Few films capture the look and feel of a certain brand of 90s Gothic like The Bone Collector. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeffery Deaver, it follows two very different police officers as they try to pin down a serial killer operating out of a taxi in New York. On the one hand, we have Amelia Donaghy, a recently recruited officer, played by Angelina Jolie. On the other hand, we have Lincoln Rhyme, a veteran officer, played by Denzel Washington, who suffers a severe injury in the opening scene, leaving him a tetraplegic. As Donaghy does the groundwork, Rhyme directs the investigation from his bedroom, with the aid of a touchscreen (he has use of one finger) and round-the-clock medical attention from his nurse Thelma, played by Queen Latifah. Gradually, the two detectives realise that the serial killer has been explicitly soliciting their attention, and (apparently) has one of them as his crowning victim.
Released on the cusp of the millennium, The Bone Collector culminated the fixation on connection that drove so many 90s thrillers. At this time, the Internet hadn’t been as thoroughly disembodied as it is now, meaning it was easier to imagine its implications in terms of actual physical spaces. Film after film therefore trafficked in lavish tableaux of connectivity – bizarre, arcane or exotic scenarios in which people were networked in unexpected ways. In The Bone Collector, Noyce digs deep to outshine all these earlier connective motifs, coming up with a film that seems to exist entirely in the spaces, beats and pauses between characters.
More specifically, The Bone Collector presents us with two competing networked male bodies – the (black) cyborg and the (white) serial killer. We learn that Lincoln Rhyme was hyper-connected before his injury – he lectured all over the world, consulted on half the crimes unfolding in New York, and obsessively collected crime scene curios. He maintains this reach into his tetraplegia, compensating for his lack of bodily autonomy by transforming his bedroom into a hub of connectivity. For most of the film, he’s plugged into a television and computer, creating a cyborg complex that is enhanced by the extravagant open-plan design of his boutique apartment. Even his name emphasises this connective potential – “Rhyme” evokes matches and correspondences, while Lincoln is nearly always abbreviated to “Link.”
On the other hand, we have the serial killer, who operates out of his taxi. While we see some of his crimes, we never see his face – he is only identified by the creepy monkey toy hanging off his rear-vision mirror. The scenes in the killer’s cab play as a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver, hypothesising how Travis Bickle might have turned out once Scorsese’s fantasy ending finally ruptured. At the same time, they situate us halfway between the taxis of Taxi Driver and Zodiac, as the killer’s purview becomes synonymous with omniscient shots of the city, tracking-shots through the city and, finally, a digital or drone-like approach to shots of his cab.
Not surprisingly, this serial killer is acutely networked, and tends to pick people up at major transport hubs to maintain his anonymity. He starts at the airports, moves to Grand Central Station, and finally shifts his attention to “Staten Island Ferry” – a fictional subway station that is apparently the oldest in the New York system. Since he can lock the doors from the front seat, his victims are powerless even in the midst of traffic – a chilling vision of how easy it is to be totally networked and entirely isolated, a combination that still felt odd at the time.
The film unfolds as a standoff between these two networked bodies, with Amelia as their intermediary. She tends to relay details of the crime scenes back to Link’s apartment, “walking the grid” for him as he supplements her data with police records. His home becomes the control centre of police operations, as more and more devices are connected to his bed. This produces a series of montage sequences in which people wait for him to network information with the same patience we used to wait for the results of early Google and Yahoo! searches.
As with Taxi Driver, there’s a tacit sense here that the white male body is the least amenable to networking, turning serial killing into a gesture of connective compensation. It turns out the killer has been trying to make contact for a while – it just took Link’s blackness and Amelia’s femininity to produce a capacious enough network. Realising that the killer was trying to make contact all along momentarily brings the entire burden of the network down on Link’s body, throwing him into a paroxysm of spasms, while the camera spasms in turn when the first (black) officer makes contact with the killer. The killer shoots him in the head, prompting a schizoid tracking-shot that pulls back from the bullet’s trajectory, and traverses the entire Manhattan cityscape, before ending on Link’s body, which feels the pressure too.
Paradoxically, directing the crime scene remotely means that Link is more connected to it, because he can see every part of the puzzle. At times, he seems to be gaming, directing Amelia, as his avatar, through virtual space: “Remember crime scenes are three-dimensional – floors, walls and ceilings.” At first, it seems implausible that he asks her to tackle the grislier details of the crime scenes alone, since she has no real experience in this area. Over time, though, you realise that what he values in her is a certain connective potential, rather than forensic expertise – which is to say he understands, inchoately, that she has screen presence.
As this relationship evolves, Noyce uses New York’s submerged, subterranean and abandoned spaces to evoke a new digital underground. Bodies are found beneath an overpass, in an Amtrak rail corridor, and in a disused plumbing chamber, while we learn that Link got his injury in the subway as well. Even the outdoor scenes look underground, bound together with omnipresent rain and tinted so darkly that there doesn’t seem to be any natural daylight. Instead, this is a film lit with digital light, a film that anticipates the light pollution of the digital era, which is perhaps why it feels so cyberpunk, so dislocated from discernible time and space.
The killer also uses the forgotten substrate of the city to plan his crimes, evoking a wider shift in the archive in the face of digital technology. Time and again, he returns to disused or arcane parts of the city, drawing his tableaux from a turn-of-the-century Gothic novel, also called The Bone Collector, that Amelia eventually finds in a second-hand bookshop. Watching it, I was reminded of the uncanny experience of linking up with old primary school and preschool friends in the early days of Facebook. People who had seemed indubitably relegated to the past, like the industrial fixtures here, suddenly became visible and archivable again. The killer also thrives in that diffuse space between a past that seemed totally underground, and a new kind of digital underground that reveals an unexpected access to a history that appeared lost.
In other words, The Bone Collector, like so many 90s films, sees the digital future as a return of the repressed past, figured here as the periodic bursts of ambient noise that muffle and mute the dialogue whenever it strays into open space. The killer, in that sense, embodies the network, building a composite body out of fingerbones even as Link pursues him with the use of a single index finger. Midway through, Link and Amelia suspect that the killer might be a cop, but he turns out to be even closer to home – the medical technician working on Link’s equipment, who is tasked with the job of keeping him alive, dissuading him from suicide, and providing him with a future, even as he seeks revenge for a convinction deep in Link’s past.
The killer and the network thus converge on an uncanny combination of futurity and history. Yet this temporal schism also liberates Link, and the film, from the time-image that Deleuze argued had haunted cinema since mid-century, producing scenarios, like this one, in which men were debilitated by sight, and forced to subsume action into endless watching. That was the premise of Rear Window, which The Bone Collector often recalls, but whereas Jimmy Stewart’s broken leg heals at the end of Hitchcock’s film, Link glimpses a digital plane where the physical body doesn’t ramify any more. With action foreclosed, and sight overwhelming, links are everything – and the film subsists on its own links, syntax and internal poetic logic, capturing the cusp of the millennium, and the world that now lay one click away, majestically.