Buried beneath yesterday’s much-discussed trailers for Detective Pikachu and Toy Story 4 was a news item near and dear to my heart. Early yesterday morning, Variety announced that director Brad Anderson would be working on as-yet-untitled film for Netflix about a man whose wife and daughter go missing during an emergency room visit. The film, which is set to star Sam Worthington, may not quite be the kind of groundbreaking industry news that gets reblogged by film websites or dominates the front page of r/Movies, but for an Anderson fanatic like myself, any new feature is both a cause for celebration and reason enough to dedicate a few more words to his body of work.
For the majority of film fans, Anderson is best known as the director of The Machinist, the movie where Christian Bale tried his best to destroy his long-term health before starring in Batman Begins. For genre film fans, Anderson is best known as the director of Session 9, one of the most iconic horror films of the young century. For me, he’s one of the most interesting modern filmmakers period. I’ve written at length about the evolution of Anderson from Happy Accidents to Session 9; Anderson’s slow progression from romantic comedies to psychological thrillers at the beginning of his career remains one of the more underrated pivots by any mainstream filmmaker. His unique fascination with guilt and grief is a common thread in most of his films and one that persisted long after Anderson stopped writing his own material. Even Beirut, the director’s most recent (and perhaps most accessible) film, is still more a celebration of self-destruction than the taut political thriller people expected. When Anderson is at his best, it hardly matters who writes the screenplay. Few filmmakers wallow so deliciously in the depths of grief.
But Anderson’s best works are not the total of his career. Unlike most filmmakers, who might use a film like The Machinist as proof of their own artistic merit, Anderson would only be credited with one more feature script, 2008’s magnificent Transsiberian. It’s uncommon to see a filmmaker take a step ‘backwards’ from the role of writer-director without also watching his or her career grind to a halt. After all, just look at the list of filmmakers who made a name for themselves at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival alongside Anderson. Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) has never directed a feature he didn’t also write; Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth) has carved a niche for himself as one of the preeminent indie auteurs of the past decade. Jim McKay (Girls Town) has carved out an impressive career in television but hasn’t directed a feature film since 2004. Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking) is probably the closest parallel to Anderson’s career – a filmmaker who walks a steady line between television and film over the past two decades – but her features are also based on scripts that she’d written.
Oh, and there have been a lot of television episodes in Anderson’s rearview mirror. This blend of television and film work is something of an oddity for a successful filmmaker, at least one who came of age before the lines between television and film began to blur. Dating back to the ’90s, Anderson has alternated between peak television and basic cable. On the one hand, there’s two episodes of The Wire, twelve episodes of Fringe, and, more recently, two episodes of critical darling The Sinner; on the other, there’s one episode of the so-bad-it’s-good series Zoo and the first two episodes of DC’s streaming premiere Titans. These are the kind of projects most often taken by filmmakers on their way up (or down) the Hollywood ladder, but Anderson seems to have found a niche in the industry as an A-list freelancer in television and a B-list director for low-budget studio pictures. His is a name that adds credibility, if only because of the ‘From the People That Brought You’ chyrons it allows studios to run in their advertising.
Maybe because of all this, Anderson remains one of the few filmmakers whose work I can always appreciate as simply the sum of its parts. Films like Beirut and Stoneheart Asylum may be flawed, but there’s comfort in how thoroughly Anderson captures the self-destruction of his characters. He is, in many ways, a throwback, the type of filmmaker who once inspired film critics to justify their appreciation of his work through complex and French-sounding theories of authorship. The fact that we love his films and television episodes, despite their yeoman qualities and unabashed broad commercial appeal, are only proof of the consistent authorial voice behind them. It’s not an accident that Anderson’s best work is often compared to that of Alfred Hitchock; there’s an element of retrospection necessary to appreciate what these two men accomplished in their respective Hollywood systems. Here’s to seeing what Anderson can accomplish with some of that fuck-you Netflix money.