Pinning down Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating, elusive filmography

Pinning down Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating, elusive filmography

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Kathryn Bigelow

Why it’s daunting: Plowing through Bigelow’s filmography isn’t all that daunting, really: Nine features in 30 years, all but one (The Weight Of Water) accessible, compelling, by-the-lapels genre fare. But as the recent debate over Zero Dark Thirty has demonstrated, Bigelow can be a tough filmmaker to pin down, a dynamic stylist whose work has a muscularity similar to that of her ex-husband, James Cameron, but resists easy association. She’s directed cop thrillers (Blue Steel, Point Break), science fiction (Strange Days), a horror-western (Near Dark), a biker movie (The Loveless), a literary mystery (The Weight Of Water), and war movies of various stripes (K-19: The Widowmaker, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), but her versatility makes it difficult to find a single common thread that brings all of her work together. Some of her films suggest a two-fisted feminist who champions powerful women trying to make their way in a man’s world, but not all. Others show her eagerness to mix up or subvert genre expectations, or use them as a vehicle for political sentiment, but that banner doesn’t stretch far enough to accommodate everything.  

With a background in painting and visual art, Bigelow could be broadly described as having a great eye for color and composition, but she also has a restless style that necessitates constant movement and often complex, meticulously orchestrated setpieces. She largely operates within the Hollywood system, but she’s never conformed to it: Even in the rigid medium of commercial television, where she’s done a little for-hire work here and there, Bigelow’s name has appeared on shows that were not exactly generic entertainments: Homicide: Life On The Street, Wild Palms, Karen Sisco. Bigelow’s career has advanced in phases—in and out of the mainstream in the ’90s, briefly in the wilderness in the early ’00s, currently surging in collaboration with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal—and perhaps the best approach is to follow the ups and downs in near-chronological order, to discover how she developed over time. It’s not quite an “evolution”—her two recent films with Boal are perhaps her best, but they’re preceded by two of her worst—but it’s a fascinating and elusive journey. 

Possible gateway: Near Dark (1987) 
Why? Short answer: Because it kicks unholy amounts of ass. Long answer: Because it’s a thrilling demonstration of how deftly Bigelow can take a subgenre as overharvested as the vampire film and make it seem fruitful once again. And she does it by both amplifying the gothic atmosphere—a great Tangerine Dream synth score helps on that front—and bringing in elements from a shit-kicking Western, following vampires who drift from town to town, stirring up trouble wherever they go. Set in the rural backroads of Oklahoma and Iowa—the presence of the former distinctly recalls S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, adapted by Francis Ford Coppola earlier in the decade—Near Dark stars Adrian Pasdar as a James Dean-type who falls for an attractive young stranger (Jenny Wright) who happens to be a vampire. Though Wright runs with a vampire clan full of roughnecks and savages, including Cameron favorites like Lance Henriksen and a deliciously psychotic Bill Paxton, the couple connects on the more intimate planes of poetry and passion. (After she turns him, she shows him how the world will look through new eyes, pointing to the moon and saying, “The night, so bright it will blind you.”)

Bigelow finds a way to reconcile two very different kinds of vampire stories: the seductive, all-consuming romance of the Dracula myth with its promise of eternal love, and the fang-bearing, blood-soaked viscera of an out-and-out horror movie. The latter always threatens to overwhelm the former—Pasdar, weakened by his transformation and lacking the will to feed, risks getting put out of his misery by the others if he fails to hunt—but the film keeps these elements in balance as long as it can. Then Bigelow unleashes perhaps the best sequence of her career, save maybe the raid on Abbottabad in Zero Dark Thirty: an attack on a sleazy roadhouse bar that turns into a relentlessly gruesome free-for-all. Choosing this moment to surrender any of the gauzy romanticism that had dominated earlier sections of the film, Bigelow reveals the vampire clan as creatures of unfathomable cruelty and brutality. It’s a dream of a film that slips into a cold-sweat nightmare, one from which its hero cannot wake up. 

Next steps: Skip ahead to the ’90s, starting with 1991’s Point Break, Bigelow’s oft-ridiculed yet widely adored (often by the same people) surfer-heist action movie. Bigelow’s attraction to graphic beauty and a softer brand of machismo finds the perfect object in Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi, a California surf philosopher who finances his endless summer through brazen bank robberies. Ever the peacenik, Swayze and his “Ex-Presidents” gang—so known for their masks of Reagan, Carter, LBJ, and Nixon—breeze through like “ghosts,” but a green F.B.I. agent with the equally improbable name of Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) picks up on the scent. His undercover friendship with Swayze becomes the film’s secret romance, with Swayze confidently offering some serene nugget of Zen wisdom and Reeves, in full “whoa” mode, being totally receptive over his better professional judgment. Point Break isn’t the easiest film to defend, as no film about a bank-robbing Zen surfer could ever be, but it affords Bigelow an opportunity to luxuriate in whitecaps and breakers, and transform extreme pursuits like skydiving into exhilaratingly beautiful sequences. 

For her next film, 1995’s Strange Days, Bigelow turned up the volume even more with a socially minded science-fiction film that commented on the present by speculating about a near-future ruled by technology and racial division. Extrapolating from the Rodney King incident, the film sees the upcoming millennium as a police state defined by extreme poverty and citywide unrest. Written by Cameron and Jay Cocks, the former Time critic who wrote The Age Of Innocence and Gangs Of New York for Martin Scorsese, the film casts Ralph Fiennes sharply (and brilliantly) against type as a mangy black-marketer who trades in mini-discs that offer users immersive virtual-reality experiences. A rape/murder recording, made infinitely more disturbing by the victim being forced to tap into the perpetrator’s perspective, sends Fiennes and his more morally upstanding friend (Angela Bassett) on a convoluted journey that leads them deep into a corrupt system. Though Strange Days is guilty of trying way the hell too hard on every level—the writing, directing, acting, and music are all overcranked and “edgy”—it’s nonetheless a fascinating repository of Y2K worries. Films about technological advances tend to view them as scary and Orwellian, but Strange Days is more concerned about how such a technology might be manipulated and abused by the powerful. And in the digital age, where images are dangerously malleable, that concern hasn’t dissipated in the least. 

Perhaps now might be a good time for the budding Bigelow auteurist to backtrack to Blue Steel, a 1989 cop thriller that had the misfortune of washing ashore after Die Hard redefined the genre. It’s a hybrid of two different kinds of movies, one significantly more interesting than the other: At its best, it’s a great prototype for Bigelow heroines like Bassett in Strange Days and Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, showing the struggles and triumph of a strong woman making her way in a world dominated by men. At its worst, it’s part of a stretch of sexy thrillers in the late ’80s/early ’90s that had women scurrying from their psychotic partners or vice versa. Jamie Lee Curtis brings the right amount of vulnerability and resolve to the role of a rookie cop who takes down an armed robber but fails to recover his gun—a problem that deepens when the gun is used in a number of serial murders. Making a buffet of every scene, Ron Silver plays the stinking-rich perpetrator who romances Curtis before tormenting her ruthlessly. Silver’s antics rob Blue Steel of any connection to plausible reality, but Curtis’ accelerated evolution from a cop just getting her bearings to someone forced to defend herself against attacks from all sides, including her own department, gives it a distinct edge over more generic thrillers of its kind. 

But Bigelow’s filmmaking talent was never quite matched on the writing side until her recent collaboration with Mark Boal, a former freelance journalist who gained a foothold into movies when “Death And Dishonor,” a Playboy article he wrote about the murder of an Iraq War veteran, was turned into the 2007 film In The Valley Of Elah. For The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal seamlessly fused his journalistic style of storytelling with her meticulous action craftsmanship—and they both (along with the film) won Oscars for it. Having embedded with bomb experts in 2004 for another Playboy piece (“The Man In The Bomb Suit”), Boal dramatized the harrowing experience of professionals charged with defusing improvised explosives. Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie play two such professionals, and the filmmakers, studiously avoiding any political inference, connect deeply with the day-to-day stress of the job and the inevitable stresses of bringing the war home after it’s over. The first hour, before any semblance of a plot kicks in, is particularly impressive, an accumulation of tense episodes on the ground that says everything that needs to be said about these men and their mission without needing a conventional story to bring it across. 

Better still is their follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, a gripping procedural about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The controversy over the film’s torture scenes—specifically the efficacy of torture in ultimately identifying the courier that led Seal Team Six to Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad—speaks to the importance of how this narrative is told. Bigelow and Boal thread the needle as well as they can, lifting the journalist format of thrillers like All The President’s Men and Zodiac to keep the focus squarely on one woman (Chastain) on a decade-long trail that hits many detours and dead ends before finally leading to Bin Laden. The tone of Zero Dark Thirty is crucial: Far from a celebration of CIA ingenuity and heroics—much less a full-throated torture endorsement—the film takes the form of a revenge thriller in which the search for justice leads Chastain, her colleagues, and the country itself to moral and mortal sacrifices that Bin Laden’s death doesn’t relieve. From a 9/11 recording from the top of a burning tower to the raid in Abbottabad, it’s a horror show of chilling proportions, providing neither the closure nor the catharsis viewers might have expected.

Where not to start: The early ’00s were tough for Bigelow, even though the compromised 2002 Harrison Ford vehicle K-19: The Widowmaker showed she still had game. But there’s nothing she could do to redeem 2000’s The Weight Of Water, an arch literary exercise that found her trying to connect the ax murder of two women in 1873 with the debauched relationships between two couples yachting to a New Hampshire island to learn more about it. Catherine McCormack stars as the newspaper photographer who’s working on the story and Sean Penn plays her husband, whose eyes start to wander when McCormack’s brother-in-law (Josh Lucas) brings his sexually provocative girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley) along for the trip. In order for The Weight Of Water to work, Bigelow has to connect the passions of past and present, but the two remain stubbornly at odds with each other, and the film strains badly from the effort. And unlike other directors’ failures, a newcomer to Bigelow would have no idea what her other films are like on the basis on this one. It’s an unfortunate anomaly.

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