Director Retrospective: Kathryn Bigelow
For the next part of my ongoing Director Retrospective project (where I watch and then review the works of directors with at least 10 films), we finally have the opportunity to consider something that I’ve been wanting to for awhile — i.e. the filmography of a female director. In this case, I’m talking specifically about Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win (and only the fourth woman ever nominated for) the Academy Award for “Best Director.” So let’s take a look…
The Big List
Thus far, I’ve seen all 10 feature-length films by Kathryn Bigelow. Here’s the full list: The Loveless (1981); Near Dark (1987); Blue Steel (1989); Point Break (1991); Strange Days (1995); The Weight of Water (2000); K-19: The Widowmaker (2002); The Hurt Locker (2008); Zero Dark Thirty (2012); Detroit (2017).
The Top Five
Below are my picks for the “Top Five” films directed by Kathryn Bigelow (ranked from #1-#5, with brief comments on each film)…
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – For me, the #1 film in Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial oeuvre is Zero Dark Thirty — and it’s not even particularly close. Part political statement, part historical document, part police procedural, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes events surrounding the search for Osama bin Laden — a manhunt that took about a decade and involved countless organizations across many nations, resulting in a number of injuries, imprisonments, deaths, etc. etc. The cast here is, overall, probably the deepest (from top-to-bottom) of any Bigelow film with performances from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Mike Colter, Chris Pratt (in the role that helped him start the journey towards Marvel Comics fitness!), and so on. Due to the nature of the plot and its many moving parts/characters, most of these roles are relatively small; however, of particular note are the strong performances by Clarke (as the highly questionable interrogator, Dan) and Chastain (as the unflappably dedicated analyst, Maya). Some have critiqued Zero Dark Thirty as being too dry and its characters too cold. I think that’s a fair critique to an extent, and I definitely think it’s a film that greatly benefits from more than one viewing so that you can more easily follow the passage of time, the jumps in location, and the multiple characters. That said, there are also some overtly tense and “action” type scenes, though if that’s what you’re expecting from the entire film, you’ll certain to be disappointed. Basically…if you like investigative texts that are slow/methodical and are more focused on procedural aspects, then I think Zero Dark Thirty will be of interest to you. A great, disturbing, and extremely messy film.
Point Break (1991) – Let me just state this right now up-front: I think that Point Break is a pretty great movie. I don’t say that with even a hint of irony or sarcasm. I mean, I actually think that this film is a legitimately fun, surprisingly thoughtful (?) action movie about the appeals and the horrors of toxic-masculinity. On the one hand, you can totally understand the importance of the connections that these “brothers” feel for one another. On the other hand, those same connections lead to the characters’ demise and the collapse of the very thing that they’re trying to cherish. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a mistake to read this film through a lens of sexuality or, rather, I think that such an apparatus ultimately underestimates the film. I think what we’re actually seeing here is a love that goes beyond physical sexuality into something fucking spiritual — a kind of uber-platonic, deep-agape love or some such. It’s this same quality that opens the film up to ridicule among a certain type of cynical, “enlightened” viewer. It’s so sincere we don’t even know. Ha ha! I could go on forever about the relative greatness of Point Break. Aside from working as a really nice genre-film (the cops-and-robbers story, the coming-of-age story, the man-versus-nature story, etc. etc.), the film feels perfectly cast: Keanu Reeves as the ex-football-star-turned-undercover-cop (Johnny Utah), Patrick Swayze as the Buddhist bank-robbing surfer with a Freudian deathdrive and some righteous kung-fu (Bodhi), Gary Busey as the father-figure older detective who has SEEN SOME SHIT (Pappas), and Lori Petty as the slightly androgynous surfer / love-interest (Tyler). You get moments like this one and this one. And it’s endlessly quotable — some of my favorites are Keanu’s “I. AM. A FBI. AGENT!” and Swayze’s “She was my whoa-man! We shared TIME!” Shut it down, folks. Shut it down. A terrific film by virtue of its frightening sincerity.
Near Dark (1987) – It’s a real shame that Kathryn Bigelow’s “horror” movie (or…is it her “western” movie?) gets so overlooked by your casual moviegoer because Near Dark is a really enjoyable entry in its respective genre(s). For a whole generation of viewers today accustomed to portrayals of vampirism as “popular” (Buffy), romantic (Twilight), melancholic (Only Lovers Left Alive), or even funny (What We Do in the Shadows), this ought to be required viewing as a counterpoint. After all, there really is NOTHING “pop” or romantic or sad or funny about the vampires of Near Dark; instead, they’re utterly terrifying, ugly, ruthless, filthy, violent characters. The story of Near Dark revolves around a young man who attempts to woo a beautiful and mysterious stranger, only to be bitten by her and then adopted into her “family” of wandering, murderous vampires who caravan across the desert looking for victims. The vampire clan here is basically the cast of James Cameron’s Aliens — ha ha! — with performances from Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein. Henriksen is coldly effective as the cruel and calculating leader of the vampires (Jesse), and Joshua John Miller is creepy as the youngest looking but, actually, very old child-vampire (Homer). That said, for my money, the star of the show is Bill Paxton as the totally bat-shit insane Severen. [The scene in which Several brutally mutilates the clientele of a dive-bar in a sadistic and playful manner is pretty unforgettable.] Interestingly, having now seen each of the other films by Bigelow, I think you can definitely see elements of her first film (The Loveless) in this, her second film — mostly via the characterizations and the theme/tone, although the locales and the genres are quite different. A very impressive early film from Bigelow and a true “cult-classic” among the horror/western crowd.
Detroit (2017) – Bigelow’s most recent film, Detroit, had a lot of exciting momentum prior to its release but then sorta vanished relatively quickly and relatively quietly once it hit theaters. [The fact that it’s not really being talked about at all during this year’s awards season reflects that.] Personally, I missed this one in theaters because it came out right around the time I was moving, so I’ve had to wait until it became available to watch at home. I’m not sure if it was a result of the subject-matter, the timing of the film’s release, or the solid (but also sorta tepid) response from critics, but I think that Detroit is a bit under-appreciated as a film. The plot revolves around racial tensions in Detroit during the summer of 1967 — primarily focusing on one night in which police terrorize a group of (mostly African-American) motel guests, as well as the weeks leading up to that harrowing night and the legal aftermath of said event. To be honest, this is where the movie suffers most; it probably tries to cover too much ground and, as a result, the pacing of the film feels highly uneven. (I think the hotel portion is dragged out for too long, while the investigation and trial afterwards is given notably short shrift.) All that said, Detroit is still very much a film worth seeing at least once, not only for the story that it tries to relate but also for the performances therein. John Boyega — who is quickly becoming (if he’s not already become) the best part of every movie that he’s in — shines once again here as Dismukes, a local security-guard who becomes part of the story by sheer circumstance, and the film also features a couple of interesting small roles from the perennially underrated Anthony Mackie and a surprising heel-turn from John Krasinski. Overall, Detroit is a flawed but timely and important film.
The Hurt Locker (2008) – Well…some people might be surprised to see The Hurt Locker all the way down at the #5 spot in my list of Bigelow films. After all, I know that many people really admire this film; and it’s also been her most successful film (critically), garnering her an Academy Award win for both Best Picture and Best Director. But…rewatching The Hurt Locker, I firmly believe it’s a classic “tale of two movies” type work: The first 2/3 of the film is genuinely tense, complicated, interesting, and compelling in its examination of the Iraq War and the effects — both obvious and subtle — of a war on an abstract concept (i.e. terror). Plus, we get to follow characters who aren’t your typical “grunts” but, rather, are disarmament techs — whose job involves finding and successfully diffusing IEDs (“improvised explosive devices”). Unfortunately, the last 1/3 of the film really falls off the rails and becomes more of an “action” movie. [Our main character, played here by Jeremy Renner, sneaks off the base and nearly goes into “Jason Bourne mode” or something. It’s…not great.] I actually think that Renner’s performance is pretty solid, though a bit overrated — not necessarily because of the actor but because his character is very uneven within the movie. To me, the better and more consistent performance here is from Anthony Mackie, whose character’s job is to project Renner’s increasingly reckless character. While The Hurt Locker isn’t a bad film, it’s also slightly disappointing in retrospect because one can easily imagine this being one of the greatest war films ever made; however, the writing/script just isn’t quite there. As a result, what could have been a “great” film is only a “good” one, at least in my estimation.
The Underrated One
To me, this one’s pretty obvious: Strange Days (1995). Not quite good enough in my book to get into Bigelow’s “Top Five” films but definitely more entertaining than some of her lesser efforts, Strange Days is a dystopian, sci-fi, punk-noir sort of flick. Set in the near-future (or, now, nearly two-decades-ago past) of Los Angeles at the tail end of the 20th century, the plot (which was written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron) follows Lenny, an ex-cop turned drug-dealer and a purveyor of 1st person video recordings that allow a user to experience the sensations of another individual’s memories. Or something. Anyway…Lenny sees a recording of someone else’s memories that he shouldn’t have seen and, as you can probably guess, problems arise. The cast here — Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, etc. — are all pretty solid even if their characters feel a little under-developed at times. In particular, Fiennes does a fine job here in a role that is a little different than his usual fare. [Most probably recall Fiennes for his pure evil roles — e.g. Schindler List’s Amon Goeth, Harry Potter‘s Voldemort, or In Bruges‘ Harry. Here, he gets to play more of an anti-hero type character with Lenny.] Yes, in some ways, Strange Days is pretty ridiculous; but if you roll with it, you can get some Philip K. Dick-like concerns about reality versus perception/memory, the perils of technology, etc. etc. It’s not necessarily “great” science-fiction, but it’s a very solid entry and worth at least one viewing if you’re interested in that genre or if you’re interested in 1990s cinema. (It’s very much a ’90s film.)
The One to Avoid
There are a few contenders here. Nothing much “happens” in Bigelow’s first film, The Loveless, but Willem Dafoe (in his first lead performance) slinks around, scowls, and channels a bit of Marlon Brando’s Johnny (from The Wild One) but without losing his own trademark peculiarity. K-19: The Widowmaker benefits from an innately tense premise — i.e. a malfunctioning nuclear submarine. However, the film can’t overcome the fact that its main character, a Russian captain, is played by Harrison Ford. [I like Ford as an actor. He is many things; but Russian he is most definitely not.] Still…the pick here is obvious in mind: Blue Steel (1989). An unmitigated disaster on pretty much every level, Blue Steel tells the story of rookie cop (played by Jamie Lee Curtis), who stumbles across a random convenience-store heist and kills the perpetrator. Little does she know that her actions are witnessed by an insane and obsessive businessman (played by Ron Silver in a completely over-the-top and totally ridiculous role), who decides to become a murderer and stalks Curtis’s character until he’s able to start a romantic relationship with her. Yeah……this is not a good movie, and, unless you’re a die-hard Bigelow fan, there’s no reason whatsoever to watch this one.
The Place to Start
Well…this one’s kind of tricky. Of late, Bigelow seems to be taking on difficult subjects — whether it be the dangers of nuclear armament and the Cold War mentality (K-19), police corruption and race relations in America (Detroit), the effects of war on active-duty soldiers in Iraq (The Hurt Locker), or America’s years-long “war on terror” and the hunt for Osama bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty). While most of these are worth seeing, they’re not exactly light, easy viewing. And the years prior to 2002, Bigelow’s work feels less “issue-based” and more about playing with genre. [It really does feel like you can draw a line between pre-2002 | post-2002 with her filmography.] Although it’s not really indicative of her newer work, I think that the most easily accessible of her good films — and, thus, the one that I’d suggest as a place to start — is probably Point Break (1991). In some ways, it’s an absurd film (in all the right ways, I think) while also being one of the more influential action-films of the past 25ish years — so influential that it has inspired both a terrible remake and a loving tribute. After that, if you’re more interested in genre-work, then take a look at her entries into the horror/western (Near Dark) or science-fiction (Strange Days). Or if you prefer movies that have a message relevant to current-affairs, then checkout her more recent films.
The Final Word
Kathryn Bigelow’s work is interesting to consider — partially because of the way that her career has evolved, as stated above, from more genre-based films to more social-minded films. But I think what’s more intriguing about Bigelow’s directorial career is that she doesn’t fall into easy (gendered) categorizations. In many ways, her films are, if anything, what we might otherwise think of as highly masculine — they’re populated by biker gangs, cowboy vampires, military captains, bank robbers, police officers, explosive specialists, etc. etc. Oddly enough, in retrospect, I feel that the most stereotypically “feminine” film in Bigelow’s oeuvre is probably Point Break — a movie that paradoxically only contains one female character and, yet, seems to both explore and critique a particular type of violent/toxic masculinity (both the allure and the dangers of it) in a way that feels a bit ahead of its time in some regards. Is Bigelow challenging the boundaries of “movies men make” vs. “movies women make”? Or is she conforming to a system that rewards certain types of films, regardless of their filmmakers? Or both? I’m not totally sure. But I think that Bigelow’s films certainly deserve their viewership and scrutiny because, at their best, they allow a space for these conversations — in addition to being great movies.