Monday, February 1, 2016

Director Essentials: Kathryn Bigelow

by Patrick Bromley
The first (and only) woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar has a long career that should have been recognized much sooner than it was.

If you're an action movie junkie like me -- or just a fan of cool movies -- you have been aware of Kathryn Bigelow long before Hollywood finally deemed it time to award a woman its highest honor after more than 80 years of being ignorant. One of the best action directors of the last 30 years, Bigelow makes films that are visceral and cleanly constructed without sacrificing style, though it's hardly ever in a self-conscious or show off-y way. It's deeply unfortunate that after making movies for three decades, Bigelow remains the token exception and not yet the rule -- she's pointed to as the "female action director" in a weird "can you believe a girl can do this?" way that should have been eradicated years ago but which still remains a pervasive problem. A couple of filmmakers have managed to follow suit, including Karyn Kusama and Lexi Alexander, but action filmmaking remains a boys club in Hollywood. That's really a shame. Kathryn Bigelow directs circles around most of those assholes.
1. The Loveless (1982) Bigelow's first feature, co-written and directed by Monty Montgomery, feels a lot like a first movie. It's a fun little exploitation biker movie and not much more, though one could certainly draw a straight line between this and Bigelow's follow-up, 1987's Near Dark. This is also the first example of Bigelow's interest in fringe cultures as the subject of her films, a fascination that would carry through a number of her best movies.

2. Near Dark (1987) Though it wasn't a financial success at the time, this is the movie that really put Bigelow on the map. Her first of two collaborations with the great Eric Red is a vampire western unlike any other horror movie -- minimalist but incredibly stylish, pondering the existential nature of eternal life while still being really fucking cool. The amazing ensemble, which includes Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton (all on loan from future husband James Cameron's Aliens), Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright and Tim Thomerson provide the first indication that Bigelow is exceptionally good at working with character actors and turning them into leads, which she would continue to do throughout her career.
3. Blue Steel (1989) Bigelow's third film and her first for a major studio is one of her most important, which is ironic as it's the one that's most often overlooked (except maybe for K19: The Widowmaker, which has its fans). Jamie Lee Curtis plays a rookie cop drawn into a relationship with a psychopath (Ron Silver, usually a character actor) who steals her gun after watching her use it to shoot and kill a criminal during a convenience store robbery. Bigelow's films don't often deal with gender politics, but it's impossible not to read this movie about a woman functioning within a male-dominated workforce as somewhat metatextual in terms of Bigelow's own filmmaking career. The movie works as a tense, character-driven action thriller (with screenplay contributions once again from Eric Red), but the autobiographical aspects make it that much more fascinating when viewed within Bigelow's entire body of work.

4. Point Break (1991) Katherine Bigelow has made a lot of great movies, but for me Point Break is still her best. It's one thing to take strong material and direct it well as she has so often done; it's another thing entirely to take goofy, potentially terrible material and elevate it to the level of kinetic art. Not only is Point Break still one of the best action movies ever made (with memorable set piece after memorable set piece on land, in water and [especially] in the air), but Bigelow transforms it into a commentary on cinematic masculinity that fully leans into its own dopiness and takes the plot about surfing bank robbers dressed up as ex-presidents and the former quarterback-turned-FBI agent who takes them down by infiltrating their ranks completely seriously. Point Break didn't just prove that Bigleow was ready for the majors and able to direct an action film as well as anyone else; it proved that she could do it better than the others, and that she could make almost any material work.

5. Strange Days (1995) It's frustrating that Bigelow's best and most prolific period as a filmmaker was so overshadowed by her relationship with James Cameron, who gets story and screenplay credit on what was Bigelow's most ambitious film to date. I will always find the ideas of Strange Days more compelling than the execution, but that doesn't take away from what Bigelow accomplishes here: a prescient, hyper-stylized and altogether bleak look into America's future in which people prefer to spend their time in a virtual world and cops are straight up murdering people in the streets. You know, the future. As is so often the case with mystery stories like this one, the answers are a letdown when compared to the buildup, but there are just too many jaw-dropping things about the movie for it to be easily dismissed: the incredible production design, the POV shots, the mounting sense of a world about to burn and Angela Bassett's amazing performance as Mace, the bodyguard of Ralph Fiennes' Lenny Nero. Bigelow's stylish, go-for-broke direction helps compensate for the sometimes often undercooked screenplay. That's James Cameron for you.
6. The Weight of Water (2002) This is not a great movie, but it's worth including on the list because it's so different than everything else Bigelow has made. Based on a mystery novel by Anita Shreve, the movie hops between a modern day story of photographer Catherine McCormack researching some murders from the late 1800s and the dramatization of those murders in segments that star Sarah Polley. Also, Sean Penn plays McCaromack's husband and spends much of the movie wanting to fuck topless Elizabeth Hurley. The movie isn't actively bad, but it is only actively fine, with Bigelow seeming hobbled the by script's staid talkiness and lack of interesting characters, particularly in the modern day sections (the Sarah Polley stuff fares better). In no way do its shortcomings prove that Bigelow shouldn't try to make different kinds of movies, but they do help to underscore just how good she is at making the kinds of movies she usually makes.

7. The Hurt Locker (2009) While it probably won't ever get credit for being such, The Hurt Locker -- the movie that won Bigelow her directing Oscar and was named Best Picture for 2009 -- is really an extension of Point Break in the way that it examines why men of action are driven to be the way they are. A tense drama following three soldiers working in bomb disposal during the Iraq war, the film succeeds at putting a new face on that conflict and at making a leading man out of former character actor Jeremy Renner. There are a handful of sequences in the movie that are as intense as anything Bigelow has ever done.
8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Bigelow's first (and, as of this writing, only) post-Oscar effort is another story about America's war in the Middle East, this time focusing in on the hunt and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden. While it may not be popular to say, I actually prefer Zero Dark Thirty to The Hurt Locker. The characterization isn't as strong, but I love the movie's singular focus on the job. There are scene in the movie that are almost abstract in their spareness. The greatness of Bigelow's skill on display -- this is her most assured and confident film -- got totally lost in all of the politicized discussion around the movie's scenes of torture and portrayal of historical events. Like most of her films, this one deserved better than it got.


  1. Great write-up Patrick. It's sad how few of these movies I've seen. Especially since two of the ones I have seen are awesome, NEAR DARK and STRANGE DAYS. I will have to try to catch up with an important film-makers work.

  2. I have loved her work ever since Near Dark - there is a certain attention to artistic flourish in her films that is really cool (like the wind blowing after the fire fight in Hurt Locker). I also prefer Zero Dark Thirty over Hurt Locker and for me its her best film - I have watched it several times and its rare that I do that these days.

  3. You had me at "Kathryn Bigelow directs circles around most of those assholes".
    Yeah, she´s just great. I love her movies right since "Near Dark".
    Except for "Weight of water", which never opened here in Germany, I saw every one of her films on the big screen and it´s really sad that her nearly 30 year career only led to 9 feature films, especially considering some guys churning out mediocre shit on a yearly basis.
    Last week I was very happy to read, that she has a new project going with Mark Boal, the writer of her last two films.

  4. This article inspired me to watch The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty for the first time. Both movies are like a taught steel cable wound to a winch that just keeps ratcheting tighter and tighter. The style of Hurt Locker complements the writing as a profile of soldiers in extreme circumstances observed by an embedded reporter; from an intimate character study flows underlying commentary about bigger issues. By contrast, the characters in Zero Dark Thirty seem to flow out of larger themes. Both films generate raw, visceral experiences, but on second viewing I was more aware of (and sometimes distracted by) the filmmaking techniques and story structuring. Ultimately, I am glad Bigelow was recognized for her capability, and I look forward to her upcoming work.

  5. I am watching it on DVD right now and it is awful. !! Sets us back 100 yrs. this computer stuff has ruined filming as we know it. The movie is awkward and unrealistic and I'm totally unmoved and unafraid. It's weird. I want to feel it but I just can't. The rescue boat moves like an unreal object and the background looks unreal as well. Disaster!!