In 1987 Curtis Hanson wrote and directed a thriller called The Bedroom Window. It boasted the very eighties cast of Elizabeth McGovern, Isabelle Huppert, and, uh, Steve Guttenberg. Three years later, Hanson released Bad Influence, a post-yuppie black comedy posing as a thriller in which part of the joke for modern audiences is accepting Rob Lowe as the creep who entices James Spader to do evil and not vice versa (with this and 1988’s Masquerade Lowe was trying to use his girlish delicacy, blankness, and decent hair to dissolve the blahs). Workmanlike but with an above average sense of rhythm and attention to character nuances, this pair looks today as quaint as Laura: American studios, not their art house divisions, used to pay for these scripts and films. The hit was 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and it felt like it: Fatal Attractions with lesbian overtones and a patina of smoothness. The real concession to mainstream Hollywood was The River Wild, one of those movies that felt like watching a Disney theme ride, with an improbable Meryl Streep in Tevas as an imperiled mom; by 1994 roles for adult women were already so wretched that Streep got Oscar buzz that fortunately died.
The modest box office of The River Wild led to the financing of Hanson’s most realized project to date. The biggest American critical success of 1997, the year that Celine Dion’s voice sank a giant ship, L.A. Confidential still looks terrific as a period piece but remains more valuable as a study of masculinity in crisis – the theme holding together Hanson’s work. Guy Pearce as the careerist with blood like ice, sure, but I’ve never seen a character like Russell Crowe’s Bud White: the cop with a face like a pug, hating himself for being treated as muscle for hire, with a sentimentalist’s touch (there’s a lovely reaction shot of an enraptured White watching Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken watching Roman Holiday). Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes, the brains with an insider’s gleam, codes gay and that’s how Spacey (for once) plays him. Perfect it isn’t: I don’t care for the violent denouement, and from the evidence of the staging, neither does Hanson; and while I haven’t read James Ellroy’s novel there’s a sense in which subtleties are erased.
The rest of his career was muscle flexing. Wonder Boys couldn’t overcome the miscasting of a game Michael Douglas, but the colors are richer and the canvas deeper as Hanson peoples his adaptation of Michael Chabon’s book as if he understood how you’re supposed to adapt novels. I remember the gasp as the dunces in the audiences realized that Tobey Maguire was under the blanket beside Robert Downey, Jr. Capturing a cultural moment, 8 Mile demonstrated a fine eye for the bleakness of Detroit in winter and a firm hand in dealing with Marshall Mathers but not much else. In Her Shoes was a muddle: Shirley MacLaine’s flinty detachment searched for a less sentimental movie.
When watching Hell or High Water a couple weeks ago I thought of directors who may have had gotten the project besides the able David Mackenzie. Jonathan Glazer and Curis Hanson were the finalists: the former’s talent for figuring how topography shapes character would have worked, but so too Hanson’s interest in sketching the filigrees in Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s affection, not to mention the gradations of love and power between brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster. These are old school skills.