David O. Russell’s directing career is as unconventional and eccentric as the characters in his films. Despite his flare and tabloid scandals over on-set disputes, the self-taught director’s recent success speaks for itself. His career splits into two parts, the niche-oriented quirky dark comedies of his early years and the widely popular, copiously Oscar nominated films of recent years.
On top of characters that go to extremes, his distinct style stamps the films with a unique mark of chaos. He typically lights 360 degrees and uses a Steadicam with a small apparatus, relying on the camera’s mobility for long takes. He creates a recongizable rhythm through the liveliness of both the visuals and the narrative content. Inspired by Frank Capra and his ability to capture the essence of community, Russell navigates the relationship between character and environment. He uses his keen sense of depth and the strategically choreographed camera movements to reflect the spontaneous and intense rhythms of life.
Leaving out the abandoned film, “Accidental Love,” below is a ranking of the director’s best films, from worst to best.
7. “I Heart Huckabees” (2004)
Even the all-star cast is incapable of completely salvaging Russell’s existential comedy, “I Heart Huckabees.” Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife, Vivian (Lily Tomlin), lead the ensemble as detectives who investigate cases of philosophical crises. An environmentalist, Albert (Jason Schwartzman), befriends a macho firefighter (Mark Wahlberg) and dukes it out with the young, well-to-do executive Brad Stand (Jude Law), who battles an empty relationship with his girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts). The nihilistic French philosopher and sworn enemy of the Jaffe’s, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), is the film’s antagonist and imposes her counter philosophies. From the quantity of the characters to the content of the dialogue, every aspect of the film is daunting, which inevitably requires multiple viewings.
The film’s conflicts are rooted in intellectual discourse, focusing on the meaning of life. It throws around complex Freudian theories, as the concepts of universal inter-connectivity clash with those of a meaningless existence. Despite a few moments of humor, the film ultimately trips over its own two feet as the jump cuts and flashbacks only make what is already complicated harder to follow. Straying from his norm, Russell relies on computerized effects, such as split screens and pixelated fantasy sequences. He tries to borrow a page from the Woody Allen playbook, but he ultimately bites off more than he can chew with the dialectical comedy that over-saturates philosophy and dilutes emotion.
6. “Spanking the Monkey” (1994)
Russell’s directorial debut, “Spanking the Monkey,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. For a novice director, he is quite ambitious, taking on a subject matter that’s as controversial as the film’s title, a slang term for masturbation. The plot follows Ray Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), a college student with a bright future in the medical field. His father forces him to give up his prestigious summer internship to stay at home and tend to his mother and her broken leg. The mundane suburban lifestyle takes a sadistic turn to explore the Oedipus complex. Over the course of the summer, Ray develops incestuous yearnings, as he literally becomes his Mother’s physical and emotional crutch.
The film is not as uncomfortable as it seems on paper, for humor overshadows the freaky sexual tension. Russell has a sixth sense for comedic timing, knowing exactly when to cut or insert a joke. Considering it’s his first feature, the camera movements are a work in progress. The jumpiness is tough on the eye but it remains consistent with the film’s erratic nature, further disheveling the viewer’s comfort. Russell makes a forbidden topic accessible through the likes of comedy in a commendable start to an outstanding career.
5. “Flirting With Disaster” (1996)
Ben Stiller is the neurotic New Yorker Mel Coplin in the offbeat comedy, “Flirting with Disaster.” Mel and his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) are incapable of naming their newborn baby. Building off of the anonymous newborn, Russell constructs a neatly packaged film about identity. Mel’s associated trauma from being adopted surfaces and he hits a metaphorical road block, unable to move forward until he knows where he came from. With the help of the chic professional from the adoption agency, Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), the family sets off on an Odyssey-esque journey to track Mel’s roots.
Eric Edward’s acute cinematography is a perfect fit for the film’s sharp wit and delivery. Russell’s comedic style is not fast nor rhythmic like his recent films but rather prolonged and patient. The film’s entirety parallels individual sequences, inflating like a balloon until it pops in climatic moments of ridiculousness. With each new location, he adds more idiosyncratic characters, such as the detectives played by Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins. Each deals with issues that are significant and relevant enough to serve as the premise of an entirely different film.
Reflective of Jenkins’ accidental acid trip, the film itself is somewhat of a drug-induced revelation. Through sexual temptation and adulterous moments, the newly weds flirt with disaster. However, Mel learns that experience, not birthright, molds identity and that his actions, not his genetics, define his ability to be a faithful husband and a good father.
4. “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
“Silver Linings Playbook” is not an authentic representation of mental illness, but it is a one-of-a-kind romantic comedy that ceases to entertain. Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper) is a former schoolteacher and a manic-depressive Philadelphia Eagles fan. Russell introduces him on the day he departs from his eight-month stint at a psychiatric hospital. Following his violent reaction to becoming a cuckold, the film revolves around recovery. Pat moves back home and butts heads with his father, Pat Sr. (De Niro), whose gambling addiction is driven by obsessive-compulsive behaviors and a list of superstitions. Despite all that has gone wrong, Pat is a delusional optimist, claiming, “If you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”
Earning her an Oscar for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence steals the show as Tiffany. Combatting her late husband’s death and a subsequent sex addiction, she convinces Pat to be her partner in a dance competition. Dancing becomes an agent of emotional expression. The mirrors of the dance studio allow the pair to literally self-reflect, as they choreograph a parlay winning number that is a projection of their weather-patterned mood swings.
In scenes like the one outside the movie theater, Russell uses depth to visually encompass the characters’ psychological state. The discrepancy between the crowd in the deep background and Cooper’s panicked face in the close foreground creates a dizzying sensation as the world spins around him. In the end, Russell highlights the unbreakable bond of family as Pat Sr. convinces his son to “read the signs,” which point to Tiffany as the right girl for him. The film is ultimately as bipolar as Pat, bouncing back and forth between moments of intense emotion and hilarious comedy.
3. “The Fighter” (2010)
With seven Oscar nominations, “The Fighter” is the turning point of Russell’s career. It stars Mark Wahlberg as “Irish” Micky Ward and follows his transition from “a stepping stone” boxer into a welterweight champion of the world. “The Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts,” his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), is a boxing legend who turns into a crack-addict. Micky’s career is in jeopardy when his stubburn familial loyalty allows his unreliable brother to act as his trainer and his futile mother to manage his career.
In the opening street sequence, Russell toys with an open point of view, shifting perspectives between subjective and objective without having to cut. The camera retreats away from the boxers at a zipping pace, dollying down the street to create a telescoping effect. There is more than meets the eye, as the film relies on its false appearances to explore underlying themes. The shot is one of the many illusions, revealing that the boxers’ conflict is rooted in the blue-collar culture of the film’s location. The municipality of Lowell, once the birthplace of the industrial revolution, is as washed up as Dicky.
As punches are thrown and punches are taken, Russell emphasizes the complex family dynamic as the most important battle Micky fights. Cleverly inserting a film within a film, an HBO Documentary crew follows the brothers, filming what Dicky thinks is his “comeback” but in actuality is an exposé into his drug addiction. The deceiving documentary echoes the visual approach, as Russell unmasks the sports biopic to reveal a gritty drama. The Steadicam emanates a sense of familiarity as it moves left and right through the streets. The mundane visuals, such as the televised look of the boxing matches, and the industrial flavor construct the everyday aesthetic.
2. “Three Kings” (1999)
“Three Kings” is Russell’s experiment in the action genre. The story takes place at the end of the 1991 Gulf War and follows Sgt. Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney). They act more like pirates with a treasure map than soldiers, embarking on a mission to find and steal the buried treasure Saddam Hussein looted from Kuwait. Russell’s supercharged script uses irony to turn stereotypical elements of Hollywood war movies upside down. The film is undoubtedly anti-war, and it criticizes the institutions behind violence while maintaining a level of appreciation for the individual soldiers who risk their lives.
In addition to the accusatory tone, the director takes risks in the filmmaking process. He relies on the aesthetic to convey his thoughts on violence. The jittery camera movements are fast and disorienting, taking the audience on a simulated journey through the battlefield. The camera’s speed finds its match in the percussion heavy score. He shoots the film on reversal Ektachrome stock to give it the blown-out, grainy and bleached quality. The stock also produces intense, saturated colors that mimic the film’s in-your-face, explosive nature. Russell’s sporadic moments of graphic authenticity and use of juxtaposing visuals expose the paradoxes of modern war and satirize American politics.
1. “American Hustle” (2013)
Ironically using con artists to discuss identity, “American Hustle” stands on top of the podium as David O. Russell’s greatest cinematic achievement. The film is loosely based on the Abscam sting operation of the 1970’s. The notorious con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), helps the FBI frame members of congress for taking bribes. Despite having more confidence than hair, Irving wins the heart of his future partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), also known as Lady Edith, when they bond over a mutual adoration for Duke Ellington’s ‘Jeep’s Blues.’ A young agent eager to make a name for himself, Richie Dimaso (Cooper) leverages a get out of jail free card to rope the con artists into the Bureau’s ploy.
Russell’s dramatized camera movements and body-part zooms mimic the back and forth of the narrative conflicts. With plot lines like the involvement of the mob, the film seems distant and elusive, but it is also strangely familiar and relatable, as Russell emphasizes relationship dynamics through the hint of garbage in the perfumy smell of Rosalyn’s (Jennifer Lawrence) nail polish. Reminiscent of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” Russell uses dual voice-overs and points of view from both genders to guide the plot. Entertainment is ever present with rhythmic visuals that match the upbeat tempo of the unforgettable soundtrack.
Using the American Dream as a backdrop, Russell portrays each character as more ambitious than the next. He ultimately highlights the construction of identity and its implosive nature. The scope is large and it feels messy, but the chaotic aesthetic turns what is traditionally conceived as flaws into the pillars of the film’s brilliance. The plot features politics, business, art, and romance asking who are the real hustlers and whether or not we are all just conning our selves.