Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is obsessed with violence as an annihilator of individuality, often implying that extremists yearn for this effacement so as to connect with a primal and potentially collective id. There’s a straight line running from the vampires of Near Dark to the bank-robbing surfers of Point Break to Lenny and the mystery killer of Strange Days to Staff Sergeant William James of The Hurt Locker to Maya of Zero Dark Thirty. These are isolated wolves, whose gifts and egotism divorce them from a society to which they feel superior, as they seek a higher visceral purity.
Bigelow understands that the act of withholding character information can be revelatory, particularly in terms of showing how a fealty to violence dries people out in the tradition of all addictions. This thematic fixation tends to get Bigelow in trouble, especially her controversial use of a Chris Hedges quotation in The Hurt Locker insisting that “war is a drug,” which is as succinct a summary of the concern of Bigelow’s art as any that has been offered.
Bigelow’s art faces a paradox that’s familiar to the action filmmaker: She explores the commercializing of violence via the commercializing of violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bigelow’s striking aesthetic fused sinuous tracking shots with subjective point-of-view compositions to emphasize the narcotic, voyeuristic pull of cinema. This is explicitly the subject of Strange Days, which eroticized rape as an expression of the diseased resentment that’s exacerbated between the genders by a pop culture that endlessly promises objectified sex as a distraction from mass social atrocities. Astonishingly, Bigelow was accused in certain circles of glorifying rape. No doubt, these are the same people who thought that Zero Dark Thirty glorified torture.
The sophistication of Bigelow’s staging, and her refusal to allow her characters to utter comforting op-eds in their dialogue, prevent some viewers from recognizing the humanity that exists under her determination to express the thorny ambiguities of duress and exhilaration.
Blue Steel (1990)
After witnessing the shooting of an armed robber, stock trader Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) grows drunk on death and stalks Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), the police officer who killed the criminal. His fixation on violence resembles a blossoming drug addiction and a transmittable mental disease, echoing the themes of Near Dark and anticipating the narcotic death wish that governs Point Break, Strange Days, and The Hurt Locker. The armed robber’s gun tumbles out of his hand as he dies and lands next to Eugene, suggesting a sick, shorn phallus. Picking the pistol up, Eugene implicitly seeks to undo a symbolic castration.
Unaware of his true identity and motivations, Eugene is initially attractive to Megan because she believes that he isn’t intimidated by her profession, and so his derangement is a reprieve from the sexism and condescension that she routinely faces. It’s difficult not to interpret Megan’s plight as a form of autobiography on the part of Bigelow, the rare female action maestro. There’s a daring suggestion that Megan’s a cop so as to punish men; coming from an abusive home, she’s comfortable with men only from a distance. Curtis is superb, but Silver is a disaster, playing Eugene as a foaming wolf man who obliterates the film’s gender-minded ironies. Bigelow’s staging is sleek and atmospheric yet oddly rote. As in Strange Days, the filmmaker’s genre-film predilections eclipse her more ambitious conceits.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Aesthetically, K-19: The Widowmaker is Bigelow’s least distinguished film, as the director succumbs to the cluttered, jargon-governed stodginess of one of the dullest of genres: the submarine thriller. Though based on a true story, in which an experimental Soviet nuclear sub is disastrously dispatched to the sea at the height of the Cold War so as to intimidate the Americans, K-19 feels like virtually every other submarine movie ever made. Bigelow relies on close-ups of men who turn knobs, read meters, and square off against each other in confrontations in which their senses of masculinity and honor are at stake, finding only fleeting opportunities to utilize her skill for tracking shots that render emotional violence a nearly tactile entity.
Thematically, however, K-19 exists within Bigelow’s auteurist wheelhouse, exhibiting the filmmaker’s unresolved relationship with authority. At certain points in the film, defectors from the Soviet Union’s chain of command are celebrated as humanists while other rebels are decried as traitors. The implication seems to be that one can buck the government if the person happens to be played by an icon like Liam Neeson or Harrison Ford, though the indistinguishable masses should be content to do as they’re told. Throughout her career, Bigelow has reveled in the power wielded by good and bad strong-people at the expense of the masses, though the power dynamics of K-19 are less ambiguous than inconsistent, so as to serve a formulaic narrative of male bonding under duress.
The Weight of Water (2000)
An underrated, compellingly uncharacteristic film in Bigelow’s career, The Weight of Water suffers from over-ambition, juxtaposing a period murder mystery with a rarefied drama of sexual ennui and shortchanging both in the process. In the late 1800s, two women are brutally murdered on the Isles of Shoals, with the crimes’ sole witness, Maren (Sarah Polley), tearfully indicating a drifter (Ciarán Hinds) as the killer. In the present day, a photographer, Jean (Catherine McCormack), travels to the setting of the crime with her poet husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), and brother-in-law, Rich (Josh Lucas), and the latter’s girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), who hits on Thomas with a ludicrous obviousness that everyone pretends not to notice. It’s a busy concept, which Bigelow never entirely brings to life, as the past and present stories fail to adequately complement one another. Perhaps sensing this, Bigelow offers a few literal-minded and unpersuasive crosscuts between the narratives late in the film.
There are grace notes though. As she proved in Point Break, Bigelow has a gift for photographing the ocean, utilizing it as a metaphor for unruly passions. The Weight of Water‘s eroticism is also unusually straightforward for a Bigelow film, as she drinks Hurley in with a hungry, somewhat comic lasciviousness that shames the ogling of Hurley’s male directors and inspires curiosity as to why the actor never quite caught on as a major star. Most important, however, is Polley’s performance. The actress invests Maren with a deep-seated bitterness and yearning that brings this woman’s unaddressed needs to ferocious life, leading to an unsurprising yet nevertheless unsettling conclusion. At the end, Maren succumbs to an all-consuming rage that both releases and further entraps her, clarifying why The Weight of Water might have appealed to a poet of self-obliteration.
The Loveless (1982)
Bigelow’s feature-film debut, co-written and co-directed with Monty Montgomery, is an unusually convincing and vivid homage to the American outlaw biker films of the 1950s and ‘60s. Following a group of 1950s-era bikers in full Wild One drag as they smoke, fuck, and fight while stranded in a nowhere Southern town, The Loveless mines the period-specific trappings for repressed sexual frustration, as the bikers and locals find themselves in frequent conflict over the local women.
Bigelow and Montgomery emphasize the phallic nature of switchblades, beer and soda bottles, cigarettes, and eventually guns, as self-consciously and often amusingly hard-boiled dialogue gradually attains an aura of authentic contempt. The barroom climax anticipates the central set piece of Near Dark, and the career of Quentin Tarantino is unthinkable without this film’s distinctive mixture of aggression, pop-cultural adulation, and flakey comedy. Even portions of David Lynch’s work might owe a debt to The Loveless, particularly Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, the latter of which features Montgomery, who also famously appeared as The Cowboy in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. This luscious faux-Technicolor film also abounds in Bigelow’s fluid pacing and framing, and is ripe for rediscovery.