of dolly and crane shots only when it serves a strong purpose.  As Tarantino’s first period piece, production designer David Wasco faithfully creates authentic costumes and sets for the cast members to inhabit.

Tarantino initially wanted legendary composer Ennio Morricone to score the film, owing mainly to the fact thatINGLOURIOUS BASTERDS took so much inspiration from spaghetti westerns.  Unfortunately, Morricone was unable to commit, and Tarantino subsequently used selects from the maestro’s existing score work for his own purposes.  He also includes a few cues that he previously utilized in his KILL BILL saga, which ties his self-contained universe closer together.

Tarantino has to be the first director in memory to use scores for existing movies as source tracks, almost as if they were pop music or rock and roll.  To Tarantino, film music is rock and roll—there’s no difference.  What it was initially created for or when it was created bears no difference to the story, only that it should strike to the core of whatever emotional truth Tarantino is trying to convey at any given moment.  This is best exemplified in the use of an anachronistic David Bowie track during an introductory montage to the cinema-house massacre.  In perpetuating this practice, Tarantino has given a huge gift to cinema; he has unshackled music from the context of its time and allowed for unparalleled levels of commentary and thematic expression.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an unconventional war film, in that it doesn’t concern itself with battle but with the thematic conceit of language.  Right down to the misspelled title, Tarantino makes no bones about language as the driving force of the film.  The majority of the film is in a language other than English, with several characters switching between languages as easily as you would slip out of a t-shirt and into a new one.  Christoph Waltz flits from German, to Italian, to English and French without so much as a second thought, making his Hans Landa character a truly formidable foe in a world where language means the difference between life or death.  Tarantino also plays the cultural linguistic divide for laughs, such as a truly hysterical moment where Brad Pitt’s American character must butcher the elegant musicality of Italian through his thick Southern drawl.  And who can forget Waltz’s absolutely ridiculous delivery of “That’s a bingo!”?

Indeed, the film itself is structured like that perennial celebration of language: the novel.  Tarantino’s use of book-like chapter designations has never been more appropriate and justified than it is here, whereby he eschews typical three-act film structure and bases his story around a handful of distinct, elongated set-pieces he deems as “chapters”.  And just like a novel, Tarantino isn’t afraid to dwell on the minutiae of a single moment.  The longest scenes in the film—the opening in the French farmhouse and the basement tavern rendezvous with Hammersmark—go on for almost half an hour each, dragging out the suspense to an almost unbearable degree until it is released in an explosion of blood and violence.  For most directors, this approach would be highly ill-advised, but Tarantino’s preternatural talent for engaging dialogue keeps his audience dangling on every well-chosen word.

Tarantino’s signature structural trademarks are all present and accounted for—the yellow title font, the creative profanity, abrupt music drops, a victim’s POV shot looking up at his aggressors, elaborate tracking shots, the Mexican standoff, etc. However, here they mark a profound change in maturity; that is to say, there’s a refined, worldly sophistication to his techniques where they were once vulgar, coarse, and undisciplined.

It’s fitting that Tarantino’s story uses a movie theatre as an important element, so much so that it plays a hand in ending World War 2.  The film references in his previous films have all built up to this, wherein a movie premiere becomes a watershed moment in world history and turns a generation of Americans into film buffs (albeit, only within Tarantino’s self-contained universe).  He uses Shoshanna’s theatre as the climax’s venue, showing it off in an elaborately elegant tracking shot similar to how he presented the geography of KILL BILL VOLUME 1’s House of Blue Leaves set.  Whereas the latter sequence tends to come off as showboat-y, here Tarantino exercises a degree of restraint that builds tension and anticipation by expertly setting up the dominos for an explosive finale.

Despite being consistently hailed as an auteur, Tarantino has always relied on the talents of an elite pool of collaborators. The aforementioned Richardson and Wasco have played an integral role in bringing Tarantino’s vision to the screen, as have regular producing partners Lawrence Bender and the Weinstein brothers.  Past Tarantino performers like Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson appear in voice cameos as an OSS Commander and an omniscient narrator explaining nitrate film’s flammability, respectively.  Tarantino also finds another use for Eli Roth’s talents by commissioning him to direct NATION’S PRIDE, the film-within-a-film whose premiere the Nazis are celebrating.

Throughout his career, Tarantino has shown considerable respect towards his collaborators.  There are stories from the set of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS about how he’d hold screenings for his crew featuring the movies by their co-stars and fellow craftsmen.  Not many directors show such reverence towards the people they work with; it’s no wonder that Tarantino is so highly regarded amongst actors and below-the-line talent alike.

Of course, I must mention Tarantino’s biggest collaborator, the superbly-talented Sally Menke.  Out of all the people who could lay claim to helping Tarantino become the director he is today, Menke’s contributions put her head and shoulders above every single one.  She is the shaper of Tarantino’s vision, finding the music in his dynamic compositions and harnessing the raw energy of his direction into a coherent experience.  The flawlessly-edited INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS marks the high point, the culmination of their work together.  Unfortunately, it also marks the last time they will ever work together.  Sadly, Menke passed away in 2010 as she was hiking in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, and with her death Tarantino lost his co-author and his platonic partner.  It remains to be seen how this will play out in Tarantino’s work going forward, but the success of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is promising.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was an unprecedented success for Tarantino, besting even 1994’s PULP FICTION.  Until it was unseated by DJANGO UNCHAINED, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was Tarantino’s highest-grossing film and still remains as his best-reviewed.  True to form, the film was met with considerable controversy upon its release.  Some were uncertain whether the concept of Jews aggressively pursuing revenge on the Nazis was in poor taste or not, or if it was respectful to survivors of the Holocaust.  Still others were frustrated by Tarantino’s blatant historical revisionism, which takes the apocryphal tack of gunning down Hitler in a gleeful hail of bullets during the theatre inferno sequence (as opposed to shooting himself in a bunker like he did in real life).  Personally, it’s an act of wish-fulfillment that’s firmly on-tone with the story that precedes it.  By taking such a cartoonish attitude towards his aesthetic, Tarantino grants himself the license to alter history as he sees fit, making for a much more cathartic ending to World War 2 than we actually got.

As far as Tarantino’s career development goes, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS marks the beginning of a new phase for the controversial auteur.  If DEATH PROOF saw the end of his Tex-Mex/grindhouse phase, then this film begins something much more prestigious.  Indeed, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the closest that Tarantino has ever come to Oscar respectability in the Academy’s eyes (PULP FICTION’s screenwriting win notwithstanding).  The reverence bestowed upon his follow-up, DJANGO UNCHAINED, only reinforces the notion that he is in a prestige phase.  Perhaps it’s only appropriate, given that Tarantino is now firmly in middle-age and has gone on record to state that he would be happy only having ten features to his name (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the seventh).  Faced with the possibility of his career winding down, it’s only natural that Tarantino would be concerned with his legacy.

The film’s final moment has Pitt carving a swastika into the forehead of a screaming Waltz.  Admiring his handiwork, he muses: “you know what, I think this just might be my masterpiece”.  All cheekiness aside, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS might very well be just that: Tarantino’s masterpiece.

Sponsored by: Special.tv – Stream Independent 


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. 

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – The Whole Bloody Affair

The 4th film by Quentin Tarantino (as it reads in the film’s advertising copy), KILL BILL: VOLUME 1, was released during an odd time in my cinematic development.  The year was 2003, and I had just entered my senior year of high school.

By that time, I was of age to see R-rated films in theatres without any kind of hassle or sneaky spy shit—but my friends were not. And that is how on a cold winter night in Portland, my younger brother and best friend were stuck in another auditorium watching a stale biopic on the religious reformer Martin Luther, while I was alone in another auditorium gleefully taking in the literal bloodbath that was KILL BILL: VOLUME 1.

Read Quentin’s Screenplay for This Film Here

I had heard of Tarantino prior to this, by virtue of being a casual participant in cinematic pop culture.  However, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 was the first Tarantino film I ever saw, and I was riveted for its duration.  After leaving the theatre, I immediately (okay, maybe it was a week or two later) went out and bought PULP FICTION (1994) and RESERVOIR DOGS(1992) on DVD so I could check out his other work—the first time I had ever done so as for a given director.  I hadn’t yet gone to film school, so I had yet to learn about Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, but I intuitively understood the sentiment because of Tarantino.

Tarantino’s grand return to cinema after 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 was almost ten years in the making.  What began as excited chattering and brainstorming between Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman during the production of PULP FICTIONslowly grew over the years to become a gargantuan celebration of cinema’s various forms and a legitimate pop cultural phenomenon unto itself.  KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004) was released only six months later, but Tarantino had initially conceived the idea as one epic revenge tale spanning vast swaths of time and space.  Rather indulgently, Tarantino added new scenes to the script as he shot—a testament to the unfettered, unadulterated giddiness with which he approached the project—only to find himself in the editing room with a film that ran a (bladder-annihilating) four hours.  His producing partners—Lawrence Bender, Bob Weinstein, and Harvey Weinstein—successfully argued for the film to get released in two parts.  Hence, VOLUME 1.

The KILL BILL saga tells the blood-soaked tale of The Bride (Thurman), who lost her baby and four years of her life when she was attacked and left for dead on her wedding day by her old boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine) and his gang of elite killers, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.  When she comes out of her coma, she immediately sets to work planning the execution of each and every person involved.  KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 sets up the Bride’s quest, travelling as far as Japan as she pursues the first two ex-Viper Squad names on her Death List: Pasadena homemaker Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and Yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).  Along the way, she coaxes the legendary Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) into constructing a new samurai sword for her, and encounters a masked Yakuza gang called the Crazy 88’s.

Tarantino’s cast is first-rate, turning in performances that are at once both over-the-top and sincere.  This is Thurman’s show, through and through, and she soaks up every ounce of energy in the scene, channeling it into an aggressive performance.  With revenge tales, it’s easy for the protagonist to become so focused in their vendetta that they become one-note and cease being multi-dimensional.  Fortunately, Thurman imbues The Bride character with unfathomable complexity and grit.  She courageously stares down every challenge and continually summons up vast wells of strength to overcome them.  It’s one of Thurman’s most high-profile performances, and easily one of her best.

I’ll elaborate more on Carradine’s portrayal of Bill in my analysis of VOLUME 2, as he is only heard, and never seen during the entirety of VOLUME 1.  However, his seasoned growl of a voice does the heavy lifting for us, telling us everything we need to know about the chief target of The Bride’s obsessive quest.  Instead, the chief antagonist of VOLUME 1 is O-Ren Ishii, played by Lucy Liu in the role she was born to play.  O-Ren is a highly-skilled assassin and can match the Bride in sword combat blow for blow, so it was crucial that whoever plays the role can convey the appropriate amount of fierceness and conviction.  Liu pulls this off effortlessly, channeling her years of experience in other action films into a surprisingly subversive performance.  Of all the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, she is given the most amount of backstory, which paints her as the dark mirror image of the Bride and the strongest possible antagonist for her to face in the first installment.

Tarantino’s supporting cast is stuffed with scene-stealing turns, their interactions against the relatively blank canvas of The Bride’s personality serving to highlight their unique character traits.  Vivica A. Fox plays the most against type as the fierce, sassy Vernita Green, who—in a brilliant manipulation on Tarantino’s part—finds herself fighting for her life against the Bride while simultaneously trying to hide the violence from her young daughter.

Julie Dreyfus is the most conventionally-feminine presence in the film, as O-ren’s half-French, half-Japanese lawyer, and protégé, Sofie Fatale.  Chiaki Kuriyama plays Gogo Yubari, O-Ren’s teenage bodyguard with a mean psychotic streak and the appearance of a giggling Japanese schoolgirl.  Sonny Chiba is a welcome comedic presence as Hattori Hanzo, a wizened sage and retired swordmaker who is called out of retirement when he learns the intended target of The Bride’s vendetta.

And finally, veteran character actor Michael Parks plays Earl McGraw, a Texas cop and gruff, tobacco-spitting’ sonabitch. This is Parks’ first collaboration with Tarantino, and he would continue working with Tarantino in bit roles throughout the mid-2000s.  He’d even go on to reprise his role as the fan-favorite McGraw character in both sections of the joint-Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez directorial effort GRINDHOUSE (2007).

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 is arguably one of the most dynamic and strikingly visual films ever made.  The utmost care and passion went into the composition of every shot, and Tarantino’s love for the art form and its seminal works comes through in every frame.  He enlists the services of cinematographer Robert Richardson for the first time, who gorgeously captures Tarantino’s wild vision and arresting 2.35:1 composition on Super 35mm film.  Gone are the burnished Technicolor hues of Tarantino past; this film is slick, with brightly saturated colors and high-key, expressionistic lighting.  Each scene references some form of cinema that Tarantino loves, whether it’s a kung-fu flick, a spaghetti western, a Blaxploitation film, or even a Brian DePalma shlock thriller.  The umbrella term for Tarantino’s visual presentation here would be “grindhouse”, but he pulls inspiration from every corner of the film universe, mashing it together into a Frankenstein-ish form that’s astonishingly coherent.

Tarantino has always been a referential filmmaker, appropriating bits and pieces from his influences into a style that’s both his own and an homage to the works that came before it.  KILL BILL VOLUME 1 is arguably the most nakedly referential film in Tarantino’s canon, adapting the look and style of each scene to the subgenre of film it is paying homage to.  For instance, the use of split-screen and that unsettling “whistle” song during the sequence where the eye-patched assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah disguised as a nurse) sneaks into a comatose Bride’s room to inject poison into her veins is a direct reference to both Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980).  Both directors are commonly cited as huge influences on Tarantino, and he (along with the help of unsung hero, the late editor Sally Menke) manages to wordlessly reference both of them while creating something entirely his own.  The KILL BILL saga is littered with mish-and-mash sequences like these.

For me personally, the most jarringly original thing about the film is Tarantino’s inclusion of an animated sequence midway through the film.  Another reference to the director’s pulp inspirations, the sequence is rendered in the style of Japanese anime, depicting O-ren Ishii’s traumatic witnessing of the murder of her parents, and her eventual revenge on the man responsible (which makes her a kindred spirit with The Bride).  Her skill with murder leads her to becoming one of the best female assassins in the field, and her rise is chronicled in stylish animated fashion.  When I first saw the film and this scene began unspooling, my jaw dropped.  I specifically remember thinking to myself, “wait, we can do that?!”—I was literally shocked that someone would have the audacity to even include such a bracingly different animated style into a live-action film, much less pull it off with the effortless grace that Tarantino does here.

This inspired blend continues into the film’s centerpiece: The Bride’s showdown with the Crazy 88’s at the House of Blue Leaves.  Japanese samurai and Yakuza crime films are the chief stylistic influence on VOLUME 1, reaching an apex in this brutal, bloody showdown.  The extended sequence is undoubtedly one of the best pieces of work that Tarantino has ever done, containing little bits and pieces of his best techniques to delirious, expressionistic effect.  There are four key bits to this scene that illustrate Tarantino’s impeccably thought-through approach to the film.

The first is the beginning, with O-Ren and her Crazy 88 entourage entering the House of Blue Leaves.  Tarantino frames the action head-on in wide shot, with the actors walking towards the camera and breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into it.  Tarantino then punches in to closer shots, revealing the performers to be walking in slow-motion.  All the while, he uses a Hotei Tomaya song, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity”, which has since become the de facto KILL BILL theme song.  Granted, this scene has been endlessly parodied nearly shot for shot (TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE did it best in 2004) in the years since we first laid eyes on it.  However, Tarantino of all people knows that imitation is the best form of flattery, and the fact that this specific pairing of motion, composition and song choice has entered into our collective cinematic consciousness as the visual shorthand for “badasses on a mission” speaks to Tarantino’s intuitive connection to archetypal scenarios.

Shortly after The Bride arrives at the club, Tarantino takes us on an expansive, bird’s eye-view tour of the House of Blue Leaves.  Over the course of a single shot, we zoom across the rafters looking down at the action, descend to eye-level and follow the Bride through the hallway into the bathroom, and pull back out again for a wide shot of the scene.  Whereas Tarantino usually opts for subtle tracking techniques that hide how complicated they actually are, here he is an unabashed showman.  It’s almost a brazen “look what I can do” kind of statement, an elegant dance between camera and director to the accompaniment of Japanese surf rock, courtesy of real-life rock band The 5,6,78’s.  (Their iconic “Woo-Hoo” song would be driven into the ground by a particularly aggressive and annoying series of Vonage commercials a few years later).  This kind of show-boaty tracking shot draws its inspiration from a cadre of influences like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Tarantino contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson.

The actual fight itself is somewhat of a tour de force for Tarantino, who up to this point had never actually filmed anything as openly “action film-y” as this before.  It helps that his location was a specially built set in China’s venerable Shaw Studios, where many of Tarantino’s favorite kung-fu films had been shot in the past (he even references the studio by including a vintage “Filmed In Shaw Scope” card at the beginning of the film).  This sequence alone has the highest body count within Tarantino’s entire canon, and is one of the most viscerally violent scenes ever put to film.  It’s so violent, in fact, that Tarantino switches from color to black and white for a large portion of it to tone down the sight of the literal ocean of blood he sheds.  Despite its cartoonish brutality, Tarantino helms the sequence with such an artful eye that it becomes more expressionistic than violent.  This is further evidenced when the sequence switches back to color, and The Bride and her adversaries are silhouetted against a bright blue grid (one of my favorite images in film, ever).

The final beat of the House of Blue Leaves setpiece is the final showdown between The Bride and O-Ren, which takes place in a gorgeously tranquil, moonlit & snow-covered garden.  The transition from blood-soaked nightclub to the peaceful, quiet and beautiful scene lying just outside is breathtaking.  Tarantino is able to harness the full beauty of this sequence, crafting some of the most aesthetically gorgeous compositions of his career.  The final battle between the two expert samurai swords-women is paired with the unexpected choice of a flamenco salsa music track.  It works surprisingly well, and is a perfect illustration of the grindhouse/arthouse, East-West dichotomy Tarantino incorporated into his story and themes.  Everything that Tarantino is trying to aesthetically express with his KILL BILL saga is effortlessly distilled down to its essence in this single scene.

David Wasco returns as Production Designer for the film, this time collaborating with Yohei Taneda in creating a series of vibrant set-pieces.  The House of Blue Leaves is an incredible set, as is the whimsical miniature model of Tokyo that The Bride watches roll by as her plane descends.  The model itself doesn’t look photo-realistic, but its sublime, old-school charm gels the highly expressionistic vision Tarantino has cultivated.

Tarantino has always been known for his eclectic, tastemaking soundtracks.  KILL BILL VOLUME 1 ups the bar considerably, drawing in a veritable potpourri of influences from every corner of the music world.  The aforementioned “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” is undeniably the highest-profile piece, achieving a level of instant recognition and fame on par with Tarantino’s use of “Miserlou” in PULP FICTION.  VOLUME 1’s disparate musical styles bear no resemblance to each other on their face, but Tarantino combines them in a way that creates a unique character for the film. Nancy Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Ennio Morricone, and Zamfir the flutist all contribute to a mish-mash musical palette, weaving into one another in a rich tapestry.  In a first for Tarantino, original score elements have been commissioned by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.  His work doesn’t particularly stand out against Tarantino’s needle drops, but it adds another layer of chop-socky/funky sound to an already-impressive landscape.

I mentioned earlier how KILL BILL VOLUME 1 was the first Tarantino film I ever saw, and for the uninitiated, it’s the clearest example of his directorial style.  Every one of his signature flourishes is in here and amplified to an almost cartoonish degree.  Creative dialogue and profanity is blended in with oddly formal language, which Tarantino cites as a callback to the formalist dialogue in the old samurai films that influenced his script.  Events are presented in non-chronological order, separated by inter-titles that divide the story up into book-like “chapters”.  The use of the color yellow in his on-screen text is abundant (although he seems to switch between colors and fonts at will, and with reckless abandon). There’s a plethora of pop culture references, even at the beginning when Tarantino flashes the “revenge is a dish best served cold” quote from STAR TREK.  Non-diagetic music stops abruptly on a hard cut.  Lots of close-ups of feet feed Tarantino’s personal fetish.  Lots of compositions featuring characters in profile during build-ups to showdowns.  A general grindhouse vibe helped by the inclusion of rack zooms and vintage sound effects.  The black suit/white shirt combo reserved for Tarantino’s professional criminals is represented in the wardrobe of the Crazy 88’s.  Even the infamous Tarantino trunk POV shot is included here, manifested in the form of the Bride delivering a cryptic threat to Bill through Sofie Fatale, who lies bound and injured in the trunk.  If one ever needs a crash course on what separates Tarantino from any other director, they only need look at KILL BILL: VOLUME 1.

Tarantino often cites Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) as a huge influence on his style.  The spaghetti western homages are liberally sprinkled through the KILL BILL saga, but one thing in particular stands out to me. The Sergio Leone DOLLARS TRILOGY famously featured Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  The Bride has a similar unidentified persona, albeit she experiences a much wider range of emotions than her Leone counterpart.  She does happen to have a real name, but whenever the characters speak it, Tarantino physically bleeps it out.  It took me a few instances to catch on when I first saw the film, but it’s an amusing little conceit that pays off well in VOLUME 2, in addition to being a nice callback to one of Tarantino’s chief influences.

In a previous post, I mentioned how Tarantino’s characters inhabit a self-contained universe of the director’s own design. Some fans have taken his filmography as a whole and placed them along one timeline in an alternate reality branching off from ours sometime around the end of WW2.  I’m paraphrasing a loose collection of separate articles written by other people, but the general idea is that the events portrayed in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)—the murder of Adolf Hitler in a movie theatre—began a different reality in which movies play a much larger part in society, and society as a whole has become more attuned to pop culture and exaggerated in violence, profanity and sex.  The KILL BILL films don’t fit into the timeline itself, but are rather a manifestation of what kind of movie that this exaggerated society would produce—in other words, a movie whose violent aspects would be cranked up to 11 for an audience already desensitized to violence as an everyday fact of life.  When Vincent and Vic Vega go to the theatre together, they’d be seeing a movie much like KILL BILL.

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 also begins what I like to refer to as the “Tex-Mex” phase of Tarantino’s career.  It is with the KILL BILL films that he began working in earnest with good friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who’s own distinctly Mexican/Texan aesthetic undoubtedly influenced Tarantino.  During this period, from roughly 2003-2008, Tarantino’s work takes on a distinctly southwestern vibe removed from the SoCal Valley locales that defined his earlier work.  A great bulk of KILL BILL VOLUMES 1 & 2 takes place in Texas, Mexico, and California.  His next project with Rodriguez, 2007’sGRINDHOUSE, again takes place in Texas and utilizes a lot of the same imagery.  During this time, Rodriguez and Tarantino were partners in crime, mimicking and riffing off each other in their own separate works until their directorial styles achieved a symbiosis in which it was hard to tell the two apart.

Tarantino’s distinct style played such a significant role in defining 1990’s pop culture that some rightly wondered after the release of 1997’s JACKIE BROWN whether Tarantino was fated to be a relic of that decade.  He stayed off the screen long enough that it became a very serious question.  The world of cinema had already changed so much since the turn of the new millennium; would Tarantino still have a place at the table when he came back?  Fortunately, the extended hiatus proved refreshing for Tarantino, and he returned to the cinema world with the same fury and intensity that had propelled PULP FICTION a decade earlier.  But don’t call it a comeback—the success of KILL BILL VOLUME 1 proved that Tarantino could adapt with the times while still doing what he does best: crafting a killer film.

Kill Bill Volume 2

Director Quentin Tarantino returned to cinemas with a vengeance with his 2003 hit, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1.  A scant six months later, he capitalized on the film’s shocking cliffhanger ending by releasing the finale to his blood-soaked saga, KILL BILL VOLUME 2.  Originally conceived as one epic film, an initial 4-hour running time prompted Tarantino to split the film in two—an inspired decision, considering that the second half of KILL BILL is radically different in tone and style than the first.

Audiences with expectations of another high-octane blood bath were shocked to find themselves watching a different kind of film entirely—a slower, more somber movie that put a priority on dialogue over action.  The Bride must have killed upwards of forty people in VOLUME 1, but her body count in VOLUME 2 can be tallied on one hand.  Audiences were understandably disappointed by what they deemed a lackluster conclusion to a brilliant set-up, but they fail to see a richer, more personal film that eloquently carries the Bride’s bloody quest to a satisfying, emotionally resonant close.

Shifting the action from exotic Japan, Tarantino brings us back to the western deserts of California and Mexico as The Bride closes in on the last few names remaining on her Death List: burnt-out strip club bouncer Budd (Michael Madsen), treacherous and one-eyed assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and the big man himself (David Carradine).  Along the way, we find out more about the circumstances of Bill’s original attack on our hero’s wedding party that began this whole story. Most importantly, we learn that The Bride’s unborn baby, thought lost in the wake of the wedding rehearsal massacre, is alive and well— a fact that complicates The Bride’s desire to kill Bill, given that he’s the father.

Uma Thurman continues her scorched-earth performance as the Bride, with VOLUME 2requiring her to convey startlingly real vulnerability while still retaining almost-biblical levels of courage.  Her evolution from cold-blooded killer to fierce lioness protecting her cub is the film’s heart and soul, creating a surprising dramatic resonance amidst all the bloodshed. And along the way, we find out her real name—Beatrix Kiddo.  I’d say you can’t make that shit up, but Tarantino clearly did.

The late David Carradine is a revelation as the film’s eponymous target.  Heard only in voice in VOLUME 1, Tarantino chooses to reveal his weathered visage in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion.  Carradine plays the sadistic boss as a warmly paternal poet.  It’s easy to see why The Bride once loved him; Bill is intelligent, cultured, and– despite his criminality– very fair.  His actions in massacring The Bride’s entire bridal party, while undeniably cruel, come from a place of honor that supersedes his relationships.  It’s the mark of a man with integrity and conviction—the kind of man you wouldn’t expect to be the chief antagonist.

Carradine, who featured in a variety of kung-fu films that Tarantino cites as huge influences, had largely fallen out of the public eye when he was cast as Bill.  Much like John Travolta or Robert Forster before him, he became blessed by the Tarantino Effect, whereby aging character actors experience a career resurgence after working for the director.  Unlike the others, this resurgence manifested itself in a general awareness and newfound respect to his long career, but didn’t really result in getting more high-profile work.  It’s very possible that he might have, but sadly Carradine passed away in 2009 before he could really capitalize on it.  His performance as Bill is probably the best career capstone and farewell anybody could ask for.

Michael Madsen– in his second performance for Tarantino after RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)–was barely alluded to in VOLUME 1, but VOLUME 2 allows us to experience his Budd character in all his burnt-out, redneck glory.  Essentially a recluse living out of a trailer in the desert, Budd has forsaken the assassin lifestyle and brings in a meager salary as an underappreciated strip club bouncer.  Madsen breathes palpable life into his performance, his withdrawn eyes channeling a fundamental regret and weariness.  He relishes the opportunity to ham it up in a gross mullet and a beer belly, but he still hasn’t lost his dangerous, sadistic edge.  Despite looking nothing like Carradine, Madsen makes us really believe that he is Bill’s brother.

Daryl Hannah continues her devious, eye-patched performance as Bill’s current beau and arguably the deadliest member of the Viper Assassination Squad, Elle Driver.  She gets a fantastic, no-holds-barred fight sequence with The Bride in Budd’s cramped trailer, and she plays up her insidiousness to the requisite cartoonish degree.  Hannah doesn’t seem to do much acting these days, but it’s easy to see why Tarantino wanted her in the film.  Despite her playing someone far from her type, she embraces every challenge and really puts all of herself into the role.

Michael Parks also returns, albeit as a completely different character than the Texan cowboy cop he played in VOLUME 1. This time around, he’s completely unrecognizable as Esteban, an elderly Mexican pimp and father figure to Bill.  I remember being absolutely shocked when I learned that it was Parks buried underneath some incredible makeup.  He’s easily characterized as the Texas lawman archetype, but he has a startling range that further lends credence to my personal theory that character actors are the most legitimately talented kind of actors.

This is further illustrated by Tarantino’s recurring guest stars, who continue popping up in small roles and cameos in his films, regardless of how big of a name they are.  Sid Haig, who appeared as a judge in JACKIE BROWN (1997) turns in another small cameo here as the bespectacled bartender of Budd’s nudie bar.  Tarantino mainstay Samuel L. Jackson appears as Rufus, the blind piano player caught in the unfortunate crossfire of Bill’s wrath during the Bride’s wedding rehearsal.  We don’t even see Jackson’s face in the film, so it says something about Tarantino in regards to the respect afforded to him by his actors that they’ll show up for what essentially amounts to a walk-on voice role despite being internationally-known stars.

Stylistically speaking, KILL BILL VOLUME 2 turned a lot of people off when it was released.  After gleefully taking in the frenzied bloodbath of VOLUME 1, they were shocked to find that Tarantino had chosen to make the concluding entry so drastically different.  Since both films were shot at the same time, VOLUME 2 retains many of the main visual conceits as VOLUME 1: Super 35mm film negative source, dramatic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, a brightly-hued color scheme and book-like chapter designations to divide up big sequences.  However, if VOLUME 1 represented the East with its Japanese stylings, than VOLUME 2 is full-on Sergio Leone West, placing the bulk of its action in dusty California, Texas, and Mexico.

Despite its drastic departure from VOLUME 1’s presentation, the structure of VOLUME 2reveals it to be very much of the same mind.  The non-chronological order of sequences is retained, as are the stylized compositions that have come to characterize not only the series itself, but Tarantino’s aesthetic as a whole.  Take, for instance, the sequence where The Bride trains with ancient martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu).  One shot in particular shows The Bride and Pai Men practicing their kicks, silhouetted against an expressionistic red background.  This mirrors, as well as contrasts, a similar shot in VOLUME 1, where the silhouettes of The Bride and her Crazy 88 adversaries are set up against a similarly-expressionistic blue background.  This illustrates how each film is really half of a whole, with one thematic through-line running across both of them.

The music also takes a decidedly different tack than VOLUME 1, opting for a spaghetti western sound to reflect Tarantino’s arid and dusty images.  Interestingly enough, the film isn’t as loaded with pre-recorded needle drops as its predecessor—which means that for the first time, Tarantino is making substantial use of original score, provided by fellow filmmaker and friend Robert Rodriguez.  Rodriguez does a great job emulating Morricone’s sound, enough so that the difference between score and Tarantino’s well-placed Morricone source tracks is hard to discern.  VOLUME 2’s ties to its predecessor are further solidified by the inclusion of a few Blaxploitation/funk tracks, but for the most part VOLUME 2 is very much its own beast.

Tarantino’s characters continue to be an exceedingly verbose lot, with filthy mouths to match their creative wits, a tendency for those of the female persuasion to not wear shoes, and an-almost meta awareness of pop/film culture.  This is most easily seen in Bill’s climactic monologue where he espouses the theory that Superman’s alter ego of Clark Kent is really his critique on what he perceives to be a weak, ineffectual race of life forms.

Another moment is the film’s beginning, which seems to achieve multiple layers of meta in its presentation.  In the sequence, Thurman is driving to kill Bill, and she’s talking directly to the camera.  That’s one layer of meta, the 4th wall-breaking that Tarantino loves to do.  Her dialogue is basically re-capping the events of VOLUME 1, but said in such a way as if she just came from the movie herself—she even references critic quotes from the trailer.  Now that’s two layers of meta.  Finally, no effort is made to conceal the old-school rear projector technique that throws up a moving background behind her as she speaks.  At this point, I’ve lost track of how many layers of meta we’re dealing with here.  The important thing is that it works.

There’s a lot of other stylistic conceits I could list here, like characters being shown in profile, long dialogue sequences building up to violent outbursts, professional criminals clad in variations on the black suit/white shirt aesthetic, long tracking shots, etc.  Tarantino’s style is one of the most well-known in all of cinema—so much so that I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence by even writing it here.  His style has been more or less established since day one, and each film builds on it according to the demands of the story.

Many are divided over which volume of KILL BILL is actually better.  Personally, I find them so different that it’s hard to compare them.  If I had to choose a favorite, however, it would be VOLUME 2.  In my eyes, it is the stronger film because the substance, and not the style, is driving the plot forward.  It’s one of the most subversive films Tarantino has ever made.  A VOLUME 3 has been rumored for years, tentatively featuring the exploits of Vernita Green’s daughter as she seeks out the Bride for her own vengeance, but given how Tarantino regularly speculates but never follows through on sequels to his films (nothing ever did come of that Vega Brothers film, I highly doubt a VOLUME 3 would ever come to fruition.

I would be remiss to mention the cut that combines both films into a semblance of Tarantino’s original vision, titled KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR.  Currently unavailable on home video, this rare print premiered at Cannes and has been shown in arthouse theatres across the country (most notably at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, which Tarantino just so happens to own).  I’ve been curious to see this four-hour cut, which reportedly contains a longer animation sequence and restores the color to the Massacre at House of Blue Leaves sequence.   It seems to me like THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIRwould be the superior version of either film, but who knows if I’ll ever get to make that conclusion.

KILL BILL VOLUME 2 finds Tarantino at the apex of his “Tex-Mex” phase, with his closest collaborator (outside of editor Sally Menke, of course) being Robert Rodriguez.  The film is Tarantino’s own personal zeitgeist, where his tendency for homage and imitation reaches its zenith.  The KILL BILL saga is the biggest thing he’s ever done, and he pulled it off with obscene style.  Literally no other person could dream up what Tarantino did here, and the result is a piece of pop culture that helped to define the Aughts, just like PULP FICTION did for the ’90s.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.

Tony Scott: The Ultimate Guide to His Films & Career

The Director Series is at its most effective when I’m analyzing the careers of the deceased, as I can view their works in totality and make observations about the course of their full development. For the living, obviously I’m tracking developing careers that are still evolving and changing. From that perspective, I can only assess a living filmmaker’s development from that particular moment in time.

Tony Scott is the first director since I’ve started blogging to be no longer with us, so naturally he will be the first to get a specialized DEBRIEFING.

Prior to reviewing Scott’s work, I had always approached his films with a degree of caution. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned on reviewing his films at all, but the outpouring of love and respect from collaborators and industry personnel in the wake of his death made me rethink my own judgement on his standing within the art form.

The first time I saw a Scott film (2001’s SPY GAME), I wasn’t even really aware of who he was. Even when I did know who he was, I always held his work at arms-length, seeing him as an inferior, strictly commercial version of his older brother, Ridley. In fact, I had always thought that perhaps Scott always felt he was working in Ridley’s massive shadow, and could never quite get out of it in his own right.

I was wrong to assume that. Tony Scott and Ridley Scott, while brothers, are two entirely different people with entirely different interests and concepts about what a film is. As it turns out, Tony was more interested in films as thrill rides, and while that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a completely legitimate pursuit.

The course of Scott’s development as a filmmaker shows a career that started from humble, foreign beginnings, and then took off into the stratosphere of the American pop cultural landscape with the release of TOP GUN in 1986.

For the remainder of his career, he remained in those lofty heights of mainstream filmmaking, weathering the occasional heavy turbulence, and touching back to Earth slightly battered, but more or less whole. His films, while made for mass consumption, aren’t for everyone– but it can’t be denied that an overwhelming majority of his feature films were huge commercial hits.

He also accumulated his share of key collaborators– people who worked with him again and again because they admired his work ethic and the way he told stories. Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, actors like Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Directors of Photography like Dan Mindel and Paul Cameron, Musicians like Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer.

All of them frequently turning in their best work under Tony Scott’s direction. Scott’s choices in film weren’t driven by any particular theme or story preoccupation. Rather, he was a man inspired by the high-concept idea that promised thrilling action.

Competing fighter pilots jockeying for a place at the top of their class. A power struggle inside a nuclear-class submarine. A man left for dead and hellbent on revenge. A female bounty hunter just as tough as the boys.

A runaway train. Tony Scott was a stylist that photographed the hell out of his subjects, and as a result, he cultivated a distinct look that influenced countless young filmmakers.

Scott wasn’t content to simply limit his craft to cinema either. He dabbled in music videos, commercials, and television, and also took an active role in Ridley’s company Scott Free, where he became a producer for a variety of other projects.

In his early years, he aspired to be a painter, and he fully realized that dream by painting in light, color, action, and special effects. His canvas was a largest one of all: the silver screen.

In terms of my own impression of his work, I may not have liked a good number of his films, but I respected them. There’s a degree of intelligence at work in each of his films, which is more than I can say for counterparts like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner.

I found his work to be wildly uneven in terms of quality. For example, I think his debut film, THE HUNGER(1983) deserves a spot in the Criterion Collection.

SPY GAME is my favorite film of his, but TRUE ROMANCE (193) and MAN ON FIRE (2004) will always grapple for best film overall. DOMINO (2005) is a guilty pleasure. I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over the thought of never seeing THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) again.

At the end of the day, everyone is going to see something different in his films, and if that isn’t the definition of art, I don’t know what is. Sure, he made his films in a bid to win the box office, but he made them in his own uncompromising way, and it’s clear that he loved all of his creations.

Tony Scott made the kinds of movies he loved, and had little pretensions about his work. His films may have never had the prestige of a major award or festival play, but you could always count on him to deliver a strong opening weekend. He had a remarkable knack for capturing energy on film, frequently utilizing as many as four or six cameras to capture spontaneous moments.

Some of his films, like TOP GUN, are ingrained in the public consciousness as nostalgic archetypes. And for a long while in the early 90’s, he was one of the premiere tastemakers in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. To ignore the contributions of this man on the medium would be like ignoring the influence of an entire film movement.

Scott’s films didn’t do much in the way of exposing personal aspects of the man himself. Indeed, he was very quiet about his private life in general. In that respect, the reasoning for his shocking suicide will never be known.

Reports of being diagnosed with a terminal illness turned out to be false, as did the notion that drugs might have played a part (the coroner found negligible amounts of anti-depressants in Scott’s system). By all accounts, he had a successful career, his health, and a beautiful family. He even had a full slate of exciting projects in development including TOP GUN 2 and a remake of THE WARRIORS. So why end it all?

It’s not my goal to speculate. What’s done is done, and what’s left behind is an admirable body of work that injected an explicit sense of style into mainstream filmmaking. Tony Scott has bequeathed an aesthetic legacy that pushed boundaries and gave us new ways of looking at the world. Quite a feat from a young boy in England who just wanted to be a painter.


ONE OF THE MISSING (1969)

Truth be told, when I made my long list of directors to study for the purposes of this series, Tony Scott wasn’t on it. I’d seen a small number of his films, and while I constantly found them to be entertaining, I didn’t see much of a reason to include his work for analysis. It’s funny how death can suddenly encapsulate a life’s work and make it worth study. Even the most commercial, formulaic filmmakers have something to contribute to the art of cinema.

All throughout the month of August 2012, I was preparing to cover the films of the Coen Brothers– that is, until August 19th, when Tony Scott leapt to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro. I was struck by the outpouring of grief among the film community, and of the fond remembrances of his work. His suicide was sudden and inexplicable– nobody saw it coming. Truth be told, he had been scouting locations with Tom Cruise for TOP GUN 2 only a few weeks prior.

What possessed this man, blessed with fame, fortune, family, and good health (despite his age), to end it all? I’m well aware that my own analysis of the man’s work won’t generate any answers, but perhaps in my own way I can come closer to understand the mentality of a man who loved making movies, but was doomed to always toil in the shadow of Ridley Scott, his brother and an admittedly much more skilled filmmaker.

Growing up in midcentury England, he initially had no plans to become a filmmaker at all. Instead, he went to the Royal College of Art to study painting. It wasn’t until Ridley’s success with commercials that he was coaxed into the world of filmmaking.

Tony Scott’s first directorial effort was a short film he made in 1969, titled ONE OF THE MISSING. Shot on black and white 16mm film, the story concerns a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War who sneaks up on a Union encampment, only to be trapped under a pile of falling rubble from a collapsed building. As his hopes for escape rapidly dwindle, he begins the agonizing process of summoning up the courage to commit suicide.

In his more recent career, Tony Scott would gain a reputation for highly stylized, hyperkinetic camerawork, but ONE OF THE MISSING is much more steady and level-headed in its execution. Serving as his own director of photography, Scott constructs a visual language comprised of extreme close-ups and a locked-off camera that is limited only to pans and zooms.

Despite the more straightforward visual presentation, he eschews dialogue and creates a surreal ambient sound bed out of heightened natural background noises and atmospheric dream textures. It’s slightly trippy, and sets an experimental tone for what could be a fairly straightforward narrative.

Tony Scott adeptly uses quick edits and unconventional frame compositions to jarring effect, amplifying the agony of being buried alive. While watching a man struggle under immense weight could get boring after a while, Scott ups the suspense by introducing the fact that his own gun has fallen in such a way that the barrel is pointing directly at his face, and could go off at any second.

Cutting from the soldier’s frantic eyes and to the cold, uncaring black hole of that barrel ratchets up the tension and keeps the viewer intrigued. Even with his first directing effort, Tony Scott shows a knack for generating engaging action.

ONE OF THE MISSING also contains a great cameo– just as Tony had played the titular role in Ridley Scott’s debut film BOY AND BICYCLE (1965), so does Ridley return the favor, appearing as a handsome young Confederate officer.

It’s incredibly interesting to see the filmmaker as fresh-faced young man, especially now when his general public image is that of a grizzled old man. ONE OF THE MISSING is a strong start to a rich body of work, and proves that talent runs in the family.


LOVING MEMORY (1971)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

At a scant 50 minutes, LOVING MEMORY (1971) can barely be called Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. As a quiet, pastoral character film, it’s quite the anomaly within his action-oriented canon.

The film follows an old couple in midcentury England who accidentally run over a young man on his bicycle. They proceed to take the body back to their home in the country and store it in the attic. While the husband spends his days building a mine (seemingly by himself), the wife cultivates a one-sided friendship with the carcass, telling it stories of her youth and her dreams. It’s a very creepy story that raises more questions than it answers.

Shot in Academy ratio 16mm black and white film, Tony Scott builds off the visual language that he established in his earlier short,ONE OF THE MISSING (1969). He locks off his camera on a tripod and limits his movements to pans and zooms.

He also employs a recurring visual motif, where he starts close up on a subject from an overhead angle, and then slowly zooms out to reveal them as a speck against a wider landscape. This is repeated several times throughout the movie to dramatic effect. For the firs time, Tony Scott utilizes cinematographers outside himself. With LOVING MEMORY, he employs the services of Chris Menges and John Metcalf.

On an audio level, Scott maintains a naturalistic atmosphere of heightened background noise, and whispered dialogue. Indeed, what little dialogue there is in this nearly-wordless film is barely intelligible. We have to strain to hear the words before they dissipate in the air like breath vapor on a cold day. The only music is non-diagetic, played from a creaky gramophone in the couple’s rustic house.

LOVING MEMORY is the slightest strand of a story, but it’s strangely compelling in a morbid way. Tony Scott gives us just enough visual information to create a sense of curiosity and mystery to the proceedings.

Why does this woman dress up the dead boy as a soldier? Why is this man building a massive mine all by himself? Why did they never alert the authorities as to the accident? These questions coalesce to form an incredibly enigmatic film. It’s a far cry from the types of film that Scott would very soon be making his name on.


NOUVELLES DE HENRY JAMES: L’AUTEUR DE BELTRAFFIO (1976)

In 1976, Tony Scott broke into television with an episode of the French series NOUVELLES DE HENRY JAMES. His particular episode, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” deals with the tale of a heated in-family feud that ends in tragedy.

It’s tough to track down the full version, but the first five minutes or so are available via a French website with no subtitles. As such, it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s going on, but it does provide a few avenues in which to examine it in the context of Scott’s development.

The most notable aspect is that it appears to be the first of Tony Scott’s works filmed in color. While he would be noted later on for his extreme use of color, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” employs an even, natural color palette. True to television screens of the day, it looks to have been shot on regular 16mm with a 4×3 aspect ratio. Lighting is also naturalistic, yet with high contrast.

Tony Scott also utilizes a locked-off camera limited to quick pans and zooms, but rarely moves the camera around the subject of the frame. He also uses immersive sound effects to realistically place the audience in the aural landscape of his pastoral imagery.

I can only imagine where the narrative goes from here– the synopsis makes it sound as if it gets pretty juicy as it goes on, but the selection I viewed was pretty low-key energy-wise, and a more than a little dull. Chalk it up to generational and cultural differences. Tony Scott would later make television a significant portion of his career, and “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” represents the first step down that path.


THE HUNGER (1983)

As his breakout debut feature, 1983’s THE HUNGER finds Tony Scott establishing his personal style. Being somewhat of a box-office disappointment upon its release, THE HUNGER has since achieved cult status for its incredibly unique and stylish depiction of vampires. While it is very much a product of its time, the film manages to feel fresh and daring, especially when compared to the neutered vampires found in today’s cultural landscape.

Personally speaking, I hate the over-saturation of vampires in pop culture almost as much as I do zombies. THE HUNGER, however, makes up for it by eschewing the cliched vampire tropes while cooking up entirely new ones. Almost a decade before Ann Rice’s leather-clad goth vampires glam-ed it up on screen, Scott presents his vampires as androgynous, highbrow creatures of grace, elegance and taste.

There are no fangs to be found here– instead, they siphon the blood from their victims by making an incision with a tiny blade that they wear as necklaces. They can go out in daylight, and can even appear in mirrors. In a nod to traditional lore, they do sleep in coffins– but only as a final resting place, just like the rest of us.

THE HUNGER concerns an ageless vampire couple, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), and John (David Bowie), who haunt the hippest punk/goth clubs and drink their victims’ blood to stay young forever.

One day, however, John begins aging rapidly, and by nightfall he is a decrepit old man. No amount of blood will restore his youth. In his desperation, he reaches out to an anti-aging researcher, Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon). As Sarah becomes more involved in her investigation of John, her young, nubile body is seen by Miriam as John’s successor.

The storyline could easily be pulpy genre fare, but Tony Scott fashions a tone ripped straight out of the pages of Vogue. The performances are compelling, especially Bowie, who is perfectly cast as a supernatural, androgynous vampire.

Deneuve works well as the seductive Miriam, and gradually reveals more depth and malice as her storyline progresses. The most surprising performance was Sarandon, who fully embraces the lesbian overtones of her relationship with Miriam in order to become the agent of her demise.

She uses her natural intelligence effectively in her depiction of a curious researcher on the verge of a great discovery. Scott’s older brother, Ridley, would use Sarandon to great effect almost a decade later in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), but Tony gets first crack at her and allows her to generate one of her most iconic performances.

Scott worked with Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt to establish a unique look for the film, and he would later incorporate many aspects of this look into his overall personal style. In a striking contrast to his earlier, low-key work, Tony Scott shoots on anamorphic 35mm film, thereby allowing the film stock’s deep contrast to create striking backlit silhouettes.

The picture is dark, very dark– most of the lighting comes from background sources like blown-out windows. Scott uses the recurring motif of billowing curtains as an effective framing device, especially in the film’s climatic scene where the obscuring of certain figures in the frame becomes crucial. In a bid to reflect the cold nature of his vampires, Scott gives the film a steely blue color palette– offset by the use of bold reds (like the blood or a woman’s lipstick) to punch through the gloom.

His camera-work is low-key for the most part, choosing to stay bound to a tripod and limited to zooms and pans. However, he makes up for it in stylish, experimental editing (especially in the opening credits).

He also uses music effectively, creating a striking juxtaposition between classical music, original music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini, and punk songs. For instance, the film opens with the Bauhaus track, “Bela Lugosi Is Dead”. It’s the perfect choice to illustrate that these vampires are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

At the same time, Tony Scott uses well-known classical music to score a majority of the film, as a reflection of the vampires’ elegance. One particular moment that stands out is the use of classical music during a lesbian sex scene. A lesser director would’ve embraced the grindhouse, exploitative nature of that story development, but Scott’s take elevates it to high art.

This was my first time seeing THE HUNGER, and I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would. Tony Scott’s mainstream debut is as solid as anything his older brother Ridley did during that time period, and sets the stage for a long, successful career.


SAAB- NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE (1984)

While Tony Scott’s first credited commercial is for DIM Underwear in 1979, his epic spot for Saab is his first publicly available commercial work (as far as I’m aware). It’s notable mainly for the fact that it would later secure him the job of director for 1986’s TOP GUN. That said, there’s some striking elements that would later find their way into the feature film.

As his slick visuals are highly suited towards commercial work, it’s no surprise that Scott is behind some of the most iconic commercials of all time. After his work on THE HUNGER (1983), Saab contracted Tony Scott to direct their “NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE” spot. The concept is very simple: the utilization of a series of parallel cuts that favorably compare a Saab car to the sleek lines and powerful performance of a fighter jet.

Atmospheric visuals, slow-motion walking, aviator shades, the fetishization of a plane’s elegantly sculpted steel…. all the hallmarks later found in TOP GUN are present here. What is interesting is the dreary weather present— one would think that Tony Scott would have sprung for dramatic sunset shots on a clear day.

Whether intentional or an inevitable occurrence on the day of the shoot, the overcast weather doesn’t put a damper on the spot’s high-soaring spirits.

As most commercial work inevitably becomes, the spot comes off as incredibly dated and even a little cheesy. That’s to be expected. If anything, the spot captures a certain mid-80’s zeitgeist, and is an intriguing preview of the career-making film that Scott would soon embark on making.
“Nothing On Earth Comes Close” is available in its entirety via YouTube.


TOP GUN (1986)

Academy Award Wins: Best Music (Original Song)
Inducted into the National Film Registry- 2015

Tony Scott’s second major feature film, 1986’s TOP GUN, tends to be a watershed moment for people my age. It’s endlessly quoted, parodied, and adored by guys at my reading level (almost exclusively of a certain frathouse persuasion). Even a class retreat at my high school had a TOP GUN theme, so it’s surprising to most people that I had never seen the film until only a few weeks ago.

Seeing it for the first time as a grown man, almost thirty years after it’s release, I was hard pressed to get as jazzed about it my contemporaries have been. Basically, it’s goofy as shit. It’s undeniably cheesy and dated, but it manages to capture a certain zeitgeist of 1980’s pop culture. It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience– the aerial photography is still pretty thrilling after all these years, but I was rolling my eyes during a majority of the running time.

In the context of Scott’s career, TOP GUN is the film that made him a mainstream and sought-after director. It catapulted him into the level of success that his brother Ridley was enjoying, and firmly established a style that he would utilize throughout the rest of his career. It was also his first collaboration with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two powerhouse producers whose films would come to define an era of high concept blockbusters.

Maverick. Goose. Iceman. We all know the players, and we all know the story, so I’m not going to waste time recapping the plot. Tom Cruise delivers a breakout performance as Maverick, utilizing his boyish charm and cocksure swagger to great effect.

A slim Val Kilmer is the primary antagonist of the film, but ultimately is forced to swallow his pride when a larger threat to national security looms. Tom Skerritt and Kelly McGillis are memorable in their respective roles, and even Meg Ryan shows up as Goose’s wife-turned-widow. Nothing groundbreaking here, but everyone gives their best with what they got.

Visually, TOP GUN is a striking departure from Scott’s previous feature THE HUNGER. For one, it’s shot on the Anamorphic aspect ratio, creating wider vistas and more cinematic compositions. Contrast is high and colors are super-saturated, favoring the warm orange hues of southern California. Acting as the director of photography, Jeffrey Kimball imbues the film with a glossy, epic feel while keeping the camera steady and locked-off, favoring composition and music-video edits rather than actual camera movement. The aerial dogfight photography is admittedly where TOP GUN excels– it’s gorgeous to behold, even now in our post-IMAX world. Since the cameras are mounted to the actual fighter jets, you get the feeling of being there in the action and soaring across the clouds.

Another stylistic element that became Tony Scott’s trademark is firmly established here, having previously been explored in THE HUNGER. Much of the interior action takes place in rooms that are backlit by intense, washed-out daylight screaming through the windows.

There’s almost always a framing device, like a billowing curtain or more consistently, venetian blinds. In that sense, Scott seems to be borrowing a page from the production and lighting design of his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER (1982). It’s actually pretty distracting when you notice how often it shows up in his films.

A second visual motif is Scott’s use of dramatic, magic-hour skies. He adds a lens filter to the camera to make the heavens a deep red while maintaining the normal daylight colors in the bottom half of the frame. It’s become a visual cliche by now– slow motion shots featuring men of action doing their work while backlit by a setting sun– but Scott truly owns it.

Other parts of the movie don’t age so sell. Specifically, the music. Scored by Harold Faltermeyer, it certainly exudes an unmistakable mid-80’s feel, but I just can’t get over how goofy it is. It’s just inherently silly.

Kenny Loggins’ “Highway To The Danger Zone” shows up three times, and the cheesy, crunchy guitar riffing doesn’t help any aspirations to timelessness. (Same goes with the recurring love theme, “Take My Breath Away”). It’s fun to be sure, but it definitely didn’t make me want to go hop in a fighter jet and shoot me some commies.

More than enough has been said of the blatant homoerotic undertones of the film– it’s so prominent that I suspect that it was Tony Scott’s intention all along to make the film really about the strange fetishization of masculinity the military fosters. We all know about the beach volleyball sequence, the moments of rivalry between Maverick and Iceman where their faces are so close that they could kiss, etc.

What’s more interesting to me is how it’s almost a perfect crystallization of a bygone era, or of a very specific moment of time in American history.

TOP GUN was released at the height of Ronald Reagan’s administration, and it wears that influence on its jumpsuit sleeve. The film illustrates the excess of a superpower who’s largely unequaled. They have the biggest, baddest toys that money can buy, and they fly them with wild abandon because..why not?

There’s always another one waiting in the wings! Hell, they even wear aviator sunglasses at night. Everyone in this film in convinced of their awesomeness and supremacy over everyone else. It’s an incredibly Reagan-era mindset, right down to the nameless communist country they end up fighting at the film’s climax.

Ultimately, TOP GUN is just a very, very silly film disguised as a serious blockbuster. Despite my own opinion, I can’t discredit it’s influence on pop culture and, even, modern filmmaking. It’s the film that put Tony Scott on the map and Tom Cruise in our hearts, so that has to count for something. There was even talk of a sequel in recent years, but with Tony Scott’s recent suicide, it’s uncertain how that will pan out.


KENNY LOGGINS- HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE (1986)

What would a mid-80’s blockbuster film be without an accompanying music video for its breakout soundtrack hit? We certainly wouldn’t have this little gem for Kenny Loggins’ “HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE”, would we?

This music video was crafted entirely as a marketing tool for Tony Scott’s feature film TOP GUN (1986). It’s notable in that Scott himself also directed the music video, most likely when they had some leftover film and time to kill after wrapping early on the last day.

“HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE” falls into the most tired trope of music videos for motion picture music. It alternates between footage/B-roll from the film, and a mullet-ed, dead-eyed Kenny Loggins while he mouths the lyrics and gropes at himself like a total weirdo. Oh, and hey, there’s the aviator shades they wear in the movie, too!

The only dead giveaway that this is Scott’s work is in the way that the blown-out daylight is filtering in from the venetian blinds. It strives to match the color tone and look of TOP GUN, despite being shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television.

It might have seemed cool back in the day, but it’s the heights of cheese today, so it’s really hard for me to take it seriously and judge it on artistic merit. Ultimately it just seems like an afterthought and barely represents even a blip of development in Scott’s overall career.


GEORGE MICHAEL- ONE MORE TRY (1987)

George Michael was a huge star in the late 80’s, and it only made sense that a director of equal stature should direct the music video for his single “ONE MORE TRY”. Those duties fell to the capable hands of Tony Scott, fresh off his blockbuster success with 1986’s TOP GUN.
Shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television, the look of the music video bears Scott’s unmistakeable fingerprint.

In a tone that evoke his gothic debut feature THE HUNGER, Scott films George Michael mainly in silhouette against blown-out daylight. Everything is draped in a colorless patina, with a cold, blue tone. All the furniture is covered in sheets, and the windows are dressed with billowing curtains. It’s so quintessentially Tony Scott that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little bit.

What’s most interesting about the video is the camerawork, or rather, the lack of it. Scott frames a majority of the video in a wide, static full-body shot that’s held for two minutes before cutting away to a closeup. He uses said extreme close-up of George Michael’s too-perfectly manicured beard sparingly, and is quick to cut back out to the wide shot.

This was a time when music videos as a medium were still being figured out, and what the proper format should be. The idea of “music video editing” hadn’t quite come into play, so many music videos (this one included) were content to simply be moody performance pieces. It’s a technique that serves to put more emphasis on the song and its lyrics, as well as the performer, rather than any flashy techniques.

Ultimately, it’s a very low investment in terms of Tony Scott’s involvement; it most likely was a one day shoot that pocketed Scott a few thousand bucks without having to work too hard. It’s barely a blip in terms of his personal development, but it serves as further validation of his cache within pop culture.


BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987)

Tony Scott followed TOP GUN’s (1986) mega success with a big-budget sequel to one of the biggest film franchises of the 1980’s. BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) features Eddie Murphy at the top of his game– a bittersweet sensation considering how dismal his career has become. Proving that Scott had the chops to handle a huge franchise film, the movie builds on his penchant for slick action and stylish visuals, while also delivering a heavy dose of humor throughout.

I haven’t seen any of the other BEVERLY HILLS COP films, so I had a fair amount of catch-up to play in regards to figuring out who these characters were. Murphy is the wise-cracking, fast-talking Axel Foley (a zeitgeist 80’s name if I ever heard one), who’s tendency to shoot off his mouth rather than his gun gets him into a fair amount of trouble.

Presumably, he returns to his native Detroit after whatever happens in the first film, where he is called back to LA’s sunny streets when his friends at the Beverly Hills police force run afoul of a nefarious crime syndicate.

An effective comedy relies on strong performances, and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 certainly delivers. This younger, edgier Murphy is infinitely more watchable than today’s hollow incarnation. 80’s comedy personalities Paul Reiser and Judge Reinhold presumably reprise their characters from the first film. Reinhold’s character was my personal favorite– an uptight, whitebread guy who becomes loosened up throughout the case and finally lets himself have some fun.

I got the biggest kick, however, from all the celebrity cameos throughout. Chris Rock shows up as a valet at the Playboy mansion, long before anyone knew his face or name. Hugh Hefner shows up too, looking a spry 25 years younger than what I’m personally used to seeing.

Gilbert Gottfried even shows up, using his unmistakeable screech of a voice to great effect as a smarmy lawyer. Celebrity cameos in general tend to be a cheap gimmick, but Tony Scott uses them to solid effect here and keeps our attention from flagging.

Despite it being somewhat of a broad action comedy (and a sequel warranting a look similar to its predecessor), Scott utilizes all the hallmarks of his trademark style here. Lensed in the Academy aspect ratio by TOP GUN’s Director of Photography Jeffrey Kimball, the picture is quintessentially Scott: high contrast, with saturated (yet naturalistic) colors favoring warm orange tones when in Los Angeles, and cold blue tones when in Detroit.

Lighting is also supplemented by bursts of neon and that old standby: overblown light filtering in through venetian blinds. He also retains his affectation for dramatic, orange skies. It’s a good fit for the subject matter, and the sunny climes of southern California.

Other visual tricks include mounting cameras to moving vehicles, like Foley’s sports car. It comes off as a ground-based interpretation of the epic camera-mounted shots of fighter jets in TOP GUN. The camerawork is steady and mostly stationary. Again, he relies on cuts and composition to tell the story, rather than relying on moving the camera.

Tony Scott retains the services of TOP GUN’s composer, Harold Faltermayer, who creates a synth-y electronic score that reprises the iconic BEVERLY HILLS COP theme song (admit it, you’re humming it along in your head right now).

Tony Scott also peppers the soundtrack with popular contemporary rock songs– which means that twenty five years after its release, it now just sounds incredibly dated and silly. However, the film is clearly a product of its time, so the music is congruent with all the other outdated elements.

All in all, the film is consistent with the then-burgeoning Simpson/Bruckheimer brand. It’s a mass market release that deals in the heights of 1980’s escapism- fast cars, big sunglasses, tropical locales, high-riding bikinis, and long hair. It’s notable as Tony Scott’s first overt comedy, albeit wrapped up in action that’s more along his wheelhouse.

It would be entirely disposable entertainment if not for the BEVERLY HILLS COP brand (which has no cultural cache with me personally, but certainly does for a large swath of the population). If anything, the success of BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 proved that Scott’s success withTOP GUN was no fluke– he was one of the top mainstream Hollywood directors of his time, and he was there to stay.


DAYS OF THUNDER (1990)

As Tony Scott’s first major work of the 1990’s, DAYS OF THUNDER is obviously trying to recapture past TOP GUN (1986) glory by swapping fighter jets with race cars. That said, it’s not nearly as cheesy as its predecessor, but recycles many of the same style elements and story tropes. As a result, the reheated leftovers can’t quite amount to the undeniable cultural impact of Maverick and Goose.

In the beginning of the 90’s, the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had a near-monopoly on the highest-grossing American studio films. They developed a certain gung-ho, patriotic style that utilized huge budgets to deliver super-sized thrills.

They shepherded an entire generation of action directors, from Michael Bay to Simon West– but Scott is arguably the finest director in their stable. With DAYS OF THUNDER, Scott again works with these producing powerhouses to score another box office hit.

Tony Scott re-teams with Tom Cruise, who headlines the film as Cole Trickle: a young hotshot race car driver whose supreme confidence is shaken when he’s involved in a traumatic accident on the job. The characters of Maverick and Cole are essentially the same– the key difference being the length of Cruise’s hair.

Robert Duvall is incredibly effective and believable as the blue collar, Southern-drawled farmer/car engineer who’s lured back into racing and becomes Cole’s mentor. A young Nicole Kidman is the love interest, but updated with a 90’s twist.

Keeping in tradition with Kelly McGillis’ whip smart flight instructor in TOP GUN, Kidman plays an equally whip smart doctor who is strongly resistant to Cruise’s charms.

It’s also interesting that she seems to be using her natural Aussie accent here, instead of going for the expected American one. Kidman would later go on to become Cruise’s real-life wife for a spell, as well as his on-screen one in Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).

The supporting cast is filled out with strong character actors like Randy Quaid and John C Reilly. Knowing how Quaid has somewhat spiraled out of mental health in recent years, it’s really interesting to see him here as a cleaned-up, slick shark of a businessman. I didn’t know he had that kind of range.

It being a new decade and all, Tony Scott switches up his team of collaborators behind the camera, but still achieves a look that’s consistent with his past work.

Ward Russell serves as the Director of Photography, and ably accommodates Scott’s fondness for high contrast, warm color tones, dramatic orange skies, and an epic-feeling Anarmorphic aspect ratio (not to mention that damn daylight through the blinds!).

The camerawork is low-key, choosing to stay locked-off and compositional rather than flashy for a majority of the story. The pace of editing and placement of the camera ramps up substantially, however, during the film’s racing scenes.

Mounting the camera to the cars like he did to the jets in TOP GUN, Scott ably puts the audience right there on the track and gives off a strong sense of speed.

The story is, unfortunately, almost a note-for-note rehash of TOP GUN. It’s not as strong or compelling as its predecessor, and the love story is stale and formulaic, but Scott creates a few memorable sequences.

One of my favorites was a wheelchair-bound racing scene through a hospital corridor. It goes to show the intense competitive spirit inherent in these young men and why their profession is everything to them. It’s a lighthearted moment, to be sure, but it’s also a great insight into the characters’ psyche.

DAYS OF THUNDER marks Tony Scott’s first collaboration with Hans Zimmer, who has since become one of the most sought-after composers in today’s filmmaking scene. Zimmer crafts an electronic, synth-y score that strives for the pop zeitgeist thatTOP GUN’s score achieved.

With the 80’s firmly in the past, and grunge rock planting its roots in dank Pacific Northwestern basements, the soundtrack must’ve sounded a little cheesy even back then. Today, it’s another goofy element that dates what could otherwise be a timeless film.

This was my first time seeing DAYS OF THUNDER, and perhaps it was the outdated DVD transfer, but I had a hard time connecting with it— if even for the fact that it was a rehash of a story I already didn’t connect to in TOP GUN. That being said, I can’t argue against its solid box office success and standing in 90’s pop culture. It’s another notch in Scott’s belt of bonafide action successes.

It was around this point that Tony Scott was crystallizing his “brand” as a helmer of big-budget, big-star-name action vehicles. It’s a decidedly different tack from what his brother Ridley ended up taking, but by focusing his craft on this particular frequency of the cinematic spectrum, his natural talents allow him to turn otherwise-disposable entertainment into enduring fan favorites.


REVENGE (1990)

The year 1990 saw the release of two feature films from Tony Scott. The first, DAYS OF THUNDER, was met with significant box office success, but his far stronger effort that year was REVENGE. It’s a much smaller, moodier film, but Scott still imbues it with his unique sense of style and edginess.

It’s not a great film by any means, and it certainly hasn’t earned quite the cache that his bigger movies have, but with REVENGE, Scott shows he’s at home with small thrillers as much as he is big action spectacle.

REVENGE is the story of Michael “Jay” Cochran (Kevin Costner), an ex-Navy fighter pilot who spends his first few weeks of retirement in Mexico under the hospitality of a wealthy Mexican businessman and close friend, Tiburon Mendez.

When he finds himself falling for Mendez’ beautiful wife, Miryea, he goes against his own personal convictions to begin an affair with her. Their romance meets a tragic end when Mendez discovers the affair and attacks them. Left for dead, Cochran is resolved to track down Miryea, who’s been sold into prostitution, as well as take revenge on Mendez himself.

REVENGE deals in extremely murky morals, which I found to be quite refreshing. Costner is first presented as a principle, rather vanilla guy who loves his dog and his country. He at first resists Miryea’s advances, but then quickly (and uncharacteristically) gives in to his lust.

In doing so, he betrays his good friend and Miryea’s husband, yet we’re still expected to sympathize with him. When the time comes for him to hunt Mendez down in revenge for nearly killing him, it creates conflicted feelings for the audience– why are we rooting for a guy to get revenge when he was the one who did the wrong in the first place?

This strange dynamic is tempered by an antagonist who is only lashing out because an unspeakable wrong was originally done to him. Anthony Quinn plays Mendez as a sophisticated, Mexican gentleman of wealth and loyalty.

Sure, he’s got a history of being unhinged and is seen to go a little bit too far in his business dealings (assassinating business associates and going completely apeshit on Cochran’s countryside cabin), but throughout it all he’s a man who values integrity and respect.

Those are his operating principles, and it makes him a sympathetic villain while also maintaining the sympathy of Cochran. It all reads as an inevitable collision of two runaway trains.

Madeline Stowe is effective as Miryea, Mendez’ wife and Cochran’s lover. It’s tragic to see the consequences of her actions unfold. I was only recently made aware of Stowe as an actress, previously seeing her for the first time in Michael Mann’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992).

I was definitely more impressed with her tragic performance in REVENGE. The rest of the cast is filled out with actors I don’t particularly recognize, although John Leguizamo makes a baby-faced appearance in one of his earliest film roles here.

Behind the camera, Scott re-teams with Jeffrey Kimball, who again serves as Director of Photography.

Together, they replicate Tony Scott’s trademark look: high contrast, dramatic skies, and extremely saturated colors skewed towards the orange spectrum. With REVENGE, however, Scott starts experimenting with drastic coloring– a style he would adopt fully in his later 2000’s features. He paints the Mexican landscape and searing heat in an unrelenting, aggressive orange tint.

The camera-work follows suit with his previous films– low-key and languorous (with the exception of the action sequences). Other Tony Scott fingerprints include the use of intense light streaming through curtains and venetian blinds and a fighter jet sequence that recalls the action of TOP GUN (1986).

Jack Nitzsche provides a forgettable soundtrack, but from what I remember of it, it sustained the tone of the picture without intruding on it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would. It’s a surprisingly erotic thriller that finds Scott getting down and dirty to deliver a lean, mean piece of pulp entertainment. It’s stature has grown in recent years, and is arguably better than DAYS OF THUNDER, his mainstream contribution that year. I just can’t believe they killed the dog. That’s gutsy, man.


THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991)

By the early 1990’s, Tony Scott had cemented his status as Hollywood’s premier action director. He became the brawn, as opposed to his brother Ridley’s brain. It was inevitable that, at some point, he would cross paths with another burgeoning writer/director well-versed in the genre, Shane Black (of LETHAL WEAPON fame). The combination of Scott’s affinity for high octane action, and Black’s acerbic, dark humor resulted in 1991’s THE LAST BOY SCOUT.

The film is the quintessential 90’s action movie, laced with the cynicism prevalent throughout much of that decade. As produced by Joel Silver, it carries a Bruckheimer/Simpson-lite aesthetic that was the stock-and-trade of late 80’s/early 90’s mainstream filmmaking.

Bruce Willis stars as a burnt-out detective who’s so burnt-out, he can’t even muster up the slightest sense of indignation when he catches his wife cheating. Damon Wayans, at the height of his IN LIVING COLOR fame, is a disgraced NFL player who teams up with Willis when they uncover a conspiracy involving professional sports that extends all the way to the government.

Willis doesn’t show a lot of range in his bread-and-butter action hero roles, mumbling his way through his performance and carrying a large chip on his shoulder. Wayans is grounded enough that his comedic sensibilities don’t ring as cartoonish or out of place with the tone of the piece. Despite their grizzled, devil-may-care attitudes, they clearly relish the chance to chew on writer (and Executive Producer) Shane Black’s witty dialogue.

The supporting roles provide a good amount of the comedic relief, while still letting them be taken seriously. Halle Berry shows up, years before she ever became a superstar, as Wayans’ stripper girlfriend– whose murder kicks the entire plot into gear. Also making a brief appearance is the ever-likeable Bruce McGill, on loan from Michael Mann.

This was my first time seeing THE LAST BOY SCOUT, so its outdated-ness was immediately apparent to me. Part of the problem of being a filmmaker who focuses on being trendy and stylish is that his/her work more often than not looks ridiculous twenty, even ten years on.

Compared to Tony Scott’s other pieces, however, this film stands up mostly well. Scott re-teams with DAYS OF THUNDER cinematographer Ward Russell to recreate his signature filmic look.

Shot on 35mm in the Anamorphic ratio, the film image is high in contrast and deals heavily in warm, orange tones. The presence of neon and blown-out light filtering through venetian blinds reassures us that we are in Scott’s capable hands. A thin haze of smoke seems to permeate each scene, even in the interiors– perhaps as a nod to the smog-choked environs of Los Angeles, the film’s setting.

Michael Kamen provides the score, despite the rumor that he apparently hated the film when he first saw it. The IMDB trivia section cites Kamen’s involvement as a favor to Silver and Willis. As a result, it’s pretty unremarkable and utilitarian. However, the film’s sound mix should be noted for being incredibly immersive.

The film is pure pop escapism– it’s shot as a big, loud, and brassy moviegoing experience. The action is actually entertaining and unpredictably funny, despite its brutality. For instance, the film opens up during a football game amidst heavy rain (classic Tony Scott move, by the way).

As a player runs with the ball towards the goal, he whips out a concealed gun and proceeds to coldly shoot anyone who tries to tackle him. It’s so absurd I couldn’t help but laugh, but I can’t also deny that the sheer audacity on display shocked me a little bit.

It’s the kind of sequence that could only work in the opening of a film, and not at any other point. (Disguising a gun within a hand puppet is also a standout sequence.)

I was also surprised at how morally murky the protagonists were. They had no qualms about casually murdering their opponents and leaving a messy crime scene. Some of these murders are even committed, albeit in quasi self-defense, in broad daylight with a huge number of witnesses. How did they not inflict the full wrath of the LAPD upon themselves?

It’s utterly unbelievable, but mainstream Hollywood films of the 90’s didn’t care about believability. It was about tough guys, tougher villains, and explosions. We still haven’t broken out of the cycle yet, and I don’t expect that we will anytime soon.

In terms of Tony Scott’s development, he’s working well within his wheelhouse, and doesn’t seem to be really challenging himself here. I wouldn’t say that it’s strictly a grab for a big payday, but he’s definitely treading water. THE LAST BOY SCOUT was a huge hit at the box office, so in that regards, it boosted him ever higher into the echelon of Hollywood’s most bankable directors.


TRUE ROMANCE (1993)

Tony Scott created his strongest works whenever he paired with an equally gifted screenwriter. Having found a large degree of success from his collaboration with Shane Black in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), Scott’s next project would stem from the mind of 90’s break-out wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino– arguably one of the most original, dynamic, and controversial voices in cinema to this day. The result was 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, a Generation X take on the “lovers on the lam” film done so eloquently before with Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) and Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).

TRUE ROMANCE is one of Scott’s most seminal films, and with good reason. Tarantino’s referential, witty dialogue meshes well with Scott’s aesthetic, and the cast is compelled to deliver some career-best performances.

Despite being nearly twenty years old, it hasn’t aged a day. Tony Scott foregoes a flashy, stylish look for something more subdued, subtle and timeless. It’s clear that BADLANDS is a huge influence on the film, and indeed, TRUE ROMANCE almost plays out like a grunge perversion of the same story.

TRUE ROMANCE is a simple story about a boy meeting a girl. However, it just so happens that the boy is an aimless slacker (whose internal monologue with himself takes the external form of hallucinating Elvis) and the girl is a prostitute. Clarence (Christian Slater) spends a magical night with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a woman he met in a movie theatre (because where else would a Tarantino romance start?).

When she reveals to him that she is a prostitute, he offers to free her from the grip of her slimy pimp so they can be together. To make a long story short: Clarence’s meeting with the pimp (Gary Oldman) goes horribly wrong, he kills the pimp and steals a briefcase of coke, and the lovers flee to Los Angeles with the coke’s mafioso owners in hot pursuit.

As a general observation, actors love working with Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s certainly evident here. Christian Slater, who frankly has never been better than he is in TRUE ROMANCE, is likeable and sweet, despite his scruffy appearance, cheap sunglasses, and propensity for violence.

As Alabama, Patricia Arquette is sweet and virginal, while fully aware of her sexuality. She’s a smart cookie trapped in a bimbo’s body. Together, they have incredible chemistry that singes the edges of the frame. It’s very clear that Tarantino meant for TRUE ROMANCE to be a modern update of the “lovers on the run” films he grew up with, and the characterization of these two lovers bears his umistakeable stamp.

The supporting characters are equally as strong. As Alabama’s pimp, Gary Oldman is utterly unrecognizable behind rasta dreadlocks and metal teeth. It’s a shocking performance, considering how fresh his take on Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is our collective consciousness.

Samuel L. Jackson shows up in one scene as well, biting it fairly early on. As Clarence’s cop father, Dennis Hopper is a welcome presence. He’s a straight arrow, an exhausted part of the establishment. As a blue collar, middle-aged man, his performance is a far cry from his career-making role in the rebellious EASY RIDER (1969).

It’s a brief appearance, but he brings an incredible amount of depth to his role, and accomplishes arguably the finest performance in the film.

Michael Rapaport, who never truly established mainstream success outside of television, plays Clarence’s actor friend in Los Angeles, and finds himself as the fulcrum on which the action of the second half swings.

Christopher Walken makes a one-scene cameo as the drug lord who’s cocaine has been stolen. His interrogation of Hopper is one of the most famous dialogues in film history, and he burns the screen with a menace that hasn’t been equalled in his performances since.

The future Tony Soprano– a fit and trim James Gandolfini– appears as Walken’s right-hand man who follows the lovers to Los Angeles. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore also show up as a pair of tough, wisecracking LA detectives who find themselves way in over their heads at the film’s climax. And last but not least, Brad Pitt shows up in the minor, yet incredibly memorable role of Floyd.

As Michael Rapaport’s character’s stoner roommate, the young Pitt is hilarious and incredibly believable. Having made his feature film debut in Ridley Scott’s THELMA & LOUISE only two years earlier, Pitt is able to squeeze in a career performance (making the most of minimal material) for the younger Tony Scott brother.

I had seen TRUE ROMANCE once before in college, and enjoyed it. Watching it again, and having since seen Malick’s BADLANDS, the similarities were impossible to ignore. Tarantino has built a career out of paying homage to his influences, but TRUE ROMANCE is just different enough from BADLANDS to barely escape plagiarism.

For instance, the score, composed by Hans Zimmer, sounds almost exactly like the theme for BADLANDS. It uses the same instrumentation and tempo, but the notes are inverted, as if this film were BADLANDS’ mirror opposite. The film also opens with a voiceover spoken by Arquette, which apes the manner of speaking heard in Sissy Spacek’s voiceover.

Instead of idyllic midcentury suburban images of Americana, the voiceover is played out over a contemporary, post-industrial Detroit whose buildings are rapidly crumbling from neglect and abandonment.

Despite the similar storyline, Tony Scott imbues the film with enough of his signature that it stands strongly on its own two legs. Re-teaming with cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, Scott brands the frame with his particular aesthetic: Anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, deep saturation, dramatic skies, overblown light through venetian blinds, and a color balance favoring warm orange tones (even in the cold Detroit environments).

Camerawork is similar to Tony Scott’s work of the era, with a locked-off camera limited to pans, zooms, and dollies in terms of movement.

As an LA resident, it’s fun to catch all the little easter eggs in regards to where the film is shot. For instance, the Detroit theatre where Clarence and Alabama meet is the Vista Theatre, a small arthouse cinema near my apartment in Silverlake.

The Safari Inn in Burbank serves as the seedy motel where the lovers shack up when they arrive in LA. But interestingly enough, the geography of the film insinuates that its located off of Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, not out in the Valley.

Once in a while, lightning strikes, and all the elements come together to create a truly memorable film. With incredible performances, sharp writing from a voice that became the zeitgeist of 90’s pop culture, and stylish, effective direction, TRUE ROMANCE deserves its place in Tony Scott’s canon as one of his best works.


CRIMSON TIDE (1995)

By 1995, the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer brand of movies had become firmly ensconced within the American film industry. These films were heavily patriotic, bombastic, and flashy– but more often than not, had skillfully told stories at their centers.

In 1995, Tony Scott again collaborated with these producing titans to create CRIMSON TIDE, an action film about the struggle of power in a nuclear-armed submarine. In the grand picture of Scott’s filmography, I would consider it a minor work– however, it’s an exciting, well-crafted story about male power struggles in a time of conflict.

And most notably, for our purposes here, CRIMSON TIDE marks the first movement in a major stylistic shift that would Tony Scott would adopt for the remainder of his work.

By the mid 90’s, the Cold War was history, but the lingering residue continued to fuel the entertainment industry like it had in the decades prior. CRIMSON TIDE tells the story of Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the commander of a nuclear missile submarine.

He subscribes to a simple mantra: there are three truly powerful men in the world: The US President, the President of Russia, and the Commander of a US nuclear submarine. Naturally, this is going to be a story about the struggle of power.

The opposition comes in the form of Ramsey’s new XO, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington, in the first of many collaborations with Scott). When a transmission implying the launch of Russian nuclear missiles is cut off during an attack on their submarine, Hunter and Ramsey spar over whether to initiate a missile response when there’s a reasonable doubt over the transmissions’ accuracy.

The performances in this film are full of pure testosterone. In fact, I don’t recall a single female in the entire cast. Hackman and Washington are captivating as the two leads, whose opposing ideologies (guts vs. reason, action vs. caution) provide enough fodder to pad out the film’s running time without losing our attention.

Viggo Mortenson (who would later go on to star in 1999’s G.I. JANE for Scott’s brother, Ridley) plays the officer unfortunately caught between his loyalty to his friend and to his commander. Tony Scott also utilizes TRUE ROMANCE’s James Gandolfini as Hackman’s thuggish enforcer. There’s a lot of bravado, angry barking, and swearing between these men, but the claustrophobic confines of the sub and the life-or-death stakes of their actions makes it riveting instead of grating.

I had never seen CRIMSON TIDE before, and truth be told, I would frequently confuse it with THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (they’re both submarine movies with shades of red in their titles, get off my back!). Now that my ocular organs have ingested it, I’m sure it’ll be much harder to get the two confused.

Since the film is seventeen years old, I expected it to be a little dated (especially because the Cold War hasn’t been relevant for about half of my lifetime), but I was surprised to see how well it holds up on a technical level.

Scott trades in his previous collaborations to work with a new Director of Photography, Dariusz Wolski. While the established Scott aesthetic continues here (Anamorphic aspect ratios, high contrast, dramatic skies, warm orange tones in exterior shots), Wolski seems to encourage Tony Scott to refresh certain components of his style.

As a result, this is the first film in Scott’s canon where the tone of his late-career work would come into play. Wolski subdues orange colors, favoring the clinical blues, greens, and even reds of the claustrophobic submarine setting.

Wolski even uses dramatic color blocking to light scenes, where one half of an actor’s face might be lit entirely in red, while the other side is lit entirely blue It’s a more diverse, slightly colder color palette that suits the machinery of the military/industrial complex.

Scott even starts mixing up his tried-and-true camerawork. While keeping true to his preferences for a locked-down, stable camera and wide compositions, he plays around with the film’s unique setting. With CRIMSON TIDE, he begins to introduce handheld camera shots, lens flares, dynamic close-up shots, canted angles, etc.

All of it gels together in a quick, punchy editing style influenced by music video cutting (most noticeably in the opening credits, which is a quick compilation of news footage bringing us up to speed on the state of current affairs).

Being a Simpson/Bruckheimer production, Hans Zimmer naturally provides his services on the score. It’s a loud, brassy score, but iconic and memorable. I had heard the theme years before just by virtue of being a Zimmer fan, but it works incredibly well in the context of the film. My only complaint is that it supports the tone a little too well, as it tends to cross over into the realm of propaganda from time to time.

One of the cool things about ingesting a director’s entire work in chronological order is that I’ve begun to notice small referential things, like little in-jokes. For instance, Hackman’s character carries around a Jack Russel terrier throughout the film, which just so happens to be brother Ridley’s favorite dog breed.

The man is as enthusiastic about them as I am with pugs. Scott also references his debut film THE HUNGER (1983) by playing the classical music from that film in Captain Ramsey’s quarters. Ramsey even dons a red baseball cap similar to the weathered-pink one that Tony Scott infamously sported throughout his career.

Ultimately, CRIMSON TIDE is a compelling post-Cold War film that turns the focus of the conflict inward. No one is truly a bad guy– each is acting in what he perceives to be the best interests of the United States. The story stresses the need for pause and double-checking oneself, even in the most stressful and dire of circumstances.

It’s all reverential and highly ceremonial, much like the military itself, but the performances make the whole thing come alive. While it’s not a wholly unforgettable film, CRIMSON TIDE’s value in cinematic history is only diluted by the strength of other Scott works likeTRUE ROMANCE and MAN ON FIRE.


THE FAN (1996)

By the mid-90’s, Tony Scott had firmly established himself in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most bankable action directors. His 1996 effort, THE FAN, continues his streak of high concept, big budget action films with compelling stories at their centers.

Stories about psychotic stalkers and their celebrity obsessions abound in pop culture, and while THE FAN has mostly been forgotten in the years since its release, it holds up quite well as an effective thriller. Robert DeNiro stars as Gil Renard, a San Francisco Giants super fan whose preoccupations with all-star Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) spiral downwards into psychosis.

This was my first time seeing THE FAN, and I was struck at how tempered Tony Scott’s depiction of DeNiro’s madman initially was. We see his complete transformation, from schlubby knife salesman who can’t even be a good father without screwing up (despite his best efforts), to completely unhinged psychopath holding Rayburn’s son as a hostage.

DeNiro does a fantastic job of generating a fair amount of sympathy for his character early on. He’s just a regular guy that loves his Giants and his kid– sometimes these two loves butt heads up against each other, but who hasn’t been there, right? He’s disorganized and is treated horribly by his boss. For much of the film, we’re rooting with him to overcome these difficulties. It’s a nuanced, intricate performance where the shift to total psycho is a gradual, believable one.

Wesley Snipes also turns in arguably one of his career-best performances here as new Giants teammate and MVP Bobby Rayburn. He’s fast-talking and cocky, like other African-American protagonists in previous Tony Scott films (Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans come to mind), but when he must assume the moral high ground in the second half, he compellingly delivers the desperation of a man whose son is in mortal danger.

The supporting characters are comprised of notable faces. John Leguizamo, in his second appearance in a Tony Scott film (and his first English-speaking role in one), plays Rayburn’s manager as an energetic, street-wise businessman.

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Benicio Del Toro shows up, albeit with ridiculously ugly red hair, as a rival Giants player who’s stolen Rayburn’s lucky number. It’s a small but pivotal role, as he is the catalyst in Renard taking his first steps into madness. A pre-fame Jack Black even shows up in one scene towards the beginning, as a radio show employee.

Right off the bat (…pun intended?) it’s apparent that Tony Scott is trying to emulate the tone of a Martin Scorsese film, albeit while keeping his traditional aesthetic intact. He collaborates once again with Dariusz Wolski to create an image that’s high in contrast, deeply saturated, and favors warm orange tones during exteriors and cold greenish hues under fluorescent lights. Skies are dramatic, and overblown light through venetian blinds abound.

However, everything else points to a heavy Scorsese influence: the introduction of handheld camerawork, punchy editing and breakneck pacing in the vein of a music video, experimental cuts (like a deep red tint dominating the image during Benicio’s murder), and the strategic use of slow-motion.

Even the casting of DeNiro is a dead give-away to Tony Scott’s intentions. While initially coming off as an emulation however, it’s important to note that it’s leading Scott to further cement a new directorial aesthetic– one which would become inarguably his own.

The Scorsese-fest continues in the music arena. While Tony Scott retains the services of Hans Zimmer for a traditional score, he also peppers the film with an eclectic (if maybe misguided) mix of pop and rock songs.

He leans heavily on The Rolling Stones to establish a certain tone, but falters in his choices of tracks. Namely, he simply copies the Scorsese catalog of their greatest hits (and the ones most over-used in films): “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter”. While it’s unoriginal, it fits the aesthetic of baseball as a sport in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Scott also uses a curious mix of Carlos Santana and Nine Inch Nails songs, the latter of which are meant to convey the inner psychosis of Renard. Although, it gets a little Jerry Sandusky when Trent Reznor’s lyrics “I wanna fuck you” can be heard over and over while DeNiro holds Snipes’ son hostage. While the soundtrack is probably an accurate reflection of what was popular sixteen years ago, it is the only element that really dates the film.

Having just seen The Giants play at Dodger Stadium a few days prior to watching THE FAN, it was really interesting to see how passionate their fans truly are, even a decade and a half later.

I witnessed the zeal and bravery with which the small number of Giants fans cheered their team on, amidst the veritable sea of Dodger lovers– so DeNiro’s leap into psychotic obsession wasn’t too big of one to believe.

It’s a very interesting backdrop for a film that plays with the inherent obsessiveness of being a diehard baseball fan, while daring to cross the line into dark territory. THE FAN is a moody, stylish thriller that perhaps has been unjustly forgotten by time, but holds a special place in the hearts of its dedicated super-fans.


THE HUNGER: “SWORDS” (1997)

In the mid-90’s, for reasons completely unknown, Showtime created a television anthology series loosely adapted from Tony Scott’s debut feature, THE HUNGER (1983). It lasted for two seasons, and as far as I’m aware, didn’t make much of a splash in pop culture.

While undoubtedly serving as one of the guiding hands behind the whole production, Tony Scott himself only directed two episodes. “THE SWORDS” (1997) was the pilot episode, and effectively captures the tone and spirit of Scott’s feature, while introducing an entirely new setting and cast of characters.

After the heavily experimental, slightly schizo opening credits (most likely influenced by the opening titles for David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995), Terence Stamp appears as a sort of Master of Ceremonies. Wearing Scott’s famed pink baseball cap and strutting around a baroque mansion, he briefly sets up the story and bows out. It’s not unlike the opening segments to similar horror anthologies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

The story of “THE SWORDS” concerns a young American man who comes to London to study acting. Along the way, he becomes involved with the denizens of an underground punk club, who introduce him to a supernatural stage show called “The Swords”. During the show, a beautiful young woman has her abdomen impaled by a sword, only for her to be completely unharmed when it’s withdrawn.

The young man becomes obsessed with the show, and with the girl. They begin a passionate affair, whereby the woman is impaled by a decidedly different kind of sword. It all ends tragically when the trance of love trumps the trance that allows her to survive her nightly impalement.

I have to applaud the producers and Tony Scott for creating a show based off a vampire movie, and having the gall to not make the pilot episode about vampires. It sets up the notion that the grounded mysticism in the original feature will remain intact, but a multitude of other supernatural stories will be explored. Scott recreates the tone of THE HUNGER with the same kind mix of baroque London settings, classical music, and underground punk clubs.

Director of Photography John Mathieson frames the action in a television-ready 4:3 aspect ratio. The image is classical Scott: high contrast, deep saturation, blinding light through curtains and venetian blinds, and moments of extreme color manipulation (mostly in the hosting segments with Terence Stamp).

Colors veer towards the warm side of the spectrum, only to switch to a cold, almost inhospitable blue in exterior scenes. The camera stays locked-off, and mostly limits its movement to pans and zooms. Tony Scott also shows draws on some experimental, playful techniques, seen here in the form of canted angles and spinning the camera in a corkscrew fashion.

Besides the inclusion of his trademark pink baseball cap, Tony Scott throws in a couple of other nods to his career. For instance, Hans Zimmer’s theme for TRUE ROMANCE (1993) shows up when the young man and the showgirl first begin their affair.

On a completely unrelated note, there’s also just a lot of general weird British-ness on full display. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.

“THE SWORDS” finds Scott returning to the medium of television, as well as to his roots as a director. It’s a small-scale story that he tells effectively within it’s half-hour running time. He doesn’t let the boundaries of a smaller screen constrain his imagination, and as a result, he undergoes a creative refreshing that will propel him onward as the millennium comes to a close.


ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)

After a brief stint in television, Tony Scott returned to features and his longtime producing team, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Their collaboration resulted in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998), a frenetic thriller that capitalized on an increasing public paranoia over government surveillance capabilities in the internet age.

While dealing with its potent themes in a typically ham-handed fashion, the film has proved over time to be eerily prescient on the government’s tendency to abuse this significant power.

I remember seeing the trailer for ENEMY OF THE STATE when it was released, but mainly because at twelve years old, I was becoming cognizant of movies as a business as well as an art form. I had only started making films myself a year earlier, and as such was beginning to pay attention to films as something more than just entertainment. However, since it was rated R, there was no way in hell I was going to see it anytime soon. As it turned out, my first viewing ENEMY OF THE STATE was only a few days ago, nearly fifteen years after its release.

The film concerns Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a DC labor lawyer who finds himself on the run from the NSA when he comes into possession of a videotape recording the murder of a prominent statesman.

Initially clueless as to why he’s the target of the secretive organization, his attempts to find the truth make him more aware of the extent of their surveillance operations. It’s a high-concept, big budget idea that’s perfectly suited to Tony Scott’s sensibilities. Furthermore, ENEMY OF THE STATE is the first film that embodies Scott’s post-90’s aesthetic– one that deals in extreme color manipulation, frenetic camerawork and rapid-fire pacing.

The performances in the film, while not terribly memorable, are solid enough to hold their own against Scott’s aggressive direction. ENEMY OF THE STATE was released as Will Smith was becoming a major film star, but he wisely plays down his comedic roots for a more grounded and subdued performance.

While it’s not as accomplished as some of his later, more serious work (such as Michael Mann’s ALI (2001)), it’s a great example of his capability to believably achieve that range. Jon Voight plays the NSA executive who carries out the central murder, and who then must cover up his tracks as the truth leaks out.

He’s cold, relentless and methodical– believable both as someone who would be trusted to head the most secretive surveillance agency in the world, and as the main antagonist.

The supporting cast is made up of familiar faces, who were still breaking through at the time of its release. Barry Pepper plays Voight’s right-hand man with a palpable degree of menace and competency.

Tom Sizemore makes his second appearance in a Tony Scott film, showing up here as a thuggish business owner (and not some gruff war junkie like he’s known for). Scott Caan is memorable only for the fact that he’s made a name for himself recently on ENTOURAGE and HAWAII-FIVE-O. The film also has some fun with the hacker subculture, personified here by Seth Green and Jamie Kennedy working in full-on geek mode.

Jason Lee plays a small, yet central role as a documentarian who inadvertently discovers that his footage of duck migration patterns has also captured a murder. Since his big moment is a large chase sequence, the role has some pretty large physical demands. Thankfully, as a professional skateboarder, Lee is more than capable.

(I also found it pretty funny that he has a University of Oregon mug in his apartment). Other players include Jack Black, appearing in a much larger capacity than he did in Tony Scott’s THE FAN (1996), as well as small cameos by Phillip Baker Hall and Gabriel Byrne.

And last, but not least, Gene Hackman plays a large role as the reluctant mentor to Smith when he’s in over his head. I found his inclusion to be inspired casting, not only because of his successful collaboration with Tony Scott in CRIMSON TIDE (1995), but also because its nod to his infamous performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974) as a man besieged by surveillance paranoia.

With ENEMY OF THE STATE, Scott makes a huge break from many of his key technical collaborators. Newcomer Dan Mindel serves as the Director of Photography, enabling Scott to crystallize a new visual style that he would bring to the remainder of his work. Shooting on an Anamorphic aspect ratio, the image is high in contrast, with saturated colors and warm tones despite the wintery DC setting.

Dramatic skies abound, as do his signature “light-through-the-blinds” shots. Camera-work is mostly steady and locked-down, favoring composition rather than movement. However, when the action kicks in, Scott has no qualms about going completely handheld and frenetic.

Establishing shots gets an epic punch, usually shot from a helicopter circling its subject. Tony Scott also designs many shots from an overhead perspective to mimic the surveillance themes of the story.

Tony Scott also foregoes another collaboration with Hans Zimmer, choosing instead to work this time around with Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams. It’s an electronic, string-heavy score that’s fairly typical of its time and of it subject matter. Nothing too memorable.

As time has gone on, it’s fairly easy to poke fun at the film’s heavy-handed approach to government surveillance. It’s presented as an omniscient eye on every little activity, and even then it’s clear the technology was made up by the writers (a fairly dubious 3-D rotating program for surveillance cameras comes to mind).

A recurring shot features a fairly shoddy CGI satellite whipping around the world and feeding information to the NSA. Even the opening credits are built around surveillance footage, much like his brother Ridley would do a few years later in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001). However, in the fifteen years since its release, the Patriot Act and its fallout have certainly lent the film the proper justification for its paranoid atmosphere.

Even though it’s made with a palpable pre-9/11 innocence in regards to surveillance and terrorism, it’s eerily prescient today. (Also, am I the only one that noticed that Voight’s character is shown to have his birthday on September 11th, an eerie coincidence given what would happen on that day three years later?)

Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to chalk ENEMY OF THE STATE up to typical, blockbuster/Bruckheimer silliness. Sure, there are moments of blatant studio ham-handedness (there’s definitely a scene where downtown LA tries to pass for Maryland. The use of the reflective 2nd Street Tunnel isn’t fooling anybody).

But its prescience can’t be denied, even if it is just popcorn entertainment intended for mass consumption. In Scott’s canon, ENEMY OF THE STATE is an important work, mainly because its his first, full embrace of a new directorial style that would have an overwhelming effect on his legacy.


THE HUNGER- SANCTUARY (1999)

In 1999, Showtime greenlit another season of Tony Scott’s television adaptation of his own film, THE HUNGER (1983). Tony Scott returned to direct “SANCTUARY”, the second season’s first episode, and takes full advantage of the new resources bestowed on the production from the success of the first season.

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched any other episodes of this series besides the ones that Scott has directed, but with SANCTUARY, it seems Scott radically tinkers with the show’s format. He dispenses with Terence Stamp as the de facto Master of Ceremonies, choosing instead to place the original film’s star, David Bowie, in the spotlight.

What’s interesting though, is that Bowie seems to have been worked into the narrative itself– not just as a host, but as a main character. He plays a long-haired, eccentric artist-turned recluse who nurses the wounds from a recent scandal within the stone walls of his converted prison estate.

Giovanni Ribisi appears as the story’s other main character– a young man seeking the guidance and mentorship of Bowie’s artist. However, he’s nursing a gunshot wound and harboring secrets of his own. Overall, the performances are remarkably strong, making the most of admittedly pulpy genre material.

Bernard Couture serves as the Director of Photography in his first collaboration with Scott. He frames the action in the television-standard 4:3 aspect ratio, while mainly keeping in line with Tony Scott’s signature aesthetic: high contrast, even colors that favor the blue/green end of the spectrum, light through curtains, etc. The camerawork is much more frenetic, keeping pace with Scott’s evolving techniques.

He makes use of wild pans, trucks zooms, spins, time-ramps, etc. When he doesn’t cover the action in a standard medium-to-wide shots, he cuts in for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc… all of which lend an air of mystery to the piece. The second season no doubt received a much bigger budget than the first, and it’s on full display here with the camera trickery and production design.

Scott’s adoption of music-video editing techniques continues, beginning with the same SE7EN-inspired opening credits as the first season. He also builds on ENEMY OF THE STATE’s (1998) surveillance imagery, and introduces a new signature technique: abruptly freeze-framing the action with a timestamp, effectively turning it into a black and white snapshot.

It’s an incredibly literal way to depict the time-honored cinematic notion of “the ticking clock”, but it works well enough within his style.

Scott re-teams with Harry Gregson-Williams for a hard rock-inspired musical score that’s appropriate enough for the setting. It’s fairly generic and unremarkable, but it’s effective in capturing the tone and sustaining our interest.

SANCTUARY paints a disturbing portrait of a psychotic artist’s downfall. Bowie’s character desperately wants to create a work of lasting art that will bestow upon him immortality– but the price he has to pay will be higher than he ever imagined.

With its macabre twist ending, it’s easy to see why this story would be included in an anthology series like “THE HUNGER”. The imagery is provocative, gory, and oftentimes over-the-top (a naked woman on a crucifix comes to mind).

There’s plenty of nods to the original film as well, with a flashback to a nightclub-esque art show that recalls the punk stylings of the original film, as well as the overtly homosexual imagery (Ribisi is seen performing oral sex on a man). There’s even references to Tony Scott’s other work, such as mentions of Elvis that bring to mind Christian Slater’s preoccupation with him in TRUE ROMANCE (1993).

With SANCTUARY, Scott finds ample opportunity to experiment with the limits of his newfound aesthetic. It’s a far, far cry from his early works like LOVING MEMORY (1971), but the development of Scott’s unique style is palpable and easily traced.

By this point in his career, Tony Scott was already 55 years old, but his work has the energy and attention-span of a man half his age. This flashy style would serve him well in his upcoming commercial ventures, as well as allow him to carve out a comfortable little niche of his own within the action genre.


BARCLAYS BANK- BIG (2000)

As the world turned the corner into the new millennium, Tony Scott found himself in-between feature films. During the year 2000, he directed (to my knowledge) three commercials:

The first spot, from banking giant Barclays, finds Tony Scott directing Anthony Hopkins as a satirical, exaggerated version of himself. In a spot appropriate for a large banking conglomerate, the theme of the spot is “Big”. Hopkins addresses the camera directly, expounding upon his affinity for all things “big”. He’s seen in his opulent mansion, then as he’s driven in a luxury towncar down the tony streets of Beverly Hills.

Knowing what’s happened to the global economy as a direct result of Big Banking’s actions in the last five years, this spot would be incredibly tone-deaf if it were to come out today. It’s laughable now to buy into the idea that huge banking conglomerates are actually good for us.
But I digress.

Getting back to the craft elements of the spot, Scott frames for the 4:3 television-standard aspect ratio. He imbues the image with a more conservative aesthetic that’s still recognizably his: high contrast, with its desaturated colors tint-ing slightly towards the cold green end of the spectrum. His camerawork is steady and locked-down, save for a few strategic dolly shots.

A pulsing, cinematic score gives the spot a softly-buzzing energy that supports the tone. Stylistically speaking, it’s an effective and well-constructed ad. Too bad it’s an ad promoting an organization run by a bunch of assholes.


TELECOM ITALIA: “BRANDO”

For some reason, this video doesn’t exist in in English on Youtube, so you can view a Quicktime encode of the spot here.

In 2000, Telecom Italia created a campaign promoting its services via the appearance of a small armada of Hollywood heavyweights. Tony Scott directed two of these spots, the first of which was “BRANDO”.

In the spot, Marlon Brando (in what’s probably one of his last filmed appearances ever) sits on top of a huge canyon, ruminating on how quickly technology has upended the world he’s lived in for so long, and how it might be of benefit to his legacy.

The spot allows for Scott to essentially go crazy with his signature style. The footage is edited heavily, almost within inches of its life. We cut from sweeping helicopter-bound vista shots to extreme close-ups of Brando’s craggy, weathered face within milliseconds of each other.

The image is super saturated in an almost duo-tone fashion, with shadows running unnaturally blue. There’s also black and white flash frames accompanied by text that punctuates Brando’s dialogue. Exposure slides up and down with reckless abandon, as if it were a strobe light. Part of me thinks that even Brando himself couldn’t have stomached this rambling, incoherent mess.

It’s more of a brand awareness spot than actively advertising a service or product. It’s an instance of Tony Scott’s enthusiasm for style trumping the substance. Personally, I think it does a great disservice to a figure that’s as towering as Brando. Scott should’ve toned down his bombastic style and let Brando’s words speak for themselves.


TELECOM ITALIA: “WOODY ALLEN”

Tony Scott’s other ad for Telecom Italia starred Woody Allen doing what he does best: paranoid rants. Thankfully, Scott’s style is incredibly restrained here. He chooses to ape the style of his subject, taking full advantage of Allen’s mannerisms to create a quirky, wonderful spot.

With WOODY ALLEN, Scott eschews his personal style and goes for an even-colored, low-contrast visual palette. He shoots from overhead and street-level, making effective use of zooms and tracking shots.

The framing is reserved, showing Allen in full for most of the spot. The quick cutting is the only element that tips us off to Scott’s involvement.

Unlike BRANDO, this is a fantastic ad that melds the subject and message together quite well. It’s a comedic take on the potential neuroses that stem from an expanded life expectancy that only a man like Allen can deliver. The light-hearted,SEINFELD-esque music over the visuals is the icing on the cake.


SPY GAME (2001)

SPY GAME (2001) was director Tony Scott’s first feature film of the twenty-first century, but its focus is very much on the American Century that preceded it (and how it continues to shape the world stage today). It’s one of Scott’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.

I’m unsure of how my original DVD copy of SPY GAME came into my possession. One day, it just appeared on the bookshelf nestled in between the others.

I was at the age where I began voraciously consuming films, not just for entertainment, but to study the craft I aimed to pursue as a career (a decision I had made only a few years prior). As such, SPY GAME became the first Tony Scott film I ever watched, right around the time I became aware of his brother, Ridley.

SPY GAME plays like an intense romp through the various theatres of the Cold War, from the perspective of two CIA agents. The action is framed by a story set in the present-day, and almost entirely within the labyrinthine confines of CIA headquarters.

It’s Nathan Muir’s (Robert Redford) last day on the job before his retirement, and he’s been called into a meeting with CIA bureaucrats to divulge his knowledge on the exploits of his old apprentice, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who’s been captured during a failed rescue mission at a Chinese prison.

Muir recounts his relationship with Bishop, from their meeting in Vietnam to their collaboration and subsequent conflict in mid-80’s Beirut. All the while, he clandestinely uses CIA resources at his disposal to plan a raid that will rescue Bishop.

It’s an incredibly intricate and involving story that allows Tony Scott to work at his highest level as a director. The extended flashbacks to Vietnam, West Germany, and Beirut aren’t just a way to visualize Muir’s stories on-screen, they inform the present-day narrative and give a justified context to his actions.

We see Muir utilize the tricks he’s accumulated over his entire career, almost like a student taking a final on the last day of school. It’s a subtle, interesting way to frame a story that spans decades.

The performances are incredibly strong, especially from the two leads. This was the first time I had ever seen a performance by Redford, and it informs all subsequent viewings of his work for me. He’s stoic, paternal and incredibly sly. It’s easy to see why Pitt’s Bishop is so successful under his mentorship.

Muir’s friendly, affable demeanor is disarming– and he knows exactly how to use that to his advantage. By contrast, Pitt is young, brash, and hotheaded. The character as written has a tendency to veer into cliche, but Pitt gives a captivating performance that makes the character come alive. It’s funny that the two men almost resemble each other in appearance, but it does go a long way in establishing a completely believable friendship.

SPY GAME is arguably the best fusion of story, subject matter, and Scott’s personal style. Scott keeps his aesthetic restrained just enough so it’s not distracting, but allows for a unique punch to the pacing and visuals.

He re-teams with ENEMY OF THE STATE’s cinematographer Dan Mindel, who imbues the Anamorphic frame with deep contrast and stylized colors. Due to the globetrotting nature of the film, Tony Scott gives the images a different color palette depending on the location and time period.

Vietnam is extremely high in contrast, incredibly grainy, slightly overexposed and heavily saturated with a golden tint that borders on duo-tone. Scenes that take place in West Germany are more blue and desaturated (while Hong Kong/China is shown to be blue and heavily saturated).

Beirut has saturated, even colors with a slight overexposure. And finally, the present-day sequences set in DC are evenly-colored and saturated for a pseudo-neutral look.

Other elements that make up Scott’s style present themselves aggressively throughout the story. There’s the always-reliable “overblown light through curtains” trope, timestamped black-and-white freeze frames, time-ramped establishing shots filmed from a helicopter, as well as a constantly moving, restless camera, among others.

Tony Scott’s preoccupation with surveillance imagery is ripe for exploitation in a story about the CIA, and he finds ample opportunity to include mixed media and found surveillance footage.

Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the film’s score, which actually results in a surprisingly memorable set of tracks. Gregson-Williams infuses the picture with a crunchy, technopop theme composed of pulsing electronic elements and soaring, cinematic strings. There’s also the presence of a haunting male vocalist during the Beirut sequences that works incredibly well.

I’m such a fan of the score that I’ve used bits and pieces of SPY GAME’s score as temporary backing tracks to some of my own early works (which we will never, ever discuss). Frankly, I think it’s some of Gregson-Williams’ best work, and elevates the film itself to an entirely new level.

It’s easy to see why Tony Scott decided to direct SPY GAME. The themes are potent for exploration, nevermind the fact that they are well within his wheelhouse. It’s funny to see the paranoia within the CIA, and how information is kept from one’s allies– not just one’s enemies. In the world of SPY GAME, knowledge is a commodity more precious than gold, and Muir knows it well.

His ability to stay one-step ahead of his superiors is what allows him to orchestrate a full-scale military operation under their noses. SPY GAME is an effective survey of the Cold War, a thrilling meditation on information as currency and power, but ultimately, it’s a riveting film about a “father” risking everything to rescue his “son” from certain death.

When he’s working with good, original material, Scott shines brighter than any other director in his league. SPY GAME, an extremely underrated gem of a film, is a testament to that fact. There’s a reason that, even after watching the majority of his output, this film is still my favorite of his.

It may not be his greatest work in the eyes of the public, but it deserves to be seen, and it rests comfortably in that little nostalgic corner of my memory. In the twelve years since I’ve seen it, it’s only gotten better with age.


THE HIRE: “BEAT THE DEVIL” (2002)

In 2002, the world of branded content was still in its infancy. Advertisers were well aware of the power of the internet, but they didn’t quite know how to harness it. While today’s branded content is more stealthy and subtle, advertisers in the early 2000’s essentially created longer-form versions of traditional commercials.

BMW was just such a company, creating a campaign comprised of a series of action-oriented short films, with the intent to show off their cars in a bombastic cinematic fashion. Naturally, Tony Scott became involved, and their collaboration resulted in “BEAT THE DEVIL”, one segment in the viral video series “THE HIRE”.

In wanting to create a big frame for a small canvas, BMW certainly didn’t skip on the details. Clive Owen stars as a driver of little words, whose character recurs throughout the various segments. BEAT THE DEVIL also stars the legendary James Brown (appearing as a highly fictionalized version of himself), who sold his soul to the Devil years ago for success and wants to strike up a new deal.

Owen’s driver transports Brown to a meeting with the Devil, who turns out to be an effeminate cross-dresser (Gary Oldman), and their meeting culminates in a drag race that will settle who gets to keep Brown’s soul once and for all.

This is an incredibly strange short film. While appropriate for a commercial, Tony Scott’s heavy stylization and overcooking of the visuals doesn’t mesh with the short film format. The result is a jumbled, incoherent mess of a narrative.

Truth be told, I only know the synopsis because I had to look it up on IMDB. With his Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott seems to be using the format to test the limits of his aesthetic. The image has an extreme amount of contrast and saturation, as if it’s been left to cook in the desert sun for a hundred years.

There’s a heavy orange tint to the colors, and Tony Scott oftentimes rolls the exposure up and down, superimposing shots on top of each other and burning them together. He continues his affinity for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc., as well as the time-stamp over the black-and-white freezeframe. Camerawork is all the over place, veering from locked-off, steady shots to canted angles and rack zooms.

Scott also introduces a few new visual elements to his style, as well. He incorporates flares of light into the shot, as if light leaked into the camera during shooting and burned the film. He also incorporates sound design at an overly-dynamic level, creating sound effects for every camera movement and running the dialogue and sound effects through heavy sonic filtering.

He also starts adding English subtitles on top of the visuals as a way to punctuate the dialogue and highlight important words and phrases.

There’s some interesting performances here, not all of it good. Clive Owen isn’t given much to do as the lead character. He gets to drive the BMW and make it look good, sure, but he’s more of a periphery character in the narrative.

James Brown is a better actor than I imagined him to be, and his arc is a nice nod to his roots. However, he mumbles so hard that its often difficult to understand what he’s saying. Gary Oldman is by far the best performance, channeling his psycho pimp character in TRUE ROMANCE (1993) and going full-glam for his role as the effete Devil.

He’s nearly unrecognizable, and bursts at the seams with energy. It’s incredibly foreign, coming from the recent memory of his performance as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.

Danny Trejo also appears as the Devil’s bodyguard. And in perhaps the most surprising twist, Marilyn Manson shows up in a brief, bizarre cameo that has him earnestly reading the Bible. Weird stuff.

BMW obviously hired Tony Scott because they wanted him to bring his signature style to their project, but the end result is way too hyperactive for its own good. It’s full of interesting imagery, but narratively, it’s pure chaos.

In regards to Scott’s development, it’s clear by this point that he has no intention of abandoning his newfound style– and that he plans to keep building on to it until the whole thing collapses under its own weight.


US ARMY: SPECIAL FORCES ICE SOLDIER (2002)

As he prepared for his next feature film, MAN OF FIRE (2004), Tony Scott embarked on (to my knowledge) two commercials that would allow him to further develop his style.

Putting Scott and the US Army together for a spot is a no-brainer. Who better than one of our most accomplished action directors to craft a spot about our real-life heroes?

The content is fairly typical for an army recruiting commercial– epic backdrops, helicopters, camouflaged soldiers with impressive weapons and gadgetry, etc. Basically it looks like the coolest session of CALL OF DUTY you could ever play.

Visually, Scott’s style is a good mesh with the Army’s own aesthetic. The extreme contrast and warm color tones complement the gritty action. The handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing reinforce the urgency of armed combat. Tony Scott even finds ample opportunity to indulge in his affinity for surveillance imagery.

The whole thing is wrapped up in a slightly cheesy rock score that’s reminiscent of Scott’s TOP GUN (1986). All in all, a fairly effective, if not entirely memorable, ad.


MARLBORO: “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” (2003)

An embeddable version of this spot doesn’t appear to be available, so you can view it here.
In 2003, Marlboro contracted Tony Scott to dip his English toe into the world of American cowboys. Channeling his work on Telecom Italia’s “BRANDO” spot, Scott creates a veritable storm of images that are anything but the typical idea of cowboys out on the hot desert range.

The visuals oscillate wildly in color temperature, running the gamut to cold, warm, and completely desaturated. Contrast is extremely high, creating a stark, dreary look. The skies roil with ominous clouds, threatening the cowboys’ way of life.

Tony Scott also continues to experiment with the visual notion of a “light leak”– letting bands of overexposed film smear the image. He dials the exposure up and down rapidly, as if it were some rodeo strobe light show. Composition shifts between close-range and afar so jarringly that it’s oftentimes hard to tell what you’re looking at.

Ultimately, the experimental techniques Tony Scott uses result in another incomprehensible mess of a spot. It quite simply doesn’t convey its message, and whatever message we can glean comes out jumbled and fragmented. The fact that the audio is squeezed through several heavy sonic filters doesn’t help the clarity very much.

Much like the “BRANDO” spot, “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” contains several visually arresting images, but it smacks of overindulgence on Scott’s part. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that he was using the commercial medium to push the boundaries of style and aesthetics, but I strongly feel that it’s an extreme mismatch with Marlboro, a brand that is well-known for its stoic and conservative ads.


MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE (2004) is often mentioned in the same breath as some of his strongest films. To be sure, it’s certainly a polarizing film given its subject matter and Scott’s hyper-aggressive aesthetic. I tend to agree with those in the favorable camp, in that Scott backs up his flashy visuals with a real emotional connection between its two leads that lies at the center of the story.

MAN ON FIRE tackles a subject and a world that is unfamiliar to most Americans. In present-day Mexico City, wealthy citizens are faced with the sober reality of having to hire bodyguards for their children due to the regularity with which they are kidnapped and held for ransom by thieves looking to make a nice, easy payday.

Enter Creasy (Denzel Washington), an alcholic, schlubby ex-serviceman who is hired to provide protection for Pita ( Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of wealthy expat parents. Over time, Pita’s charm causes Creasy to let his guard down and, subsequently, the two become close friends.

When Pita is inevitably kidnapped and presumed killed in a handoff gone awry, Creasy bypasses the incompetent, possibly corrupt police to find her captors. However, his attempts at finding out the truth uncovers a wider conspiracy with shocking revelations and tragic consequences.

Like SPY GAME (2001) before it, there’s something about Tony Scott’s direction that just fits. Mexico City is a seedy, dangerous place, and Scott goes to great lengths to capture the ugliness of its underbelly. It also doesn’t hurt that many members of the cast turn in strong performances.

Like his turn in Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001) or Spike Lee’s MALCOM X(1992), Washington turns in a damaged, career-highlight performance as the burnt-out Creasy. It’s a difficult role that requires the audience to sympathize with him as the protagonist, even when he’s brutally torturing Pita’s captors.

Fanning’s Pita is equally important to the success of the film, and a poor performance could derail the entire story.

Thankfully, Fanning is more than capable– pulling off an astoundingly nuanced, believable performance beyond her years. Her love for Creasy feels palpable and realistic, and we can’t help but fall in love with her too.

Fanning ably avoids all the traps of child acting (overacting, mugging, being annoying, etc.), and delivers a subtle performance that deals in gestures and the light in her eyes, rather than her words. Tony Scott takes his time in developing her relationship with Creasy, so when the abduction finally comes, an hour into the film, it’s positively heart-wrenching.

The supporting cast is also effective, filled out by recognizable character actors. Christopher Walken, in his first appearance in a Scott film since 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, plays Rayburn, an American expat living in Mexico City and Creasy’s closest friend. By 2004, Walken was in the throes of his “kooky/possibly insane old man” image in pop culture- but here, he delivers a nuanced, toned-down performance that perfectly fits our idea of someone who would leave the country and go live in Mexico City.

His sunken eyes are an asset, suggesting a haunted past that he’s trying to escape from. Mickey Rourke, who was also enjoying a career renaissance at the time, plays the wealthy family’s trusted lawyer, Jordan. It’s a reserved performance that sees Rourke with short, cropped hair and impeccably tailored suits, in stark contrast to his wild, rock-and-roll persona in reality.

The character of Jordan is a snake in the grass, who might know more about Pita’s disappearance than he lets on, and Rourke portrays that duplicity with his trademark flair.

Rounding out the cast is an effective, if not entirely memorable Marc Anthony as Pita’s successful, slightly effete father, Radha Mitchell as the mother who finds the limits of her compassion tested, and CASINO ROYALE’S (2006) Giancarlo Giannini in Latino makeup as Manzano, the only uncorrupted member of Mexico City’s police force.

Now firmly within his new aesthetic, Scott takes the opportunity to test the limits of the style like had done in previous commercials. In his first feature collaboration with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, he incorporates all the mainstays of the “Scott Look”: extremely high contrast, and severely saturated colors that favor the green and blue spectrum of light.

Overblown light billows through curtains, and the hard sun roasts the vibrant Mexico City setting. Tony Scott’s affinity for dramatic skies continues– even normal blue skies have brilliant cloud formations.

He also ramps up the energy with his music-video editing techniques, incorporating a whole host of processing tricks on top of the visuals– double exposures, flash frames, rolling/strobing exposures, generally overcooked colors, etc.

The camerawork is hyper frenetic, ranging between locked-down and handheld, with the constant being that it’s always moving. Scott even finds room for 360 degree circling shots (a technique that I personally am not a fan of).

On top of all this, Scott implements incredibly dynamic subtitles that animate across the screen, sometimes replicating the english dialogue for punctuation and emphasis. With MAN ON FIRE, Tony Scott completely owns the look and effectively uses it to convey the chaos of its subject matter and setting.

Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams on the score, which implements the Spanish guitar as a key musical component. What’s interesting is that the eclectic mix of score and pre-recorded source music is layered into the sound design in a surreal, experimental way. It’s filtered through a gauntlet of processors and sometimes even used as sound effects– quite an interesting approach.

A stand-out musical moment finds Washington descending upon a hellish nightclub to extract some answers and up his body count. Scott features a feverish, techno rendering of Clint Mansell’s iconic theme for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) that echoes Washington’s chilly, unpredictable state of mind.

Another moment finds Lisa Gerrard, the female vocalist who provided her haunting voice for Ridley Scott’s 2000 film GLADIATOR, performing a choral coda during the film’s climactic trading sequence.

MAN ON FIRE is a tough story, because it requires the audience to sympathize with the slightly evil, yet justified, actions of a man lusting for retribution. One of the film’s standout sequences involves Creasy extracting information from a gangster whose hands are tied to the steering wheel of his car. When the thug is unable to come up with an answer to Creasy’s questions, Creasy brutally saws one finger off at a time and cauterizes the wound with a car cigarette lighter.

It’s a squirm-inducing sequence that is certainly cold-blooded, but it’s also very timely from a socio-political perspective. MAN ON FIRE was released during the height of the Iraq War, when the United States was forced to examine its conscience in light of reports about the horrible torture methods government officials used to extract information from our perceived enemies in the war on terror.

These shocking leaks forced Americans to ask themselves: how can we root for ourselves when we’re just as beastly as those we’re fighting against? MAN ON FIRE intelligently adds that ambiguous morality into its themes and subtext, and as a result, makes the story that much stronger. If you ask me, that’s why it’s so highly regarded amidst Tony Scott’s canon. It’s a pulpy thriller that isn’t afraid to ask its audience some hard questions.

Of course, it stands to reason that the cliched explosions and gunplay dilute that message and keep a good movie from being great, but Scott has crafted a fine piece of mass entertainment with a relevant message. Its standing in the hearts and minds of cinemaphiles has grown over time, and will most likely go down as Scott’s late-career masterpiece.


AGENT ORANGE (2004)

In the mid-2000’s, branded content was beginning to take off as a viable alternative to traditional advertising. As such, it became embraced by companies with unconventional origins and attitudes, namely those who came of age in the dotcom bubble. Amazon is just such a company, and in 2004, it contracted Tony Scott to direct AGENT ORANGE, an experimental short film about finding your soulmate amidst the clutter and congestion of daily life.

The story is pretty simple: boy takes the subway everyday. The boy is always dressed in orange, in stark contrast with the green world around him. One day, he spots a girl also clad from head to toe in orange. He catches only a glimpse of her before the subway doors close, but he’s immediately struck by her. He spends his days afterwards looking feverishly for this girl, hoping to be reunited with her and get their love story started.

Scott works with new Director of Photography Stephen St. John, but his visual aesthetic doesn’t change one iota. The image drips with heavy contrast, and extremely saturated colors that favor the green and orange spectrum of light. Seeing as they are complementary colors, the juxtaposition works incredibly well, and the orange pops vividly against the sea of green.

The camerawork is frenetic, pulling in close for detailed shots of faces, hands, objects, etc. The stylized editing also throws in double exposures, light streaks, and flash frames. The result is a hyper-active, ADD-laden acid trip of a love story. I think it works fine within the context of the narrative and its themes, but its very easy to see how it could turn a lot of people off.

Tony Scott is a big proponent of experimental sound design, evident even in his earliest work, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969). Here, he creates a surreal sound bed that utilizes traditional coal-powered train sounds in place of the electronic whine of modern subway cars. The recurring train horn is abrasive, but so is Scott’s style in general, so it’s somewhat trivial to criticize it.

My personal impression of the film is that it was dated even on the day of its release. By this point, Tony Scott was an old man, and the production design very much betrays the sense of what an old man might consider stylish and edgy.

It rang false to me, and resembled more of an out-of-touch student film than a work by one of cinema’s inarguably edgy directors. Even that name, AGENT ORANGE… it’s so self-aware and lazy, yet desperate to seem to hip and contemporary. As you might be able to surmise, I’m not the most ardent supporter of this film.

AGENT ORANGE is another negative notch in a wildly uneven filmography. I don’t fault Scott for shooting it in his trademark style, but funnily enough, it’s also complacent and tired. It’s as if Tony Scott didn’t feel the need to challenge himself at all. If anything, AGENT ORANGE is the result of Scott simply treading water between feature films.


DOMINO (2005)

We all have guilty pleasures. Movies we secretly like even though we know we’d catch holy hell from our friends if they ever found out. For me, Tony Scott’s DOMINO (2005) is just that- a guilty pleasure. An immensely guilty one.

DOMINO is different from most biopics in that Domino Harvey lived her life as a tough-as-nails, badass bounty hunter, but the plot of the movie chronicling her life is almost entirely fictionalized. Domino tragically died a few months before the film’s release from a drug overdose, but this cinematic monument foregoes factual accuracy in a bid to capture her inimitable spirit and zeal for life.

All throughout her life, Domino (Keira Knightley) has felt different than the other girls. She was more into playing with knives and guns, instead of dolls and boys. She falls in with Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two bounty hunters who teach her the tricks of the trade. Swiftly realizing her gift for bounty hunting, she becomes an invaluable addition to the team and eventually attracts the attention of an eccentric reality TV producer.

Now faced with having to perform their jobs in front of a cadre of television cameras, the trio find themselves in the middle of a larger conspiracy involving the mafia and the DMV. It all builds to a psychotic showdown in Las Vegas where Domino’s mettle will be tested and her destiny will be met.

The cast is well aware of the inherent insanity of the plot, and to their credit, they bring an unmitigated zeal to the proceedings. Keira Knightley completely shreds her prim and proper persona to become a razor-sharp, super-tough, emotionally damaged hellcat of a bounty hunter. She uses her words, her guns, and her sexuality equally as weapons of mass destruction.

She singes the screen with a dangerous charisma that’s undeniable. It’s undoubtedly my favorite performance of hers. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his collaboration with Tony Scott in 2004’s MAN ON FIRE, shows up as Domino’s mentor, Ed.

Ed is a tough old bastard who’s seen his fair share of battles, and I really can’t imagine anyone else but Rourke in the role. He clearly is enjoying himself and the character, which makes his portrayal that much more likeable. As Choco, Edgar Ramirez is a strong, almost silent presence.

He lets his dark, highly expressive eyes do most of the talking for him, and when he does speak, it’s in a mumbled Spanish. He’s a wild, unpredictable personality who bubbles at the brim with internal demons and restlessness.

The supporting cast is up-to-snuff, as well. Lucy Liu plays an FBI interrogator, in a recurring and bookending sequence that frames the story and allows Domino to recount her life events in a dramatic fashion. Liu remains a stoic, emotionless presence who approaches her exchange with Domino as a kind of chess game. The role doesn’t allow her to emote very much, but she does a lot with very little.

Christopher Walken, in his third collaboration with Tony Scott, plays the eccentric reality TV producer with a manic energy. He fully embraces his kooky public image and savors every sleazy aspect of his character, even down to the blond highlights.

Mena Suvari plays Walken’s assistant, who complements his quirkiness with a bookish, anxious charm that holds its own against his aggressive characterization.

Other notable appearances include Delroy Lindo as Domino’s bail bondsman boss, Mo’Nique and Macy Gray as a full-on-ghetto pair of DMV employees/thieves, Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (the BEVERLY HILLS 90210 guys) playing fictionalized, douchebag versions of themselves, and Tom Waits as a feverish desert prophet. The whole cast is dedicated to carrying out Scott’s zany vision, and the result is nothing short of pure chaos.

It could be argued that Scott reaches the zenith of his filmmaking style with DOMINO. He’s subsequently built on his style with each work, and I don’t see how he could possibly top DOMINO’s distinct blend of anarchy.

Working again with Director of Photography Dan Mindel, Tony Scott crafts an image that’s akin to being left out to cook in the desert sun for years. The contrast is obscenely high, colors are saturated to the point of oblivion, and the overall image veers towards a stylized super-green and orange tint.

It’s not just the mid-tones either– black shadows are rendered in a deep green, highlights are blown out and border on yellow or blue, depending on the mood being called for in a given scene. Film grain is slathered on the image like a liberal heap of butter on bread, while various color elements bleed off the frame like they’ve been processed to death.

In essence, DOMINO looks like a two-hour long music video, complete with double-exposures, strobing lights, reverse, fast, and slow motion ramps, and other tricks. The film is very much a product of its time, in that its unique style is made possible only because of the rise of digital, nonlinear editing systems that surpass the physical boundaries of traditional cut-and-paste film editing.

What would normally have to be accomplished via a time-intensive date with an optical printer can be done in two seconds with the click of a mouse, all without any degradation of the image. Camerawork is mostly handheld and anarchic, favoring extreme close-ups. Scott also finds ample opportunity to throw in dynamic, animated subtitles that appear in different fonts and punctuate the dialogue.

Harry Gregson-Williams returns to the score the film, bringing a heavy metal sound that’s appropriate to the proceedings. The rest of the soundtrack is populated by an eclectic mix of source music, ranging from gangster rap to Tom Jones covering Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”. Scott even finds an opportunity to include the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM score, which he previously used in MAN ON FIRE.

DOMINO is consistent within Scott’s particular brand of storytelling. He finds moments to incorporate surveillance imagery, as well as over-stylized action. The screenplay, written by Richard Kelly of DONNIE DARKO fame, allows for maximum indulgence on Tony Scott’s part. One of the most potent themes of DOMINO, however, is the satirical aspect of reality television.

Sure, it’s broadly sketched, at times approaching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE levels of parody, but it is a great counterpoint to Domino’s anti-establishment spirit. Despite the grim, brutal acts of violence that abound, Scott always approaches the proceedings with a wry sense of gallows humor. By taking itself way too seriously, the whole thing might have sunk under its own weight.

So why do I like this movie? Admittedly, I know I shouldn’t. I’ve railed before at how I sometimes find Scott’s style to be abrasive and of no extra value to the story itself, and by all expectations, DOMINO should fall into that category. Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the desert setting, or the casting.

Or that, like 2001’s SPY GAME, I first saw the film in the theatre when I was in college, and it now resides in a nostalgic little corner of my memory. Or maybe it’s an instance of Tony Scott finding the perfect marriage between style and subject. Whatever it is, it appeals to me on a bewildering level. It’s far from Scott’s greatest work, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining as all hell.


DEJA VU (2006)

In 2006, Tony Scott re-teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer in what would ultimately be their last filmmaking project together. That film was DEJA VU, and was released to mixed reviews and middling box office success. It was a far cry from the box office phenomenon of their first collaboration, TOP GUN (1986), but their last team-up has beared underrated, yet highly flawed, fruit.

DEJA VU is an action thriller about time travel, one of many in a long line of science fiction films. However, to its credit, the premise is incredibly novel (if slightly unrealistic), and generates a strong amount of narrative currency. Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, a seasoned Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency veteran who’s been called in to investigate a terrorist attack on American soil.

In New Orleans, a ferry becomes a waterborne-bomb responsible for the deaths of 500 men, women and children. In the aftermath, Carlin is teamed up with FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who introduces him to an incredible new technology, code-named “Snow White”. In essence, Snow White harnesses all the digital surveillance tools at their disposal to create an omniscient view of the past– specifically, four days into the past.

They can only visit one spot at a time, and it can only be viewed once before being gone forever, but it allows the user to assume God-like levels of surveillance and observation.

When Carlin begins to suspect this amazing new device is really a time machine, he orchestrates a plan to travel back in time himself to prevent the bombing of the ferry, and the death of the woman at the center of it all.

I had never seen DEJA VU before, and had passively avoided it in theatres when I heard the middling reviews. To be honest, I had incredibly low expectations coming into this film. Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking- “Hey. You know?

This movie is actually kinda good!”. Don’t get me wrong, those looking for high art and deep questions will find their hunger in-satiated, but if you’re looking for an entertaining ride with a hint of depth, then you can do a lot worse than DEJA VU.

This is first and foremost a Tony Scott film, which means that the actors will bring high levels of energy and zeal to their roles. Everyone here turns in some great performances. Denzel Washington, who has since become DeNiro to Scott’s Scorsese, depicts a quiet, focused, and dedicated servant of justice.

He’s somewhat of a generic hero, but Washington’s undeniable charm generates the appropriate amounts of sympathy for his character. Val Kilmer, by contrast, has become somewhat of a pop-culture punching bag lately.

Known for his Brando-esque ballooning in size and questionable role choices, he does a great job as a bookish FBI agent burdened by the implications of his great machine’s existence. It’s a subdued, layered performance that will make you rethink your punchlines about him. Paula Patton plays Claire Kuchever, the girl at the center of the story.

Initially presumed killed in the ferry blast when her body washes up on shore, her autopsy reveals several chronological inconsistencies that rivet Carlin’s attention. As he uses Snow White’s eye to zero in on her life building up to the blast, he finds himself falling for her.

Thankfully, Patton’s charming smile and sensitive demeanor make it all too easy to buy into. While the character descends into stock damsel-in-distress territory in the last two acts, Patton does her best with which she’s given.

The supporting cast is nicely rounded out by some recognizable faces. As the terrorist mastermind behind the bombing, Jim Caviezel channels the cold, sinister nature of Timothy McVeigh and his twisted take on patriotism. He’s unrelenting in his focus, personified by a soul-piercing, icy stares.

Caviezel makes for a curious villain, especially after his turn as turn-the-other-cheek Jesus in that infamous Mel Gibson torture porno. Veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood appears as the mandatory bureaucrat hack that jeopardizes Carlin’s mission, and Adam Goldberg fills the mandatory “sarcastic techno-geek” role that’s as standard in science fiction as cup holders in a new car.

Despite their somewhat-cliched roles, each brings a unique layer of characterization to his performance and makes it his own.

Visually, Tony Scott tones his aesthetic way down to more conventional-levels of style. Working again with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Tony Scott eschews the frenetic chaos that had become his trademark to create an image that’s subdued and even. Some of Scott’s visual quirks persist: high contrast, heavily saturated colors favoring a yellow/orange tint with shadows that take on a blue/green tone.

However, the camera is much more steady and even, covering the action in traditional wide and close-up shots. He also makes use of slow-motion ramping, and employs 360 degree circling dolly in multiple instances.

The Anamorphic aspect ratio adds a considerable amount of punch to the frame, especially in Scott’s helicopter-circling establishing shots. And of course, this wouldn’t be a Scott film without overblown light shining through curtains and blinds.

Tony Scott also continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the score, which takes on a conventional cinematic tone with soaring strings against a pulsing electronic beat. It’s effective and brings a large degree of emotion to the action, but let’s just say you won’t find yourself humming these songs anytime soon.

There’s a lot of good going for this film. The setting is New Orleans whose wounds from Hurricane Katrina are still raw and open. In fact, there’s even footage of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where Caviezel has his hideout. The story goes that the film was originally supposed to take place in Long Island, but New Orleans serves as a much more memorable and unique locale.

Another strong point of the story is the technological time-warping device at the center of it all. While it requires a huge leap of the imagination in order to buy it as a viable machine, the way it works and its explanation within the film is incredibly novel.

The machine itself strongly resembles a miniature version of the Large Hadron Collider, and much like the LHC, “Snow White” is very bold and experimental in its wiring. It is initially presented as a massively detailed composite image of the world as it was four days ago, stitched together from the wealth of digital data afforded by satellites, cell phones, and surveillance cameras.

Omnisciently, it can even go into private residences and spy intimately on anyone they choose. There’s a catch, however– due to the amount of time needed to render this composite, they can only view what’s exactly four days in the past, and cannot rewind or fast-forward.

It’s a very crucial caveat to a machine that bestows God-like powers upon its user, making him or her choose the subject of surveillance wisely.

The applications of this technology is where the film finds its strongest moments. The whole thing has a MINORITY REPORT-esque “pre-crime” bent, albeit with primitive, clunky tech that’s much more realistic. The tech also allows for an incredibly novel spin on that old action film classic scene: the car chase.

Because of the real-time, localized nature of the machine, Washington’s Carlin finds himself behind the wheel in pursuit of Cavaziel, who is actually leading the chase from four days in the past. That dynamic makes for an incredibly inventive and, frankly, brilliant scene that finds Carlin switching his focus from the present to the past instantaneously like he’s chasing a ghost.

DEJA VU doesn’t skimp on depth, either. Any film that concerns itself with time travel is going to have to at one point address those nagging paradoxical questions. Scott takes a simplistic tack, comparing the flow of time to the flow of a river, and if the flow finds itself diverted from its original course, it simply follows a different, yet parallel track.

This is dramatized via a series of clues left behind in Claire’s apartment, the most chilling of which finds Carlin listening to a voicemail that he left for her a few days ago, which is strange considering he just found out about her existence earlier that day.

While that little thread unfortunately is never capitalized upon by the film’s denouement, the rest of the clues in Claire’s apartment are explained in fascinating detail when Carlin travels back in time to save her.

A lesser director would get entangled in all the minutiae and logic paradoxes, but Tony Scott juggles the disparate elements with grace (although, to be fair, he does drop the ball here and there).

DEJA VU is important to highlight in the context of Scott’s career, as it shows a dramatic scaling back of bold style in order to balance it better with the story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great film, but it is certainly underrated and deserves better than its current reputation.


NUMB3RS: “TRUST METRIC” (2007)

In 2007, Tony Scott returned to the medium of television to direct the season 4 opener of Scott Free’s series NUMB3RS. The episode, “TRUST METRIC” finds the main characters trying to track down a former colleague, who’s escaped imprisonment after being branded as a spy for the Chinese. The overall bend of the show is that complex math is used to solve big crimes, and generally how math can be applicable to seemingly-unrelated fields.

I had never seen an episode of this show prior to watching TRUST METRIC, and honestly, I don’t plan on watching any more. That’s not to say it’s a well-crafted show– it’s just that police procedural television isn’t exactly my cup of tea, regardless of whether math is involved or not. However, I’m not here to talk about the show itself; my focus is on Tony Scott’s performance as a director. So, without further adieu…

Television is a tricky medium for directors, because they have to conform to a pre-established look decided upon by the show’s producer or creator (unless they are directing the pilot episode). Hiring a director like Scott with a highly-developed personal style is an even tricker proposition.

However, Scott manages to re-tool his unique aesthetic in a way that conforms to the existing tone. Utilizing Director Of Photography Bing Sokolsky, Scott imbues the image with high contrast, as well as colors that skew towards a steel blue/green bias.

As is typical with framing for television, Tony Scott covers the action fairly close-up, punching in for tight shots of hands, feets, lips, etc. Camerawork is mostly handheld, and Scott employs rack zooms and 360 degree tracking shots to add punch to his more-traditional compositions.

The actors are competent, as is to be expected from a middle-of-the-road TV show. The series stars Dave Krumholtz, a hard-working character actor who has worked for everyone from Judd Apatow to Aaron Sorkin.

NUMB3RS provides a welcome starring role for Krumholtz, and it’s satisfying to see him excel in the role of a mathematical genius who uses complex equations and algorithms to solve crimes. Val Kilmer, puzzingly, also shows up as the episode’s antagonist– a bespectacled evil doctor proficient in interrogation and torture tactics.

Why a high-profile film actor like Kilmer is in a series like NUMB3RS is most likely attributable to the assumption that he and Tony Scott forged a friendly working relationship on the set of DEJA VU (2006).

As for the episode itself, there’s some interesting moments. While the story falls into the familiar television trope of overly expositional dialogue, its action is well-executed (a harrowing subway escape sequence comes to mind), and Scott juggles the fractured narrative with a steady, competent hand.

Besides my general impression that the show is to be commended for making math compelling enough for primetime TV, my other impressions were a little more scattered: “Hey! There’s the bad guy from GHOSTBUSTERS 2!“ “Oh look, they’re scrawling complicated math equations on a glass wall!”

A spooky observation: the episode’s climactic battle takes place on a yacht in San Pedro Harbor, which is where Tony Scott would leap to his death five years later from the Vincent Thomas Bridge. The bridge itself is visible in the background of some shots.

Overall, Scott’s particular aesthetic transfers over into the realm of television without any significant compromise. The pace is lightning quick, which suits Tony Scott’s sensibilities quite nicely. It’s still a step back from the chaotic heights of his style’s development, but it’s consistent with the general paring-down of sensibilities he was undergoing at that stage in his career.


DODGE: “LAUNCH” (2008)

In 2008, Tony Scott created a high-octane action commercial for Dodge entitled, “LAUNCH”, which kicked off a campaign showcasing the new Dodge Ram truck.

The spot is classic Scott, through and through. The image is high in contrast, with saturated colors that skew warm. The camerawork is handheld, or mounted to helicopters for some truly epic framing.

This is a spot that knows its target audience. Featuring regular guys wearing t-shirts with traditionally-male professions emblazoned across their chests (cowboy, fireman, etc.), these dudes bomb down treacherous hills and blast through structures with reckless abandon.

Set that to some heavy rock music and top it all off with a massive explosion, and you’ve got the ultimate guys’ commercial. And whose sensibilities are better suited explicitly to guys’ tastes than the guy who directed TOP GUN and CRIMSON TIDE?

It’s easy to argue that Tony Scott took the job as a quick way to make some money doing what he does best, but it’s hard to deny that this commercial must have been an absolute blast to shoot. It’s a fun embodiment of Dodge as a brand, directed by one of the best action directors in history. Win win.

DODGE RAM: “LAUNCH” isn’t available as a video embed, but can be watched in full here.


THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009)

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) is a contemporary update on the 1974 film of the same name. While largely a forgettable film, it’s notable within Tony Scott’s canon as his only remake.

Not having seen the original, I can’t speak for the remake’s quality in regards to its parent’s, but I can say that Scott’s film was produced at the height of the (still-ongoing) remake craze that gripped much of contemporary studio filmmaking in the late aughts. Like others of its ilk, it’s a mediocre affair made distinctive only by Scott’s personal aesthetic.

I had incredibly low expectations of this film going into my first viewing of it a few days ago, and while I wasn’t blown away by the end result, it was more entertaining than I was willing to give it credit for.

The film follows a fast-talking terrorist (unfortunately) named Ryder (John Travolta), who hijacks a NYC subway train and holds its passengers for ransom. It all comes down to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), an MTA traffic operator reluctantly drawn into the crisis, who must negotiate with the wildly unpredictable Ryder for the hostages’ safe return.

Despite the formulaic script, the actors make the best of the scenario and commit fully to Tony Scott’s vision. In his fourth collaboration with Scott, Washington eschews his handsome leading-man aura to play a schlubby, unconfident guy caught in a high stress situation.

Thankfully, he is given a morally murky backstory of his own, which comes to light during the course of the movie, and makes the character of Garber much more compelling. Washington disappears into the role, which is about as good a compliment as you can give an actor. Conversely…..John Travolta.

Man, what is up with that facial hair? Whoever is to blame for that monstrosity needs to have their thinking privileges revoked. His performance fares slightly better, channeling the high energy, manic whack job character he played in John Woo’s FACE/OFF (1997).

Like Garber, Ryder is given some depth in the form of a twisted code of honor, but he ultimately falls prey to the same tired villain cliches (“I’ll die before I go back to prison!”).

The supporting cast is filled out with some interesting faces. PT Anderson company performer Luis Guzman shows up as a disgraced MTA conductor and the brain of Ryder’s operation (which we later get to see sprayed against the subway walls).

Despite hiding behind a thick nose bandage and yellow sunglasses, he is essentially playing himself. John Turturro gives a subdued, buttoned-up performance as a hostage negotiator for the NYPD who has to impotently coach Garber in negotiation tactics when Ryder demands to speak only to him.

James Gandolfini, in his third Tony Scott film appearance, channels Rudy Giuliani in his incarnation of NYC’s Mayor. It’s a strong performance that’s a mix between Tony Soprano, Giuliani, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In a nice touch of humor, he’s shown not to be a fan of The Yankees, his city’s biggest baseball team. Perhaps he’s a Mets guy?

Scott continues the general toning-down of his aesthetic, allowing the story to dictate the images. Working with Director of Photography Tobias Schlesinger, Scott maintains an image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors.

Together, they use a color palette that changes for each key location- warm tones for exterior city shots, cold blu-ish/neutral tones in the MTA operations center, and steel-green under the fluorescent lights of the subway car. Tony Scott’s usual camera moves are all present- rack zooms, helicopter-based establishing shots, circular dollies, punchy close-ups, etc.

Camera work ranges between handheld and locked-down, favoring traditional, stabilized compositions. Tony Scott even finds opportunities to throw in visual tricks like dynamic subtitles and timestamp freeze-frames.

Tony Scott’s love for surveillance imagery is incorporated via a live video chat subplot involving a girl watching her boyfriend’s captivity on her laptop. (It’s a little implausible that one can get an internet signal down there, but whatever. HOLLYWOOD!)

A few new visual tricks are introduced, beginning with the slow expansion of the studio logos to fill the entire frame, as well a Google-Earth like map of NYC that whooshes the story from one place to the next.

The editing, whenever possible, reflects the relentless onslaught of an incoming subway train. Other visual elements, like a lens flare or a rack zoom, are accompanied by a dramatic sound effect (usually the sounds of the subway). What little flash the movie does have going for it is evident mainly in Tony Scott’s visual rendering.

Harry Gregson-Williams continues his collaboration with Scott on the score, creating yet another work in a string of wholly unmemorable soundtracks. To be sure, the score is effective in the context of the film, and helps sell the stakes, but I literally can’t remember a single note from it.

What I do remember, however, is Tony Scott’s use of a (heavily chopped and edited) Jay-Z track during the opening credits. “99 Problems” blares as the city of New York rushes by and spotlights Ryder walking purposefully through the crowds.

Is it the best use of Jay Z’s song? No. Does it fit with the tone Tony Scott is trying to convey? Sure. Does it set the stage for a high-energy crime flick? You bet.

As Scott’s penultimate feature film, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is a minor entry in an impressive, yet scattershot oeuvre. It’s an effective action film, but nothing more. Another case of style over substance, if you will. While Scott’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for this film.


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

UNSTOPPABLE, released in 2010, was Tony Scott’s last feature film before he took his life in August of 2012. By turning in one of his finer directorial efforts, Scott goes out on a high note, with a genuinely solid capstone to an incredibly scattershot body of work.

Most directors never have the luxury of knowing what their final film will be. If they do, the project is usually very sentimental, nostalgic, and bittersweet. However, the vast majority of them read like business as usual, secure in the confidence that there’ll always be a next project.

With Scott, it’s tough to gauge where UNSTOPPABLE stands on that spectrum, as the circumstances surrounding his suicide are so mysterious. We’ll never know whether or not Scott was actively aware that he was making his last feature film.

It’s especially eerie when you take into account that Tony Scott filmed scenes of UNSTOPPABLE under the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, where he would later jump to his death two years later.

UNSTOPPABLE takes place among the rural Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, where rough-and-tumble blue-collar trainmen spend their days manning smoke-spewing steel snakes. The rails are a way of life for these people, fueling their economy and feeding their families.

In terms of setting, it’s the most fully realized of all of Tony Scott’s films. The atmosphere has a palpable grit that makes the film really work.

The story begins when a half-mile long train carrying city-leveling amounts of flammable chemicals gets away from its conductor and begins barreling at top speed towards a large population area.

As various efforts to slow it down fail, the task falls to two wise-cracking trainmen (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) to attach themselves to the back of the runaway train and halt it themselves.

Tony Scott is at his best when he collaborates with Denzel Washington, an observation that certainly applies here. As a veteran train-man on the verge of retirement, Washington’s Frank is grizzled and gruff.

It’s somewhat fitting that Scott’s key career collaborator is shown in his last Tony Scott film appearance as a man looking back on his life and career. Frank is a member of the old guard, dispensing a wearied sage advice only when a young gun earns his respect (which isn’t often).

Like his character in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009), he has a few skeletons in his closet, which add depth to his character and make him more soulful.

Conversely, Chris Pine wisely eschews the trappings of his star-making turn as Captain Kirk in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK (2009), to play Will, a brash young father who’s trying to clean up the mess he’s made of his life.

Will carries a chip on his shoulder due to coming from money in a historically-poor part of the country, and his anger problems have led to marital strife and a series of odd jobs that never last.

He knows he has to prove himself, and he’s frustrated because it seems no one wants to give him a chance. Together, Pine and Washington’s on-screen chemistry crackles with energy and the ball-busting humorous dynamic you would expect from two regular guys in a blue collar profession.

The supporting cast is also effective, headed by the ever-reliable Rosario Dawson as Connie, a local train yard operator for the runaway train’s corporation, AWBR. Mostly confined to her microphone in the operations room, her role is similar to that of Washington’s in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, orchestrating and coordinating the rescue effort from afar.

She excels in a boundary-pushing role that only falters at the end when her character is shoehorned into becoming a love interest for Washington. Perennial human punching bag Ethan Suplee plays Dewey, the hapless conductor who lets his train get away from him and instigates the potential for massive catastrophe (way to go, man).

Despite having all kinds of shit heaped onto him by the other characters throughout the film, he takes it on the chin like a good sport and comes out somewhat likable.

A typecast Lew Temple plays AWBR’s man on the ground, racing alongside the speeding train in his truck. He’s all manic energy and country drawl in his second collaboration with Tony Scott (his first being a bit part in 2005’s DOMINO).

As Oscar Galvin, the stuffy executive charged with looking out for the interests of AWBR, character actor Kevin Dunn serves as the main obstruction to Will and Frank’s efforts. Galvin is the film’s pseudo-antagonist: a driven, stubborn man who, despite his intelligence and competence, can’t see the forest through the trees.

I spent a long time trying to place where I had seen Dunn before, before I realized that he was my favorite cast member in Michael Mann’s pilot for LUCK (2011). Kevin Corrigan, an immediately recognizable character actor and frequent performer for Martin Scorsese, channels a young Christopher Walken in his depiction of an FRA inspector who finds himself thrust into the rescue effort.

Tony Scott accomplishes something truly special with UNSTOPPABLE, in that he brings in a real lived-in sensibility to the visuals. He eschews the sleek, flashy sheen of his previous films for a wet, gritty, and cold look.

Despite the story occurring in that space between the end of Autumn and the first snow, he draws a vivid beauty from the rural surroundings and smoky industrial landscape. Setting-wise, Scott is coming full circle with his boyhood in the industrial fringes of England, as well as the gritty environs of his first films, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969) and LOVING MEMORY (1971).

The setting also allows him to add an element that, until now, hadn’t been present in his films: subtle social commentary. At the time of its release, America was in the throes of the Great Recession’s death grip, with industrial/rural areas hit the hardest.

Whole towns, entire ways of life were on the line, not to mention the heated conflicts between unions and their corporate employers. It’s all reflected in the film, albeit in a very overt, action-movie way. But this subtext informs the characters and their motivations, and the result is a thematically rich film that’s also incredibly entertaining.

At the end of the day, UNSTOPPABLE is a Tony Scott film, and nowhere is it more evident than in the cinematography. Working for the first time with Director of Photography Ben Seresin, Scott is up to his old tricks: high contrast, stylized color tones favoring the green/blue side of the spectrum, etc.

The overall color palette is mostly desaturated, except for reds and oranges, which punch loudly against the dreary blue mountains. Skies and sunsets are still dramatic whenever possible (one would think it’s always sunset in Tony Scott’s universe).

Camerawork is mostly locked-off, utilizing traditional framing that allows the setting to really soak into every frame. Tony Scott also continues to make frequent use of circular dolly shots, helicopter-based establishing shots, speed ramping.

The look is more subdued than films like MAN ON FIRE (2004) and DOMINO, which is consistent with a general paring-down of style in that stage of his career. Even his famous dynamic subtitles are more subdued, crafted with a sensible, conservative font that animates rolls across the screen with little flourish.

Tony Scott’s musical collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams would come to an end with UNSTOPPABLE. For his last Scott score, Gregson-Williams crafts a traditional cinematic-sounding work that sells the action and the high stakes, but once again fails to deliver anything memorable or transcendent.

However, it’s inarguably better than the source music that Scott chooses to end the film on. It’s a screeching Crunk track that’s moronic and obscenely off-tone with the rest of the film. Really, it’s an incredibly baffling choice.

My jaw literally dropped at how bad of a choice it was. I honestly can’t envision what was going through Scott’s film when he threw the track over the credits, but it threatens to undo all the goodwill Tony Scott generated in the preceding two hours.

Given that this is his last film, and thus the last statement he’ll ever make as a filmmaker, I can’t imagine a worse note to conclude a career on. It’s really that bad.

(Another baffling musical choice: re-using the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM theme in a scene that takes place at Hooters. Seriously. Did Tony Scott like the track that much? Could you imagine trying to choke down wings with this blasting in your ears?)
My only big gripe with the film is the laziness in which the news footage is handled.

Tony Scott strived for a heightened realism in all his films, but the treatment of the live news report, which makes up a large percentage of the film, seem like an afterthought. I understand that the news organization should be that bastion of unbiased media, Fox News, (because Twentieth Century Fox produced the film) but there’s a lot that defies the reality that Scott works so hard to create.

For instance, a dude says “bitch” on live TV, without any kind of forethought or attempts by the news reporter to censor it. When they show photos of Frank and Will on-screen within the news report, the photos are well lit, and of professional quality.

In other words, they look staged. Something tells me that two blue-collar guys aren’t regularly posing for professional glamor shots. More candid photography would have gone a long way towards credibility.

And speaking of photography, the news footage is simply filmed footage for the movie, with a TV-looking filter slapped over it. Last time I checked, the news didn’t capture its footage with 35mm film. It’s lame, it’s lazy, and it took me out of the movie repeatedly.

Ultimately, these are all minor complaints. The fact is that UNSTOPPABLE is a solid film that also ranks as one of Tony Scott’s finest. He had been on a downward trajectory in quality after MAN ON FIRE, but he managed to squeak out a win at the last second.

Tony Scott’s films tell us very little about the man himself, because he was a utilitarian filmmaker– an action-genre maestro that was always more interested in entertaining us than making us think. But with UNSTOPPABLE, Scott lets the socioeconomic subtext sink deep into his story, and provides his fans with a dramatically-rich experience and a sense of closure to a high-octane career.

Scott’s train has been barreling forward at full speed for almost 45 years now, and now that it’s been stopped, we can pause to reflect on the ride. And what a ride it’s been.


MOUNTAIN DEW: “LIVIN THE LIFE”: (2012)

Perhaps it’s fitting that an unabashedly commercial filmmaker’s last work is… a commercial. Shortly before his death, Tony Scott directed a commercial for Mountain Dew, entitled “LIVIN’ THE LIFE”. The concept is comedic, dealing with a man fantasizing about a life of extreme luxury when billionaire Mark Cuban offers him a huge sum of money in exchange for the last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s about as conventional as commercials get, in terms of the concept. Mark Cuban has proved to be a great sport in lampooning his image in pop culture as an obscenely successful businessman (if not a very successful actor). The story is cute, but one can’t deny how much of a cliche it is within the world of commercials. The ad agency was really reaching for the stars on this one.

Visually, it’s a Tony Scott work through and through. The image is high in contrast and incredibly saturated with bright, warm colors. Scott makes good use of his circular dolly, rack zooms, and Hollywood mega-budget playthings (helicopters, tigers, mansion fountains, etc.).

Basically, it’s a license for Scott to shoot whatever wild luxury scenario he can come up with him. To say the scope of that imagination is limited is an understatement. Overlaid with a terrible hip hop song, the spot is short, punchy and ends with the gag that, despite all these crazy riches, the protagonist would still rather have that last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s somewhat sad for a director’s last work to be a commercial, as it suggests something of a career failure, or a fall from grace. However, Scott dabbled in all mediums and made no bones about enjoying his craft, whatever the end product may be. In this case, it’s Scott who has the last laugh.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. 

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction

Director Quentin Tarantino made waves in international pop culture with his 1992 debut, RESEROVOIR DOGS.  Suddenly, his explosive, unpredictable style was the one to emulate, and he found himself besieged by Hollywood power players who wanted his grubby little paws all over their high-profile projects.  Proving himself as a true artist, Tarantino rejected the opportunity to turn himself into a big-budget tentpole director and instead retreated to Amsterdam to work on the script for his follow-up.  The result was 1994’s PULP FICTION, and if Reservoir Dogs made waves, then PULP FICTION was a tsunami.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

PULP FICTION, generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, is inarguably a zeitgeist film.  Not only is it one of the definitive 90’s films, the film itself played a significant role in defining the 90’s.  It influenced trends in fashion, music, art, film…the list goes on.  It remains most of the quotable films ever produced, and continues to have a huge impact on contemporary films.  PULP FICTION is a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic event, a work that shakes the language of film so fundamentally to its core that the medium never truly recovers.

I was a senior in high school when I first saw PULP FICTION.  I had heard about it all my life, and had that iconic teaser poster with Uma Thurman lying on a bed seared into my brain by virtue of a decade’s worth of pop culture exposure.  Watching PULP FICTION was a visceral experience for me, one that I count as highly influential within my own development as a filmmaker.

Most of us have seen PULP FICTION.  It is simply one of those films that, if you don’t seek it out yourself, is forced upon you by well-meaning friends.  So much has been written about the film that I won’t go into the specifics of the labyrinthine plot.  Chances are that I could show you a picture of a guy in a black suit, white shirt and sunglasses, and you’d instantly think “Tarantino”.   His stories and creations have entered the realm of archetype, becoming instantly recognizable across linguistic and cultural barriers.

In terms of the cast, PULP FICTION will always be remembered as the film that (briefly) resurrected John Travolta’s career.  He had been one of Tarantino’s favorite performers and was plucked from actor jail to headline the film as long-haired hitman Vincent Vega.  While its arguable that Travolta has since squandered the goodwill he earned from this film, it’s hard to deny that he’s never been better than he is here.

Samuel L. Jackson also received a considerable career boost as Vincent’s jheri-curled partner, Jules Winnenfield.  His wild-eyed performance results in a collection of some of the most memorable one-liners in cinematic history (“English motherfucker, do you speak it!  Say what again, I dare you!  This is a tasty burger!”).  I’m not sure if Jackson himself has ever topped this performance, which quickly followed after his turn as “Hold On To Yo’ Butts” in Steven Spielberg’s massively successful JURASSIC PARK (1993).

The inclusion of Bruce Willis to the cast is heavily significant to Tarantino’s development as a filmmaker.  For a guy who was on the outside for so long, who lived and breathed movies as if they were air, the signing of Willis to the cast must have felt like a monumental event.  Willis gamely leaps out of his comfort zone for Tarantino, resulting in one of his greatest performances as Butch, a gruff boxer whose dignity refuses to let him throw a fight for money.

Tarantino fills out the remainder of his supporting cast with faces both new and old.  Returning to the Tarantino fold are Tim Roth as Pumpkin—a manic bloke and professional robber—and Harvey Keitel as The Wolf—an urbane, sophisticated “fixer” for Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).  Despite being the leads in RESERVOIR DOGS, here they are relegated to minor (albeit memorable) roles.

Amanda Plummer plays Honey Bonny, Pumpkin’s unstable wife and fellow partner-in-crime.  As Marcellus Wallace, Rhames gives one of his most iconic performances, completely nailing the imposing, brutish nature required of him.  Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette steal their scenes as husband-and-wife heroin dealers Lance and Jody.   Christopher Walken appears in a cameo as the preternaturally creepy Captain Kuntz, who visits a pre-teen Butch to explain the significance of a watch that belonged to Butch’s father.

And then there’s Uma Thurman, who is usually featured prominently in advertising for the film (see the aforementioned one-sheet poster).  Her unforgettable turn as Marcellus Wallace’s femme fatale, cokehead wife turned her into a star overnight.  Tarantino has often gone on record declaring that Thurman is his “muse”, the one talent that inspires him more than any other.  Their collaboration for the KILL BILL films began during production of PULP FICTION, when Tarantino and Thurman would hash out the Bride’s story during breaks in filming.  Indeed, Mia Wallace’s story about her work on the fictional “Fox Force 5” pilot reads like a rough draft of the character dynamics of The Viper Squad in KILL BILL.  It’s easy to speculate that their relationship was/is romantic in nature, as most director/muse relationships are, but I’m not exactly here to talk about the man’s sex life.

With the financial backing of Miramax producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein (as well as a continuing collaboration with RESERVOIR DOGS producer Lawrence Bender), PULP FICTION jumps leagues beyond Tarantino’s debut in terms of visual presentation.  Retaining the services of cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, Tarantino opts to shoot on 35mm film in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  This makes for bold, frequently-wide compositions that highlight the characters amidst the dried-out San Fernando Valley landscape.  Tarantino and Sekula cultivate a color palette that’s reminiscent of aged Technicolor—creamy highlights, slightly washed out primaries and slightly-muddled contrast.  The result is a burnt-out rockabilly aesthetic that jives with Tarantino’s Elvis-inspired, anachronistic visual style.

For PULP FICTION, Tarantino also brings back his RESERVOIR DOGS production designer, David Wasco.  Wasco does an incredible job of applying Tarantino’s signature sense of “movie-ness” to a realistic world.  Everything is believable, yet just a little larger than life.  One of the film’s biggest set-pieces is the Jack Rabbit Slim’s set, which was built from scratch to evoke kitschy Americana diners that were popular in midcentury Los Angeles.  The restaurant reads as a geek shrine to Tarantino’s love of cinema, with posters adorning the walls, pop culture relics scattered left and right, and waitstaff dressed up as famous Old Hollywood icons (look out for RESERVOIR DOGS’ Steve Buscemi in an unrecognizable cameo as “Buddy Holly”).

The increased budget also means new toys for Tarantino to play with, and where RESERVOIR DOGS was compact and minimalist like a stage play, here he goes all-out with a dynamic camera that bobs and weaves as it follows its subjects.  A Steadicam provides ample opportunity for Tarantino to explore his enthusiasm for long tracking shots.  Watching the film recently, I became acutely aware of how subtly complicated Tarantino’s tracking shots are.  There’s one in particular about three quarters through the movie, where the camera follows Willis’ character as he stalks through a vacant lot and squeezes through a chain-link fence.  The camera doesn’t break stride as it glides through the hole after him.  The hole was barely big enough for Willis to slip through, so it blows my mind how someone wielding a cumbersome Steadicam rig could effortlessly slide through the same opening without getting caught up in it.  This shot in particular has stuck in my mind, and I still can’t figure out how they did it.  Tarantino’s mastery of camera movements is matched only by the sheer audacity with which he employs them.

The infamous “trunk shot”, one of Tarantino’s most well-known signatures, is employed here as well.  It had previously turned up in RESERVOIR DOGS as well, but PULP FICTION was where Tarantino’s style became really established and the awareness of the trunk POV shot was first recognized.

One of the film’s more-subtle techniques, however, was the employment of rear projection during several driving sequences.  Rear projection is an old filmmaking technique from the days before green screen that would project travelling road footage behind actors to simulate motion (i.e., driving).  More-realistic compositing capabilities were very much available during the production of PULP FICTION, but Tarantino’s employment of the outdated technology was an inspired melding with his vintage aesthetic.   What’s so brilliantly subtle about it is that the rear projection itself is in black and white, while the actors are rendered in full color.  The effect is so understated that it’s easy to miss it, but adds a sophisticated, vintage flair to the film’s look.

Of course, no discussion of PULP FICTION would be complete without mentioning its groundbreaking use of music.  A sourced soundtrack comprised of prerecorded music hasn’t been this revolutionary since Martin Scorsese made the practice en vogue with his debut film, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR? (1967).  Instead of hiring a professional music supervisor, Tarantino assembled his eclectic mix from his own record collection, oftentimes sourcing it from the vinyl itself—hiss, cracks, and all.  This creates a warm, vintage sound that perfectly complements the use of various soul, pop, and surf rock tracks.  In particular, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” was rescued from relative obscurity to become one of the most iconic pieces of music of all time, all because PULP FICTION decided to use it as its de facto theme song.  It’s very rare that a piece of music becomes so indelibly tied to its appearance in a film, but Tarantino manages to do this regularly.  It’s become so much of a calling card that his fans eagerly await the soundtrack listings of every upcoming project to see what musical treasures he’ll dig up.

There are numerous storytelling conceits that make up Tarantino’s directorial style.  The razor-sharp wit.  The creative use of profanity.  Self-invented product brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Kahuna Bruger as part of a fabricated sandbox reality his character inhabit. But it is also his structural quirks that reveal a lot about him as an artist.  Most Tarantino films begin with lengthy, simple opening credits of text over black.  To me, this reads like a reverential nod to formalistic influences from classic cinema; a humble genuflection at the altar of The Church of Film before he delivers a fiery sermon.  His tendency to construct his films in a nonlinear timeline reflect the way his mind works—those who have watched an interview with him can attest that he’s all over the place mentally, hopping around from point to point at a dizzying speed, overlapping, pre-lapping forward-lapping while still somehow making sense.    The use of book-like intertitles and chapter designations to divide up his narratives come from the pulp inspirations behind his stories and the lack of a formal education in traditional three-act writing structure.  Placing himself in a small cameo/supporting role speaks to both a mild narcissism on Tarantino’s part, but forgivable given how damn earnest he is about his work.  The lingering shots on feet, well…. that’s fairly obvious why he does that.

Together with his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, Tarantino has made a motif of the Mexican Standoff.  Even when it’s not explicitly included in his films, as it is in RESERVOIR DOGS, he incorporates its compelling aspects seamlessly into the narrative structure.  He uses incredibly long, drawn-out dialogue sequences to sustain suspense almost to a breaking point, and when violence finally erupts, it is quick, shocking, and efficient.  The magnitude of the carnage is amplified by the sustained build-up, a fact that Tarantino and Menke know all too well.  This dynamic is included in some form in virtually all of Tarantino’s film, with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) seemingly made up entirely of Mexican Standoff-like sequences.

To prepare for writing this entry, I watched all of the supplemental features for PULP FICTION, including Tarantino’s appearance on the Charlie Rose Show in 1994.  I mention this because Tarantino regularly does something akin to The Directors Series himself, in which he watches a given director’s body of work in chronological order to determine the course of their career and the evolution of their style.  I was blown away to see the reasoning behind my efforts validated by a successful major filmmaker.  A filmmaker like Tarantino knows that it’s absolutely essential, if you’re going to make film, to watch and study the broad spectrum of film works.  One would be shocked to find that many aspiring filmmakers aren’t versed at all in the century-long history of the medium.  I forget who made this point (it might have been Charlie Rose or Siskel & Ebert), but there was an observation that those who tried to mimic Tarantino’s style as their own would cite him as a major influence, yet they showed an ignorance to the directors that inspired Tarantino himself.  They had no interest in familiarizing themselves with Howard Hawks, Brian DePalma, or Mario Bava, all of whom left an indelible mark on Tarantino’s artistic formation.  A limited sphere of influence is a major hindrance to true creativity.

I don’t need to elaborate on the windfall that the release of PULP FICTION bestowed on those behind its production.  It was a major box office success, it won Tarantino his first Academy Award, and it won him one of the most prestigious prizes in all of cinema: the Cannes Palm d’Or.  It single-handedly enabled the Weinstein Brothers to become the producing and award-lobbying powerhouses that they are today.  Audiences responded to it in a manner as violent as its content, with patrons suffering heart attacks in the theatre or laughing so hard their chairs broke.  By rousing the moviegoing audience from its unknowing complacency, Tarantino had become the hottest filmmaker in the world, and one of the leading cultural tastemakers of the 1990’s.  And most importantly, he had done it entirely on his own terms.  The cinema would never be the same.

Sponsored by: Special.tv – Stream Independent 

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Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

In terms of American independent film, there is Before RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and After RESERVOR DOGS.  Director Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut was a truly paradigm-shattering event, single-handedly turning a sleepy Utah ski town into something of a promised land for aspiring filmmakers the world over.  No one quite knew what to make of its razor-sharp wit and unflinching violence, but they knew that a forceful new voice had just descended with a vengeance on the complacent Hollywood system.  It’s hard not to speak in hyperbolic terms when discussing Tarantino—the man’s style and subject matter practically begs for it.

RESERVOIR DOGS has often been voted as one of, if not the best independent films of all time.  As a hard-boiled gangster/crime picture, it wears its influences on its sleeve, but then proceeds to upend every expectation in the book like a bull in a china shop.  Despite multiple viewings, it will still grip its audiences with gritted teeth and clenched knuckles like it did the first time.

I was a senior in high school when I familiarized myself with Tarantino, having casually heard how PULP FICTION (1994) was such an incredible film throughout my life.  It wasn’t until I watched my first Tarantino film, 2004’s KILL BILL VOLUME 1 in theaters that I was compelled to visit his back catalog.  On a whim, I snatched up both DVDs of PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS, with only the faintest idea of what I was getting myself into.

While his later films would sprawl out to broader scales, RESERVOIR DOGS tells a very tight, very compact story that could easily be translated into live theatre (and has, on multiple occasions).  Five common criminals team up to stage a simple diamond heist, only for it to go horribly wrong.  The dazed and confused criminals rendezvous in an industrial warehouse on the fringes of town, trying to make sense of what happened.  As they argue and debate amongst themselves, they slowly realize that there’s a rat, or worse—an undercover cop—in their midst.  But figuring out the identity of the rat won’t be so easy, with tempers flaring and unexpected loyalty defections that raise the stakes to Shakespearean proportions.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

Tarantino got his break off of RESERVOIR DOGS simply by the strength of his crackerjack script.  Through some personal connections, the screenplay winded up in the hands of character actor and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator, Harvey Keitel.  Upon reading Tarantino’s script, Keitel immediately called up the young aspiring director and asked to take part in it.  Keitel’s participation proved instrumental, bringing in $1.5 million in financing and serious name recognition for a film that Tarantino had initially envisioned shooting with his friends for $30,000.  Coupled with the opportunity to workshop his script in-depth at the Sundance Institute’s Directing Labs, Tarantino was able to come to set on the first day with all the tools he needed to deliver a knockout film.

Tarantino has always had an impeccable eye for casting, and the ensemble he collected for RESERVOIR DOGS is filled with unconventional, yet incredibly inspired choices.  The aforementioned Mr. Keitel experienced a late-career resurgence as a result of his performance as Mr. White, the tough yet tender thug at the center of the story.  Tim Roth, as Mr. Orange, is convincing as both a dangerous criminal and a cocky undercover cop.  Roth’s performance is superlatively dynamic despite spending the majority of his screen time lying in a pool of blood.

Michael Madsen plays one of the film’s most terrifying characters, a smooth and squinty-eyed career criminal with a volatile sadistic streak—Mr. Blonde, real name Vic Vega.  Madsen’s too-cool-for-school performance results in a simple torture sequence becoming one of cinema’s most profoundly disturbing moments.  Mr. Blonde is a sick fuck, taking great pleasure in torturing a cop by cutting off his ear and soaking him in gasoline, only for his own amusement.

Steve Buscemi plays Mr. Pink, a squirrelly, self-deluded member of the team.  Tarantino initially wanted to play the part of Mr. Pink, but Buscemi’s energetic, bug-eyed audition convinced him otherwise.  Buscemi’s performance is incredibly memorable, with his argument for why he doesn’t tip waitresses in the opening diner scene being one of the most iconic moments in the movie.  Veteran character actor Lawrence Tierney plays the gang’s curmudgeonly fat-cat boss, Joe Cabot, with a tough, yet paternal flair.  Rounding out the cast is the late Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, Joe Cabot’s vindictive rich-prick son.

As Tarantino’s first, true professional work, RESERVOIR DOGS looks slick and polished, with none of the amateur-looking roughness that plagued his first attempt, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).  The first film to be produced with his frequent production partner, Lawrence Bender, RESERVOIR DOGS puts every cent of its $1.5 million budget on the screen.  For his first time working with 35mm film, Tarantino chooses the inherently-cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create dynamic wide compositions and infuse the maximum amount of style.  Cinematographer Andrjez Sekula gives the film a mid-80’s Technicolor patina comprised of washed out colors to complement Tarantino’s “Valley burnout” aesthetic.  The muted color palette also makes the bold splashes of crimson blood all the more jarring and visceral.

I’ve written before about how Tarantino educated himself on filmmaking primarily by the voracious consumption of films, so it’s interesting to see how he uses the camera when he has the financial resources to be creative.  For the most part, RESERVOIR DOGS assumes a somewhat formalist style, preferring wide compositions and deliberate, smooth dolly movements.  This is interspersed with jarring handheld work, especially in the use of long tracking shots—a technique that would later become one component of Tarantino’s signature style.  For instance, there’s a moment halfway through the film when Mr. Blonde interrupts the torture of his captive to retrieve a gas can from his car outside.  The camera follows Michael Madsen as he steps outside, grabs the canister, and returns inside in one continuous shot.  While admittedly simple visually, this technique is incredibly complicated to pull off in one long take—there’s exposure switches and focus pulling to worry about, not to mention the fact that film is designed in two different color temperatures (daylight and interior), and can’t exactly be switched out mid-take.  Techniques like this require a competent, steady hand that fundamentally understands the nature of film-based acquisition.  RESERVOIR DOGS is full of these understated, incredibly complicated visual flourishes. For a first-time director with no formal film education to effortlessly do this time and time again, with style and grace to boot, is truly an astonishing thing to behold.

Tarantino’s mastery of the craft on his first time at bat also extends to the film’s sonic aspects, specifically the music.  The director eschewed the use of a conventional composer or score, opting instead to create a rockabilly musical landscape of old 70’s rock songs.   This conceit is incorporated into his self-contained universe, as the broadcast content of Tarantino’s fictional, recurring radio station K-Billy.  Tarantino’s eclectic taste in music is responsible for perhaps the film’s most infamous, enduring scene—who can easily forget the uneasy juxtaposition of watching a man’s ear hacked off while the jaunty rhythm of Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” bounces along the soundtrack?  As a developing filmmaker myself, Tarantino was a huge influence in the sense that his style exposed the unlimited possibilities of inspired and unexpected musical selections.

RESERVOIR DOGS put Tarantino’s bold, take-no-prisoners style on the map.  It suddenly became very cool in mainstream entertainment to find creative combinations of wit and profanity, to play up violence to an almost-cartoonish degree, or to make left-field pop culture references.  When Tarantino used his crucial opening minutes to ramble at length about the true meaning of Madonna’s song, “Like A Virgin”, he jumpstarted the era of self-referential pop culture that gave us the likes of Joss Whedon and Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996).  As an interesting little aside, the characters mention Pam Grier at one point, who would later go on to start for Tarantino in his third feature, JACKIE BROWN (1997).

Other elements of Tarantino’s distinct style make their first appearance here in his filmography.  He incorporates a nonlinear storytelling structure, a chronological conceit that withholds key information for maximum dramatic impact, courtesy of Tarantino’s most valuable collaborator: the late editor Sally Menke.  His penchant for twisting his characters’ motivations into Mexican Standoff scenarios manifests itself quite literally in the climax of RESERVOIR DOGS, an occurrence that accurately reflects the uncertain loyalties and hidden intentions of its characters.  Other, lesser Tarantino-esque tropes also pop up throughout, like extended sequences set in bathrooms or diners.

Tarantino, along with Generation X contemporary Kevin Smith, were two of Sundance’s first high-profile breakout filmmakers.  RESERVOIR DOGS was a game-changing picture, with its release launching the career of one of cinema’s most audacious, divisive characters.  All those years of watching countless films, hacking away at his old scripts, and good-old-fashioned networking had finally coalesced into a directorial style that was comprised of everything that came before it, yet completely unlike anything that had ever been seen.

Sponsored by: Special.tv – Stream Independent 

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

Three years after his breakout hit, PULP FICTION (1994), set the cinema on fire, director Quentin Tarantino returned with a follow-up feature that again confounded his audience’s expectations.  Primarily known for directing his own material, Tarantino found himself adapting pre-existing material for the first time.

He had always been a fan and kindred spirit of author Elmore Leonard, and found in Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” the inspiration for what he would come to call “his take” on the Blaxploitation genre.  The result was 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, a solid and surprising film that was met with modest commercial success, a warm critical reception, and indisputable proof that Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.

You can read all of Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplays here.

JACKIE BROWN tells the story of the titular character, played by 1970’s blaxploitation icon and sex symbol Pam Grier.  Jackie is an aging career criminal, down on her luck and trying to save up legitimate money for retirement on her paltry airline stewardess salary.  To make ends meet, she smuggles cash for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) across international borders.  When she’s caught by agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm Bureau, she strikes a deal to help the ATF catch Ordell in exchange for her freedom.  An elaborate sting involving marked bills and a Torrance shopping mall is devised, drawing in aging bounty hunter Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and schlubby ex-con Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) into the complicated plot.

Emboldened by John Travolta’s career resurgence in the wake of PULP FICTION, Tarantino runs with the idea of stocking his JACKIE BROWN with aging (yet still excellent) performers that have seen better days.  Pam Grier is a revelation as the titular heroine.  She’s a former sex symbol that is unafraid to show her age, which gives her the perfect amount of gravitas for the role of a weary stewardess with a con-man’s disposition.  It’s easily the best performance of her career, and I’m uncertain that any director will ever again use her as well as Tarantino does here.   While she didn’t exactly go on to accumulate more work in the wake of JACKIE BROWN’s modest success, her profile was raised considerably as was the level of professional respect afforded to her.

Venerable character actor Robert Forster also became a beneficiary of Tarantino’s “Travolta Effect” when he signed on to play the role of Max Cherry, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold.  Forster has certainly seen better days—a fact that Tarantino emphasizes with every close-up, revealing entire canyons of wrinkles etched into the man’s face like dry riverbeds.  Max Cherry is an honorable, decent, and good man whose judgment is compromised by his love for Jackie Brown, but he never approaches anywhere near unlikeable because of it.  He gives the film a paternal presence that elegantly counters Grier’s feisty persona.  Tarantino had always been fond of Forster as an actor and used his powers of cultural persuasion for good once again to make us remember Forster’s subtle, compelling talent for eons to come.

Samuel L. Jackson, in his second consecutive Tarantino appearance, plays the film’s main heavy—the inimitable, ratty-ponytailed arms dealer Ordell Robbie.  There seems to be a thing with Jackson and having creepy/weird hair in his collaborations with Tarantino, because the style he rocks in JACKIE BROWN makes me all kinds of uneasy.  Ordell is a cold-blooded psychopath who commits murder in the name of his business interests, and there is simply no other actor on earth that can convey that kind of charismatic menace.  Jackson plays the character like a classic Blaxploitation antagonist, albeit updated with a Kangol hat and a 90’s sensibility.

Similar to Bruce Willis’ inclusion in Tarantino’s previous film, it must have been a dream come true for a director profoundly influenced by Martin Scorsese to sign an actor like Robert DeNiro to his film.  DeNiro, who spent much of the late 90’s and 2000’s taking uninspired paycheck roles, gives one of his best performances in years as the fu-manchu’d ex-con Louis Gara.  DeNiro wheezes and mumbles his way through his performance, giving off the impression of a weary tough guy who’s content living out the rest of his days as a total slob.  The veteran actor does a great job amping up the sleaze by going for broke with his greasy, unkempt hair and prison tattoos peeking out from underneath baggy Hawaiian shirts.  It’s a deeply funny and macabre performance that shows us a side of DeNiro we’ve never seen before.

Michael Keaton also turns in one of the best performances of his career as ATF agent Ray Nicolette.  He assumes a gum-smacking nervous energy as a man who thinks he’s cooler than he actually is.  It’s an inspired, left-field casting choice on Tarantino’s part, but then again so was Keaton for Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film of the same name.  Keaton steals every scene he’s in, which says a lot when he’s up against the likes of Grier, Jackson or DeNiro.  What makes Keaton’s participation even more charming is the fact that he reprised the role a year later in another Elmore Leonard adaptation (Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT), as a good-natured nod to Leonard’s wider literary universe.

When you’ve got a starring cast primarily composed of character actors, it stands to reason that the supporting cast might get overshadowed.  However, the supporters of JACKIE BROWN hold their own against their leading counterparts.  Bridget Fonda adopts the perfect beach bunny/stoner affectation as Melanie, Ordell’s Hermosa Beach girlfriend (he’s got them all around town).  Chris Tucker gives, frankly, his best performance ever as Beaumont, a petty criminal and squirrelly character that finds himself on the wrong side of Ordell’s good graces.  And finally, Rob Zombie mainstay and veteran exploitation film actor Sid Haig has a brief cameo as the judge at Jackie Brown’s trial—a nice nod to the long list of films they’ve done together.

Right off the bat, most people will notice how visually sedate JACKIE BROWN is compared to PULP FICTION or RESERVOIR DOGS (or even his later work, for that matter).  That’s not to say that the film isn’t visually dynamic, but it deals in metaphorical shades of grey, rather than stark black and white.  Working again with his regular producers Lawrence Bender and the Weinstein Brothers, Tarantino has a significantly-sized tool chest to pull from, but he opts for a restrained, mature approach.  Foregoing his usual cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, Tarantino instead has hired Guillermo Navarro, who brings a naturalistic look to the proceedings.  Gone are the burned-out Technicolor hues of Tarantino past—JACKIE BROWN’s 35mm film image boasts an earth-toned color palette, peppered with bold swaths of reds, blues, greens, and yellows that harken back to the colorful Blaxploitation films that inspired it.  Returning production designer David Wasco helps translate Tarantino’s San Fernando Valley burnout aesthetic to the inner industrial wastelands of central LA.  The predominantly warm color scheme of the film further plays into the 1970’s vibe, along with the incorporation of other stylistic relics of the era, like parallel action shown in split-screen and punchy, detail-filled insert shots.

Camera movements and pacing are a huge component of Tarantino’s style, and JACKIE BROWN showcases considerable development for the young director in that regard.  He has an uncanny intuition that tells him when (and how) to move a camera, and when to keep it still.  This is complemented by his trusty editor Sally Menke’s keen ear for the natural rhythm or music of the scene.  One example occurs early on in the movie, where Ordell has just locked Beaumont in his trunk under the auspices of rolling up on some shady arms customers with bad intentions.  Once inside the car, Ordell turns on a classic soul tune that stands in stark contrast to the pitch-black events on-screen.  He drives him to an adjacent vacant lot, fires a couple rounds into Beaumont, and drives away.  What’s remarkable about this scene, however, is that Tarantino presents the action from an objective, omniscient point of view, whereas he usually opts for an extremely subjective angle.  The camera slowly cranes from the street up over the vacant lot’s fence, where Ordell’s car and his crime are framed in the distance.  Despite our emotional remove from the central action, it’s a haunting sequence because Ordell’s cold-blooded nature is emphasized even more so than if we had seen the blasts close-up.  The off-tone musical selection is the coup de grace, and a textbook example of why Tarantino stands apart from his contemporaries and copycats.

Tarantino’s visual style is easily definable due to his recurring compositional conceits.  There’s the well-known trunk POV shot (manifested in JACKIE BROWN prior to the aforementioned Beaumont murder scene, where Ordell squabbles with Beaumont about actually getting inside the trunk).  The film also sees the introduction of another major composition conceit- the profile shot.  By this, I mean his tendency to frame his characters in profile.  This is seen most often in dialogue sequences, but he also uses it to striking effect in motion, such as the iconic opening of the film featuring Jackie Brown riding an LAX people-mover while a colorful mosaic of wall tiles rolls past (which is itself a reference to the same opening shot in Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE (1967), that time against blank white tiles).  The use of profile shots points to parts of Tarantino’s aesthetic influenced not by film, but by pulp novels, Japanese manga, and comic books.  These influences would go on to manifest themselves to a much larger degree in his next project: KILL BILL (2004).

While JACKIE BROWN is Tarantino’s first true linear storyline, he can’t help but incorporate nonlinear elements into the narrative.  In a design inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950)—a film about a singular event retold in the differing perspectives of its ensemble—Tarantino stages the central money-switch sting as a converging event for all the characters involved.  We see the plan carried out from the point of view of each key character, and each time a little more information is revealed until we have the complete picture.  Tarantino makes extensive use of long tracking shots here to convey the size of the mall location, effortlessly weaving in dialogue of peripheral characters into the ambient sound mix in a way that conveys where the current subject is on the overall timeline.  It’s a showy technique, to be sure, but Tarantino resists the urge to showboat his directorial skills and lets his perspective shifts naturally build the story and the suspense.

Music plays an integral role in JACKIE BROWN, as it does in all of Tarantino’s films.  While it is certainly an inspired and eclectic mix of source tracks, it is admittedly more on-the-nose than the likes of using surf rock for PULP FICTION’s pulp noir.  The soundtrack throws many nods to the Blaxploitation genre by including a mix of classic R&B and soul cuts.  Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” in particular is used to striking effect in the opening credits, becoming the film’s de facto theme song.  Some hip-hop, as well as an off-tone country ballad by Johnny Cash also makes an appearance.  Unlike his previous films, there is somewhat of a score element in JACKIE BROWN, albeit it is culled from a pre-existing work: Roy Hyer’s score for COFFY (1973), a classic in the Blaxploitation genre that made Pam Grier a star.

JACKIE BROWN effortlessly crosses out each item on the Tarantino Style checklist: closeups of feet implying the director’s own admitted fetish, chapter-like inter-titles used as scene divisions, yellow-colored title fonts, long tracking shots, creative profanity, abundant pop culture references, etc.  I wrote before in my analysis of FOUR ROOMS: THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD (1995) how Tarantino had become such a force in pop culture that he was now referencing himself.  This trend continues over into JACKIE BROWN.  For instance, when Jackie Brown conducts the sting operation, she purchases and changes into a feminine version of the black suit and white shirt worn by the archetypical Tarantino criminals in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION.

There’s also a fictional “Chicks With Guns” TV program that the characters watch, which comes off as a satirical version of the way Tarantino’s films are negatively characterized by the press as violence porn.

Another interesting trope of Tarantino’s style that makes its first appearance in JACKIE BROWN is echoing a hard cut visual transition in the non-diagetic music mix.  In other words, Tarantino and Menke simply cut the music without a fade or transition as the shot changes.  It’s a jarring effect that traces its roots back to the innovations of the French New Wave, and I find it endlessly amusing.

Casual moviegoers might find it odd for a white man to tackle such a specific ethnic genre, but Tarantino has always been comfortable within African-American culture.  By his own account, he grew up in a housing project in Tennessee shared by both blacks and whites, so he feels right at home in JACKIE BROWN’s cultural wheelhouse.  This conceit is not without its problems, however.  Much has been written about Tarantino’s controversial use of the “n” word, and reactions to it fall on both sides of the line—director Spike Lee loathes it, Samuel L. Jackson defends it.  I’m not here to debate whether Tarantino has a right to use the word by virtue of expressing his fictional characters’ convictions, but I am here to note its significant role in his legacy.  The “n” word has always lurked in Tarantino’s filmography: dropped casually/almost unnoticeably in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), picking up steam and mild outrage when the director (acting in character) says the word himself in PULP FICTION, coming to a common, yet justifiable occurrence in JACKIE BROWN, and finally tipping the scales back into gratuitous-or-not uncertainty with its pervasive presence in Tarantino’s latest, DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

JACKIE BROWN occupies an interesting space in Tarantino’s filmography.  Upon release it was hailed as a worthy successor to the groundbreaking PULP FICTION, with influential critics like Roger Ebert going nuts for it.  It was a commercial success and kick-started the flagging careers of many of its cast.   A little less than twenty years later, JACKIE BROWN has been overshadowed by the sheer bombast of his more-recent work, enough to the point where most might consider JACKIE BROWN a minor, yet solid, entry.  It hasn’t aged as well as PULP FICTION has, but then again it always belonged to another dated era entirely.  Among his major motion pictures, it is likely the least seen, but those who give the disc a spin are instantly charmed by its unique characters and throwback vibe.  JACKIE BROWN is a love letter to a genre of films that profoundly influenced Tarantino, and this film is his way of giving back to the ideas and people that gave him so much.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.

Sponsored by: Special.tv – Stream Independent 

Quentin Tarantino’s Unreleased Film: My Best Friend’s Birthday

Few directors are as high profile and equally controversial than Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a lightning rod for criticism and praise.  Make no mistake, there is no middle ground here—you either love his work or are physically repulsed by it.  However, one objective fact remains: he is syllabus-grade essential when it comes to the wider discussion of cinema during its centennial.  His impact on film has left a crater too big to ignore.

Having broken out into the mainstream during the heady days of indie film in the 1990’s, Tarantino has influenced an obscene number of aspiring filmmakers my age.  80% of student films I saw in school were shameless rip-offs of Tarantino’s style and work.  I was even guilty of it myself, in some of my earlier college projects.  Something about Tarantino– whether it’s his subject matter, style, or his own character– is luridly attractive.  His energy is infectious, as is his unadulterated enthusiasm for films both good and bad.  Despite going on to international fame and fortune, Tarantino is a man who never forgot his influences, to the point where the cinematic technique of “homage” is his calling card.

Why is this admittedly eccentric man so admired in prestigious film circles and high school film clubs alike?  Objectively speaking, his pictures are pure pulp.  Fetishizations of violence, drug-use, and sex.  By some accounts even, trash.  If you were to ask me, it’s none of those things that make him a role model.  Tarantino represents filmmaking’s most fundamental ideal: the notion that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, can make it in movies if they try hard enough.  Any producer’s son can nepotism his way into the director’s chair, but for the scrawny teenager in Wyoming with a video camera in her hand and stars in her eyes, Tarantino is proof-positive that she could do it too.

Born in 1963 to separated parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tarantino grew up without privilege or the conventional nuclear sense of family.  He was raised mostly by his mother, who moved him out near Long Beach, California when he was a toddler.  He dropped out of high school before he was old enough to drive, choosing instead to pursue a career in acting.  To support himself, he famously got a job as a clerk at the now-defunct Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he gained an extensive film education by watching as many movies as he could get his hands on, and cultivating an eclectic list of recommendations for his customers.  He found himself enraptured by the fresh, dynamic styles of directors like Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian DePalma, and Mario Bava, and he studied their films obsessively to see what made them tick.

This is noteworthy, because most directors traditionally gain their education via film school or working on professional shoots.  Tarantino is the first mainstream instance of a director who learned his craft by simply studying films themselves.  Before the dawn of the digital era, aspiring filmmakers had to have a lot of money to practice their trade—something Tarantino simply didn’t have as a menial retail employee.  What he did have, however, was time, and he used it well by gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and making a few crucial connections.

When he was twenty four, Tarantino met his future producing partner, Lawrence Bender, at a party.  Bender encouraged him to write a screenplay, which would become the basis for Tarantino’s first film: MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).  While the film didn’t exactly prove to be a stepping stone to a directing career, and still remains officially unreleased, it served as a crucial crash course for the budding director.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY was intended to be a feature length film, but an unfortunate lab fire destroyed the final reel during editing.  The only surviving elements run for roughly thirty minutes, and tell a slapdash story that only emphasizes the amateurish nature of the project.  Set during a wild California night, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY concerns Mickey Burnett (co-writer and co-producer Craig Hammann), whose birthday is the day of the story.  His best friend, Clarence Pool (Tarantino himself), takes charge of the planning by buying the cake and hiring a call girl named Misty (Crystal Shaw) to… entertain his friend.  Along the way, things go seriously awry and Clarence must scramble to save the evening.

At least, that’s what I took away from the story.  It’s hard to know for sure when you’re missing more than half of the narrative.  My first impression of the film is that it reads like a terrible student project, which is more or less what it is.  It was filmed over the course of three years (1984-1987), all while Tarantino worked at Video Archives.  The characters are thinly drawn, performances are wooden, the technical quality is questionable, and the editing is awkward and jarring.  However, Tarantino’s ear for witty dialogue is immediately apparent.  It sounds strange coming out of the mouths of untrained actors who don’t know how to channel its intricacies and cadences into music, but it’s there.  The myriad pop culture references, the creative use of profanity, and the shout-outs to classic and obscure films are all staples of Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s all there from the beginning.  There is no filter between Tarantino and his characters—it all comes gushing forth like a fountain straight from the auteur himself.

In his twenty years plus of filmmaking experience, Tarantino has been well-documented as a self-indulgent director, oftentimes casting himself in minor roles.  It’s telling then, that the very first frame of Tarantino’s very first film prominently features Tarantino himself.  Sure, it might be a little narcissistic, but it makes sense when taken into context; his characters are cinematic projections of him, each one signifying one particular corner of his densely packed persona.  Why not begin at the source?

His performance as Clarence Pool is vintage Tarantino, with an Elvis-styled bouffant, outlandish clothes, and an overbearing coke-high energy.  It’s almost like the cinematic incarnation of Tarantino himself, albeit at his most trashy.  He even goes so far as outright stating his foot fetish to Misty in one scene, a character trait we know all to well to be true of Tarantino in real life.

For a director who is noted for his visually dynamic style, the look of MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY is incredibly sedate.  Of course, the film’s scratchy black and white, 16mm film look is to be expected given the low production budget.  For a film where the camera never moves save for one circular dolly shot, an astounding four cinematographers are credited: Roger Avary, Scott Magill, Roberto Quezada, and Rand Vossler.  Visually, it’s an unimpressive film that contains none of the man’s stylistic flourishes, but Tarantino’s rapid-fire wit more than adequately covers for the lack of panache.  A distinct rockabilly aesthetic is employed throughout, from the costumes to the locations.  It even applies to the music, which features various well-known surf rock, bar rock, and Johnny Cash cues.

Much has been made of Tarantino’s inspired music selections, and his eclectic choices have served as a calling card for his unique, daring style.  Music is an indispensable part of Tarantino’s style, from its overt appearances over the soundtrack to certain recurring story elements like the K-Billy radio station (which makes its first appearance here).  His signature use of off-kilter, counter-conventional music sees its first incarnation in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, where he employs a jaunty pop song during a violent fist fight.

Watching MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, it’s clear that Tarantino’s films have always been unabashed manifestations of his personality and his influences.   Tarantino’s storylines and characters exist in an alternate reality, where extreme violence and profanity are more commonplace.  There are whole fan theories that draw lines between his films and connect them together into a coherent universe.  For instance, there’s a moment in the film where Tarantino’s character, Clarence, calls somebody using the fake name Aldo Ray.  Attentive listeners will note that a variation of the same name would show up over twenty years later in the incarnation of Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009).  Further adding to the theory of Tarantino’s “universe” is the fact that MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY would go on to form the initial basis for his screenplay TRUE ROMANCE (which was later directed by the late Tony Scott).  There’s even a kung-fu fight in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, which would become the genesis for his fascination with the martial art form over the course of his filmography.

It’s interesting to watch this film, as it bears every hallmark of the traditional “terrible amateur film”.  It has none of the slick polish that Tarantino would be known for, but it makes sense given his inexperience and meager budget.  Everybody’s first film is terrible.  But Tarantino’s unstoppable personality barrels forth, setting the stage for the firestorm he’d create with his debut feature.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY didn’t lead to anything substantial, simply because it was never released.  It’s a dynamic illustration of auteur theory at work, where the director’s personality shines through regardless of the resources or story.  We can literally see Tarantino finding his sea legs, feeling it out as he goes along.  The film is basically an artifact, but it’s much more than that:  it’s both a humble introduction to a dynamic new voice in film, as well as a (very) rough preview of the radical shift in filmmaking attitudes that would come in the wake of Tarantino’s explosive arrival.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight

Sometime after the runaway success of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, director Quentin Tarantino was taking in a viewing of John Carpenter’s horror classic, THE THING (1982).  He came away from this particular screening with complicated feelings– an impression that compelled him to take to his writing as a way to process his reaction.  The idea that would eventually become his eighth feature film, 2015’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, was initially envisioned as a novel he called “Django In White Hell”, a sequel of sorts to his previous film.

Naturally, a director with as feverish a cult following as Tarantino’s is going to be the subject of intense scrutiny during the creation of a new project; somehow, an early draft (complete with his signature hand-scrawled title page) leaked to the internet and was widely circulated amongst the filmgoing public.  A despondent Tarantino hastily announced he was canceling any further development of the film in light of the leak, but after a warmly-received live table read at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, he was ultimately persuaded to continue forward with the project.

Read Quentin’s Screenplay for This Film Here

Having dropped the “Django sequel” aspect early on in the writing process, Tarantino structures THE HATEFUL EIGHT as a chamber piece in the vein of his 1992 debut, RESERVOIR DOGS— albeit filtered through the prism of a harsh Wyoming winter in the post-Civil War era.  He began with a basic premise: what would happen if you stuffed eight hateful and untrustworthy miscreants into a room and slowly started turning them against each other?  The answer, obviously, is a total bloodbath.

Though the film’s shoot in Telluride, CO during an unseasonably warm and pleasant winter might suggest otherwise (1), the story finds a monstrous blizzard forcing several shady and unpredictable characters to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rustic cabin in the woods outside of the fictional town of Red Rock.

A perennial Tarantino repertory player since 1994’s PULP FICTION, Samuel L. Jackson is finally given top billing for his performance as Major Marquis Warren– a taunting and tempestuous bounty hunter whose journey to Red Rock is cut short when he’s stranded out in the middle of the storm.  He hitches a ride to Minnie’s with an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter, John Ruth The Hangman, played by Kurt Russell in his second collaboration with Tarantino after 2007’s DEATH PROOF.  Russell enthusiastically hams it up with his best John Wayne impression, turning in a performance that, in any other director’s hands, would steal the show at every juncture.

But this isn’t any other director’s film– it’s Tarantino’s, and both Jackson and Russell have stiff competition in the gallery of murderous rogues drawing ever closer around them.  The remainder of the titular gang of disdainful scoundrels is comprised of the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and longtime Tarantino players Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.

Leigh was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Daisy Domergue, the stubborn and vicious prisoner chained to John Ruth’s hip.  As the ringleader of a roving gang of bandits, Leigh’s devious presence unifies this seemingly-random assortment of killer oddballs into something resembling a cohesive conspiracy that plots to free her from the clutches of The Hangman.

Fresh off the heat from his acclaimed turn in Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA (2013), Bruce Dern gets to spend the entire shoot reclining in a cushy chair in his role as a cranky Confederate general named Sandy Smithers.  Initially, a happenstance visitor at the Haberdashery, Smithers’ personal history is found to be intermingled with the other guests in surprising fashion, but none more so than his “intimate” connection to Major Warren– the man who murdered his son.  Also seemingly thereby total coincidence, Roth, Madsen, and Bichir’s characters are revealed to be members of Domergue’s gang; Roth being the well-dressed executioner with a British accent, Oswaldo Mobray; Madsen being a gruff and reclusive cowboy named Joe Gage; and Bichir being the squinting ranch-hand, Mexican Bob.

After a minor supporting turn in DJANGO UNCHAINED, Goggins receives an increase in screen-time with his role as the goofy hayseed Sheriff-elect of Red Rock, Chris Mannix.  His folksy drawl helps sell his background as a Confederate rebel, an affiliation that initially aligns him with Dern’s General Smithers before forging an unlikely alliance with the person who by all accounts should be his mortal enemy, Major Warren.

Tarantino’s cast is slightly larger than the eight advertised on the marquee, incorporating James Parks (son of another Tarantino regular, Michael Parks) as an irritable cart driver named O.B, DEATH PROOF’s Zoe Bell as a bubbly frontier Kiwi named Six Horse Judy, and Channing Tatum as the rakish Francophile bandit (and Daisy’s brother), Jody, amongst others.  Tarantino engineers his films entirely around the interactions of these characters, strategically employing surprise revelations and backstabbing double-crosses to ratchet up the tension until it explodes in grandiose, bloody fashion.

hateful-eight-quentin-tarantino

Tarantino initially broke out on the strength of his unique voice as a screenwriter– a voice that fueled highly-identifiable energy and visual style.  As his voice has matured, his aesthetic has mellowed out; relying less on kitsch and pop flash and more on beautiful, technically-accomplished cinematography.  This shift began in earnest with 2009’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and continues with THE HATEFUL EIGHT by retaining Tarantino’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson.

The affected retro vibe of his earlier work feels uniquely organic here, owing to the fact that Tarantino and Richardson shot the film in the Ultra Panavision 70mm format– the first film to do so in fifty years.  The decision to utilize an otherwise-extinct format subsequently informed every technical decision down the line.  Shooting on 65mm film stock that would later be projected in 70mm, THE HATEFUL EIGHT boasts an ultra-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio (the widest around).  Tarantino’s compositions and camera movement are tailored accordingly, framed into a wider panorama to compensate for the snow-capped vistas that tower in the distance behind Minnie’s Haberdashery.

Majestic crane and dolly movements appropriately evoke the sweeping scope of westerns past while also enabling modern stylistic conceits like split-focus diopter compositions, slow-motion bullets that hit home with the sonic force of bombs, and Tarantino’s own signature low-angle POV shots.

Tarantino’s old-school approach continued on to the film’s post-production.  While 35mm prints for the shorter theatrical version were struck from a digital intermediate, Tarantino specifically avoided the D.I. suite when it came time to color the 70mm Roadshow version, which means the cold blue exteriors, warm amber interiors, and the rich hues of the period costumes are the result of organic photochemical color-timing.  

THE HATEFUL EIGHT also marks Tarantino’s second consecutive collaboration with editor Fred Raskin, who stepped in to replace Tarantino’s longtime cutter Sally Menke after her unexpected death in 2010.  Raskin proves an invaluable ally in helping Tarantino achieve the unique retro flavor of the bygone “roadshow” presentation format.

A staple of midcentury American cinema, the “roadshow” is a term typically ascribed to 3 hour+ epics that adopted a presentation style not unlike stage performance, complete with an orchestral overture and intermission.  Whether its due to dwindling audience attention spans or a desire to cram more screenings into a single evening, the roadshow has long fallen out of fashion.  The last high-profile roadshow presentation was relatively recent, for Steven Soderbergh’s s CHE (2008) — a sprawling, 4 hour portrait of the eponymous revolutionary fighter — but even then, it was regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly.

The 187-minute 70mm roadshow presentation, containing an overture, intermission, alternate footage and six minutes of extra footage over its shorter 35mm sibling, is Tarantino’s preferred version of THE HATEFUL EIGHT— yet it’s also the least-seen.  Tarantino and his producers (Stacey Sher, Shannon McIntosh, Richard N. Gladstein, and longtime collaborators Harvey and Bob Weinstein) knew that the considerable cost (reportedly $8-10 million) to retrofit enough theaters with analog 70mm projectors capable of handling over 250 pounds worth of film reels was going to be an extremely limiting factor in distributing Tarantino’s intended vision (1).

Instead of simply giving in to the realities of the market, however, they aggressively pushed to install the necessary equipment in 50 theaters around the world while promoting the roadshow version as a special, must-see limited engagement.  The 35mm version saw a much wider circulation, and as of this writing is currently the only version of THE HATEFUL EIGHT available on home video.  However, Tarantino does manage to nod towards his preferred vision within the 35mm cut by using the occasion of his opening credits to allude to an informal overture via a long, glacially-paced shot that allows the music to take prominence.

In addition to THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s considerable technical innovations, the film also marks Tarantino’s first time using a wholly-original score, courtesy of legendary spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone.  A longtime idol of Tarantino’s, Morricone had lent some pre-recorded cues to the director for use in THE DJANGO UNCHAINED, only to publicly express his displeasure at how his music was handled and vow to never work with the provocative auteur again (1).  Morricone obviously changed his mind somewhere along the way, as THE HATEFUL EIGHT boasts a suite of new cues that would land the venerated composer his first-ever Academy Award.

Combining a grandiose, lumbering new sound with a few of his unused cues from THE THING, Morricone’s score benefits from the total creative freedom afforded him by Tarantino.  This being a Tarantino film, however, THE HATEFUL EIGHT would be remiss not to include a few choices, anachronistic needle drops (and to drop them just as suddenly in transitioning to a new scene).  Towards this end, Tarantino incorporates an inspired mix of tracks from the likes of Jack White and Roy Orbison and even throws in a poignant piano rendition of “Silent Night” to hammer home the film’s Christmas-time setting.

There are few voices in cinema as singular as Tarantino’s, each of his films proudly bearing his unique stamp.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT is undoubtedly a piece with Tarantino’s efforts to expand his interconnected cinematic universe while simultaneously drawing it closer together (see the surprise revelation that Roth’s character is actually an ancestor of Michael Fassbender’s Lt. Archie Hicox from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, or Madsen’s musings that “a bastard’s work is never done”, also from the 2009 film).

Like his previous films, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is structured in his distinct format– self-contained sequences that are partitioned off into book-style chapter intertitles yet presented in a nonlinear fashion as a means to bring further illumination and context to previous events.  Within the story itself, his characters are gifted with an almost metatextual awareness about the greater universe around them.  They seem to know they are inside a Tarantino film, readily breaking the 4th wall as if acknowledging their shared creator.  Indeed, Tarantino himself is often a character in his own films, deploying himself into a range of capacities from full-fledged characters (RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION), to cameos (DEATH PROOF, DJANGO UNCHAINED), and even as an omniscient narrator, as seen in THE HATEFUL EIGHT during the feverish “Domergue’s Got A Secret” sequence.  The characters within THE HATEFUL EIGHT— like Tarantino’s other iconic creations dating all the way back to RESERVOIR DOGS— all possess a sharp wit, a profanely florid speaking prose, and a gleeful eagerness for borderline-sadistic violence against their fellow man.

Tarantino has always worn his B-movie influences on his sleeve, and the trajectory of his career has seemingly organized his favorite genres into distinct eras.  His love for 70’s crime and heist films is evident throughout RESERVOIR DOGS, while his passion for Blaxploitation pictures from the same era fundamentally inform PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN.  Schlocky kung-fu and bloody grindhouse flicks merged with westerns to create a distinct hybrid of styles that gave us KILL BILL (2003) and DEATH PROOF (2007).  Starting with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, however, a very curious thing is unfolding.  The western genre continues to inform Tarantino’s storytelling, but rather than simply homaging that particular period, he is actively deconstructing them to discover the nature of the engine that fuels them.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED, and now, THE HATEFUL EIGHT come together to form a loose trilogy of Revisionist revenge westerns that directly confront America’s ugly racial history.  Tarantino’s longtime, almost-casual use of racial and sexist epithets in his work has earned him several enemies in addition to a reputation as a deeply divisive and controversial voice in mainstream American cinema.

A truly equal-opportunity offender, he has never shied away from carpet-bombing his narratives with some of the most egregious profanity known to man.  However, it’s hard to argue that Tarantino lacks empathy with his minority characters– they are frequently empowered to take up arms in their own defense or to right the wrongs of their persecution, and nowhere is this more evident in his last three features.  INGLORIOUS BASTERDS reveled in depicting a coalition of American soldiers hunting Nazi scalps to avenge their Jewish brethren.  DJANGO UNCHAINED showed a slave rising up to annihilate his white masters without losing his own humanity in the process.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT evokes the profound racial tensions between Union and Confederate ideologies while simultaneously suggesting they might be more alike than they are different.  Tarantino’s usage of contentious terms like the N-word in this context, while coming at great risk to his own personal character, evidences his unwillingness to shrink away from the ugly racial nature of America’s engine, pointing it out plainly for all to see.  His placing of these interactions firmly in the past only highlights their importance to our modern times, and considering the fact that America’s first black president will be succeeded by an openly racist, xenophobic sentient tangerine, the conversation is far from over.  Tarantino’s voice may be abrasive and offensive to a lot of people, but it’s hard to argue that his voice isn’t more relevant than ever.

hateful-eight-image-quentin-tarantino-kurt-russell-jennifer-jason-leighAnother aspect of this period in Tarantino’s career has been the huge critical and financial success of his work.  After a long awards-circuit dry spell, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS marked Tarantino’s return to the Oscar shortlist– a return he cemented with the even-larger success of DJANGO UNCHAINED and its subsequent win for Best Original Screenplay.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT was similarly praised, earning mostly-positive reviews that noted his continued excellence in both writing and direction.  The film grossed $155 million against its $44 million budget– a notable downturn in the recent trend, but far from his worst showing.

Well-earned Oscar nominations for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance and Robert Richardson’s cinematography followed suit, calcifying THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s reputation as an excellent addition to Tarantino’s canon.  As the eighth picture in what Tarantino vehemently insists will be a filmography totaling only ten films, THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s warm reception positions the controversial auteur for success going into what is expected to be his last two films.  Rumors that his ninth film will be about Australian outlaws in the 1930s suggests that Tarantino plans to continue his run of revisionist westerns, but one thing we know for certain is that, whatever form the film takes, it undoubtedly will shock, surprise, and outrage.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.