Until September of that year, 1997 wasn't a particularly memorable year of movie-going. The spring had yielded little of note, most of the big new releases overshadowed at the box office by George Lucas's much-hyped (and, for years after, much-derided) "special editions" of his original Star Wars trilogy. The summer included one critical and commercial mega hit ( Men in Black); a handful of good-ol'-fashioned movie-star vehicles (Air Force One, My Best Friend's Wedding, The Fifth Element); a couple of nutso Nicolas Cage action movies (Con Air, Face/Off); and one indifferently reviewed but highly profitable sequel ( The Lost World: Jurassic Park). The rest of the slate was quickly forgotten throwaways and loudly flopping franchise-killers like Batman and Robin and Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Then came the fall of 1997—which was, simply put, one of the most remarkable movie-going seasons of our time.
Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag The Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic. Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers.
In this series, which will run throughout this fall, I'll look back at those movies week by week—examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
The fall's first high-profile movie was also a high-stakes one for its creator. David Fincher had graduated from music videos to feature films five years earlier, directing Alien 3—a stylish but ultimately unsuccessful franchise film (the final product reportedly undone by studio interference and tinkering), which would've sent plenty of novice directors packing. Instead, Fincher recovered beautifully with 1995's Seven, a bleak fusion of serial-killer thriller and policier that garnered rapturous notices and robust box office returns. Two years later, he released his follow-up, The Game.
The film begins with a montage of childhood home movies (which was not quite yet a cliché, but close), the focal child the deliciously named Nicholas Van Orton. The adult Nicholas (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker, living the kind of empty-mansion, reheated-dinner existence that you'd think The LEGO Batman Movie was satirizing were it not for Bruce Wayne. We rejoin him on his 48th birthday—the same age his father killed himself by leaping to his death in front of young Nicholas. He's coped by becoming a cold and ruthless success, but his younger brother Connie (Sean Penn) is a fuck-up, and their interactions and dialogue over his birthday lunch convey exactly how tired he's become of his brother's nonsense.
But Connie bears a gift: a gift certificate from something called CRS, short for Consumer Recreation Service, which he calls "a profound life experience" and "the best thing that ever happened to me." Despite Connie's sneers toward visiting California, he sounds like a recruiter for one of its many sunshine cults. Nicholas is at least intrigued enough to visit CRS's office, but he doesn't get any more details beyond an enigmatic exec (played with grinning precision by the great character actor James Rebhorn) explaining only that they provide "whatever's lacking." Nicholas is unamused: "Humor me with specifics."
The smug condescension with which Michael Douglas delivers that line was, by this point in his career, something of a specialty. For the better part of a decade, since 1987's power-yuppie double-play of Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, he'd excelled at playing rich assholes in films like The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure. (He'd play one more, in the following year's A Perfect Murder, before sliding into his current aging-character-actor phase.) The Game is a movie that's aware of Douglas's persona, and Fincher indulges throughout in the kind of slickness, smooth surfaces, and conspicuous consumption typical of Douglas's best-known films. But he peers at it from an off-feeling angle to better view the emptiness underneath.
In due course, everything about CRS and what they're offering begins to reveal itself as artificial, and The Game becomes a paranoid conspiracy thriller in the style of Fincher's admitted influence Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View, All The President's Men). John Brancato and Michael Ferris's script is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces keep rearranging, as it constantly and ingeniously reframes and resets itself. The Game has acquired a reputation as one of Fincher's wheel-spinners—a throwaway conventional thriller made between his more vital works (Panic Room has the same stigma)—but this is one weird, unpredictable movie, which is abundantly clear by the time he's waking up in empty Mexican crypts and begging for rides in nowhere diners.
Fincher follows Nicholas ever deeper into the rabbit hole and toward the picture's fabulous climactic double-cross—a fake-out that Fincher (and perhaps only Fincher) could get away with at that specific moment because of Seven's relentless grimness. It's a prank, this ending—this movie, really—and it's a masterful one.
Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's LA Confidential, which hit theaters the following Friday, works in many of the same ways Roman Polanski's Chinatown had 20-plus years earlier: Both are handsomely mounted period pieces recalling the noir mysteries of the era, while explicitly addressing matters of sex and violence that their precursors couldn't touch. LA Confidential throws in another layer of post-modernism by itself echoing Chinatown, up to and including the melancholy music of their shared composer, Jerry Goldsmith.
They key difference between the two texts is that Chinatown's antagonists, private eyes and shady robber-barons, lurked in the shadows; LA Confidential's characters are right out there in the open, in the LAPD and in Hollywood, and they barely bother to pretend they're any better than they are. The tabloid cover stories that butter the bread of publisher Sid Hudgens (a wonderfully wormy Danny DeVito) are set-up jobs between himself, snitches, and cops; police captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) tells rising young officer Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) that he has "the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach," before rattling off a checklist of how far a real cop has to be willing to go (planting evidence, unapologetic brutality, shooting unarmed suspects). It's a whole other world, the past!
The film's other key characters are Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a mini-celebrity thanks to his consulting gig on the Dragnet-esque TV cop show Badge of Honor, and Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), a brutish attack dog with a particular taste for wife-beaters. These three cops are set loose in a willfully complicated mystery, filled with twists, flip-backs, set-ups, and payoffs, all the while cheerfully intermingling 50s fact into their cinematic fiction.
That line is blurred by the character of Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn, all oily confidence), who runs an escort service specializing in women "cut" to look like movie stars. His Veronica Lake is Lynn Bracken (a haunted Kim Basinger), who gets two truly great moments: the trace of resigned sadness in her voice when she admits that, thanks to the particulars of this "service," "I still get to act a little"; and the unforced intimacy of her taking Officer White by the hand and leading him past the bed in her living room, where she performs, to the modest, "real" one in her bedroom.
LA Confidential works best as a character study—particularly when focusing on the mirror images of Exley and White, who each spend much of the film straining to turn themselves into what the other is naturally. Bud tries to prove himself as a real investigator rather than a dumb thug, while Exley attempts to display the tough guy under his intellectual exterior. Hanson and his co-scripter Brian Helgeland are fascinated by the complex morality of Ellroy's characters, whom they primarily costume in blacks and whites, even though their script is all shades of gray. Exley is on the right side of the law and of history, but he's also an insufferable twerp; Vincennes is a blatant opportunist, but as played by Spacey (with an ever-present twinkle in his eye), he's a blast. And then there's White, the champion of women who, when he's presented with evidence of Lynn's betrayal, lashes out at her in the exact way he claims to loathe most. (It's a turn that won't surprise students of present-day performative male feminism.)
Pearce and Crowe were terrific and all but unknown when LA Confidential hit theaters; the known quantity was Spacey, recently minted Best Supporting Actor and top billed despite taking a supporting turn. But his performance is a monster nonetheless; note the quiet little catch in his voice when he answers Exley's question about why he became a cop ("I don't remember"), his wordless reaction in the scene after they meet Lana Turner, and how he plays one of the great modern movie death scenes. It comes out of left field, and the shock of its occurrence registers on the actor's face just as it does on ours. Spacey slides gracefully through a range of emotions: the realization that it's happened, the acknowledgement of what it means, and the snap decision of what to say while he can still say something. Swear to God, you can see a light going out in his eyes.
Pearce plays a similar silent concerto when Cromwell's initially affable, suddenly villainous captain delivers the message: He registers a moment of confusion, then pushes it off and goes along. The turn of Cromwell's character maintains its kick (keep in mind, this was two years after Babe), while the murder of Spacey, the film's biggest star, gives what follows an all-bets-are-off quality. There are a few stumbles in the third act, but none of them hobbling and all redeemed by the tiny throwaway moment in the film's closing big press conference in which the chief of the LAPD assures the city's citizens that finally, "Los Angeles will finally have the police force it deserves." LA Confidential, by the way, was released six years after the Rodney King tape. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When our series resumes in two weeks, we'll check out Ang Lee's melancholy adaptation of Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm" and Errol Morris's gleefully eccentric "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control." Follow Jason Bailey on Twitter.