Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days now scans as a prescient examination of how the internet has separated us into our own consumptive little realms, reducing our collective humanity, while also suggesting a test run for dramatizing the sort of mass societal siege that concerns Detroit. The web was still in its infancy in 1995, though Bigelow’s visualization of the co-mingling of cinema and violence as a designer drug—a pervading occupation of her career—now suggests online videos, particularly pornography. In the film, snuff footage can be uploaded into the mind, allowing a viewer to experience taboo sensations from a safe distance, and we’re told this technology arose from an experiment in refashioning body cameras for police, which leads to the unendingly relevant concept of the suppression of people of color by militarized law enforcement.
The L.A. riots, which exploded out of the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, cast a long shadow over Strange Days, indirectly anticipating the similar concerns of racial caste and power that fuel Detroit. Bigelow brilliantly envisions the near-future city as having devolved into a casually endless wave of violence. Portions of this film achieve a total realization of Bigelow’s sensually fluid aesthetic of aggression: Tableaux of streets engulfed in revelers as people of color are shackled and beaten are among the most disturbing and astonishing moments of her career, punctured with blasts of simulated snuff that merge the filmmaker’s predilections for first-person perspectives with sculpted tracking shots. Yet, the film also tells a laborious and uncharacteristically preachy story of a redeemed private eye, and the notion of white police being held accountable for the murder of black citizens is one fantastical concept too many.
Near Dark (1987)
Bigelow’s second film revels in the irony of vampires sucking dry cowboys who, themselves, plunder land for resources. A blossoming vampire drinks from his lover/mentor’s wrist as they stand underneath an oil rig, and, earlier, a mosquito famously lands on the protagonist’s arm in close-up, the insect’s stinger resembling an oil drill.
Near Dark‘s cast is composed of veterans of Bigelow’s future ex-husband James Cameron’s recent Aliens: Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein are bad-ass daddy and mommy vamps, while Bill Paxton plays one of his comically hot-headed wild cards, walking away with the film in the process. Most hauntingly, Joshua Miller plays an ancient vampire who’s stuck in the body of a young boy.
Bigelow offers beautiful and terrifying images that bleed into one another with diaphanous finesse, particularly of Henriksen’s character as he’s draped over a payphone, blocking the exit of a bar that’s about to know unspeakable carnage. Denied death, the vampires are trapped, as they stand in refutation of Bigelow’s sinuous, gliding formalism, which celebrates death as release from stricture. In Point Break, Bigelow’s characters would find something in-between mortality and immortality, risking death as an intoxicating break from life, and the filmmaker’s poetry would soar to new heights.
Bigelow’s recreation of the 1967 Detroit riot is one of the most remarkable achievements of her career. The terror of the film resides in the filmmaker’s seemingly casual mastery in depicting banal, hellish chaos. A devoted practitioner in the art of physicalizing political and emotional textures, Bigelow renders contemptibly laughable the notion that America’s epidemic of racism is debatable or “solved.”
As in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow’s camera seems to be everywhere at once, incorporating montage that often seems to instantaneously compress the foreground and background of images, tracking the dangers that abound in a city that’s ready to eat itself alive. Detroit has the most evocatively hot and gnarly landscapes of the filmmaker’s career, and she follows, with characteristic fluidity, the black men and women of 12th Street as they flee the white police force that descends on them with authoritarian fervor.
No prior American film has ever so viscerally dramatized the possibility that no one in your society will help you—and that many are out to get you. (For this, white audiences may find this film more shocking than people of color.) Bigelow’s supreme career ambition, to render violence consumable to a public as a method of protesting said violence as well as said consumption, reaches its highest form of expression in Detroit. She rubs our noses in African-American powerlessness, and in the sexual fear and resentment that drives the empowered police to torture and kill, leading to a daring and troubling recreation of the beating and killing that occurred at the Algiers Motel. This sequence is Detroit‘s heart of darkness, and Bigelow stretches the sequence out to such a purposefully interminable degree that we feel as if we’re witnessing the ordeal in real time, trapped.
Detroit seeks to clear the figurative room of the saber rattling of the culture wars, which distract us from the cruelty that’s part of the bedrock of America’s formation and governance. Written and directed by Caucasian filmmakers, Detroit views a racial atrocity through the prism of white guilt. Bigelow attempts a purging, a reckoning of awareness, and this is where she also runs into trouble, as her anger shortcuts her lucidity and characteristic distrust of overt editorializing.
The fascist pain junkies of Bigelow’s cinema are usually presented matter-of-factly, but the cops of Detroit are demons straight out of a horror film. If Bigelow had managed to see the cops through a lens of affected dispassion, or even empathy, she might’ve achieved a piece of protest art as scalding and unshakable as Pasolini’s Saló.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
The Hurt Locker is a relentless film that punishes the audiences for savoring its thrills. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is positioned in Baghdad as a team leader supervising the disarming of IEDs during the Iraq War. A traditional Bigelow iconoclast and adrenaline junkie, he frequently endangers his fellow soldiers so as to defuse bombs his way, often cutting himself off from his team and engaging in a battle of wills with the devices themselves.
After the comparatively anonymous staging of The Weight of Water and K-19, Bigelow rediscovers her hair-trigger timing, using montage to establish the escalating danger of the Iraqi war zones as the bombs become more elaborate and grotesque. In one of the film’s most terrifying images, James disarms a bomb only to find another wire, pulling it to unearth a web of interconnected explosives underneath the sand below him—a resonant embodiment of the combustible chain reactions that dominate The Hurt Locker.
The bomb-defusing set pieces are initially exhilarating, but Bigelow keeps returning to them and in the process wears out her audience. The Hurt Locker has no sense of down time, and little sense of beauty, except for a shot of a sunset that inspires pitiful gratitude on our part. Throughout, we’re stuck with James, a chain-smoking drinker whose emotional thermometer is always in the red.
Bigelow and Boal don’t speculate as to whether the war made James this way or merely allows inherent predilections to find their natural water level. That sort of psychology has never been of interest to Bigelow, who specializes in dramatizing the political via the physical. The filmmaker is occupied with the oscillation of violence between disreputable excitation, numbness, and awfulness. She paints a portrait of sensory exhaustion—of extremis that renders the rest of life puny by comparison. James isn’t a sentimental renegade like Point Break‘s Bodhi. By this point in her career, Bigelow understands that endless, thoughtless iconoclasm is a different kind of prison.