Roger Ebert said it best, Kathryn Bigelow is a master of stories about men and women who choose to be in physical danger. Choose is the operative word. The characters in Bigelow’s films always seek out trouble. Sometimes it’s their job to do so; cops, soldiers and secret agents are paid to place themselves in dangerous situations. Other times, Bigelow’s characters start trouble just for the hell of it. The through line of these characters is that they all become obsessed with danger. The thrill of the chase, the determination of discovery.
Of course, Kathryn Bigelow is the only female who has won a Best Director Oscar, but that’s not what makes her work so iconic. In her three decades plus career, she’s made films in all different genres. Her movies are all different, but, in some ways, all the same. That’s what makes a great director, a great director.
The Loveless is a biker gang throwback flick that oozes atmosphere and tone. The film, which Bigelow co-wrote and co-directed with Monty Montgomery (who played “The Cowboy” in Mulholland Dr.), is about a moody motorcycle gang who stop in a conservative southern town while in route to Daytona, Florida. Tensions are drawn between the gang and the town locals, all while the “hero” of the film, a baddie biker named Vance (Willem Dafoe, in his first credited screen role), falls for a small town girl.
The film is a strong debut for Bigelow, Dafoe, and cinematographer Doyle Smith. Many of Smith’s compositions singlehandedly make the film worth watching. Though, it must be said, the slow pacing of the movie will turn many off. At only 82 minutes, The Loveless should move faster than it does, but its deliberate style is indicative of Bigelow’s early confidence. A trait she has yet to part with. B
The logline for Near Dark is dangerously familiar: An innocent young man is bitten by a vampire and during his subsequent transformation, is taken under the wing of a group of vampires, who teach him to prey on humans. But thankfully, there’s plenty to help distinguish Bigelow’s film from others of its kind.
Near Dark is a fusion of the western and vampire genres, with a handful of hilarious and psychopathic characters to help add humor to the mix. A notable aspect of the film is that not every vampire in the gang is on board with having new vamp Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) around. Namely Severen (Bill Paxton, really going for it), who’s philosophy is to kill everything and everyone that isn’t a vampire, and have a damn fun time doing it. The best scene in Near Dark is when the vampires descend on a shitty dive bar and harass some locals, just because they can. There’s a macabre humor that permeates throughout the film, and that mixed with visual flare and plentiful gore make Near Dark the type of movie destined for cult status. B+
Blue Steel was Jamie Lee Curtis’ star vehicle, and there isn’t a false note to be found in her performance. Her Megan Turner is a fierce rookie cop determined to track down a killer who, unbeknownst to her, she has begun a casual romantic relationship with. Other movies of this kind often leave the Big Reveal of the killer for the very end, but Blue Steel does something interesting by taking the suspense away. We know early on that Eugene (Ron Silver) is the bad guy. So as Megan and Eugene get closer, we sit in anguish as Megan slowly makes herself more vulnerable to him.
Blue Steel is a strong film about a strong woman who’s fighting the system, misogyny be damned. In a bold move, nearly every other major performance in the movie is played by a man (the women, other than Megan, are purposefully portrayed as victims). Bigelow knows the world we’re often presented in cop films, and with Blue Steel, she flips that perception in such a refreshing way. B
Point Break is one of my favorite films of all time. I can quote it verbatim and predict every action. I love it. Absolutely love it. For those poor souls who don’t know what it’s about: rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is tasked with investigating a group of bank robbers who dress up as ex-presidents when they pull off jobs. Based on a hunch from his partner (Gary Busey), who thinks the robbers are surfers, Utah takes up surfing and falls in with a righteous free spirit named Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who may or may not be one of the thieves.
So look, here’s the thing. As far as the annals of cinema history are concerned, no, Point Break is not a masterful cinematic achievement. But there’s something to be said for a film that so ruthlessly strives to entertain, and does. Simply put, this movie is a goddamn good time. The dialogue is priceless, the action scenes are legitimately thrilling (notice the lack of visual effects), and the performances are the epitome of each actors’ respective on-screen persona. There’s nothing I don’t love about this film. I can put it on anytime, anywhere, and completely enjoy myself. And hell, sometimes, what more can you ask for? A
On the eve of the year 2000, Los Angeles is a battleground for those frightened by the new millennium. Riots rage, cops are criminals, and men like our hero, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), do whatever they can to get by. Lenny deals exclusively in SQUIDs, recordings taken from a person’s brain and put on a minidisc. SQUIDs come in all forms – sexual encounters, chases, shootouts – and when the user watches them, they experience the physical sensation of the person who recorded it. So when Lenny comes across a SQUID of a woman being raped and murdered, he’s thrown into a web of mystery and corruption that he may not escape from.
Unlike many films that take place in the near future, Strange Days still holds up today. In fact, when I rewatched it a few months ago, I liked it more than ever. For Fiennes, Lenny was an opportunity for the actor to step out of the villainous shadow of his Schindler’s List character. And for Angela Bassett, who plays Lenny’s friend, Mace, Strange Days gave her a chance to portray a fearless badass, which she plays so well. The supporting players are a who’s-who of character actors from the ‘90s. Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D’Onofrio, Michael Wincott, William Fichtner – they’re all great here, fully buying into the world Bigelow created. B
The Weight of Water crosscuts two stories: the events surrounding a double murder in 1873, and two couples on a boat in the present, researching the murder. The problem is that the past story carries little weight compared to the present one, which itself isn’t very compelling.
Thomas (Sean Penn) is an anguished poet whose wife, Jean (Catherine McCormack), is obsessed with the old murder case. But that all comes secondary to the complicated love dynamic on the boat, who Thomas and Jean are sharing with Thomas’ brother, Rich (Josh Lucas), and his girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). Thomas flirts with Adaline and Jean flirts with Rich, but the movie is too slow and timid to do anything interesting with the conflict. The Weight of Water is Kathryn Bigelow’s weakest effort; the only Kathryn Bigelow film that doesn’t feel like A Kathryn Bigelow Film. D
K-19 is middle-brow action; there are a handful of sequences and performances worth mentioning, but ultimately, it’s lost among the shuffle of similar films. Aboard the K-19 nuclear submarine are two rival commanding officers, Polenin (Liam Neeson), who the men already confide in, and Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who is new to the ship and thereby untrusted. The film is as much about the battle between these two men as it is about the Cold War that rages on outside the sub. And, to be fair, Bigelow deserves credit for producing an American film that concerns itself solely with the Soviet side of the Cold War. But K-19 is too flat to merit engaging discussion. If you’ve seen it once, that is surely enough. C-
We arrive at the turning point, the game changer, the Hail Mary that still divides audiences. The Hurt Locker was a sensation; a rare war film with no mention of politics, and no discernable plot. The characters in The Hurt Locker aren’t presented with a single conflict that they try to resolve for two hours of screen time. Their entire lives are a constant conflict. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) leads a team of men who are tasked with deactivating explosive devices in combat. James is a renegade road warrior, with a complete disregard of protocol and his general well-being. His methods are dangerous. And that’s what struck me so profoundly the first time I saw this film: there is danger lurking in virtually every scene. Whether the men are disarming a bomb or wrestling in their barracks, the threat of danger is always present.
Beyond the thrilling action set pieces, splendid performances (the trio of scene-stealing cameos from Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes are a pleasure), and overall expert direction (which won Bigelow an Oscar), The Hurt Locker is fearless at conveying the idea that war is a drug. Indeed, the film opens with a quotation stating that very message, but it ends with imagery that is far more powerful. Walking back to the battle, back to the unknown, back to the danger. Why? Anyone who hasn’t been isn’t qualified to answer. A
One of the most controversial movies of the past decade, let alone of Bigelow’s career, is the bin Laden manhunt thriller, Zero Dark Thirty. In the weeks directly before and after the film’s release, the conversation surrounding Zero Dark Thirty was stuck on the film’s brutal and realistic depiction of torture. The conversation quickly became political – did the U.S. actually torture detainees? – which is the antithesis of what the movie is trying to convey. Bigelow had to do the now-standard press circuit of explanations and apologies, carefully articulating her personal belief in pacifism, while conveying that cinematic depiction is not endorsement.
It’s a shame that politics clouded the release of the film, because Zero Dark Thirty is an expertly crafted slow-brew procedural thriller. Jessica Chastain has arguably never been better (I couldn’t disagree more with those who say her character isn’t layered), and the supporting cast is universally excellent. And the final siege on bin Laden’s complex (which wisely takes place in real time) is one of the best executed film sequences I have seen in the past several years.
Many still disagree over the worth of Zero Dark Thirty (I’m sure I’ll catch some crap for referring to the film as “masterful”), and that’s fair. I’m glad in the years since its release, the film has been allowed to stand on its own, away from the talking heads who needlessly turned it into a political centerpiece. Zero Dark Thirty gets better and smarter every time I watch it. It’s as if I’m learning the facts of the case right there with Chastain’s Maya. Pealing back the layers, desperately trying to find what’s hidden underneath. A
The Hurt Locker
Zero Dark Thirty
The Weight of Water
K-19: The Widowmaker
Just Plain Bad