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Violence As Drug: Ranking the Films of Kathryn Bigelow
Violence As Drug: Ranking the Films of Kathryn Bigelow

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Point Break (1991)

Among the most intense and beautiful of American action movies. F.B.I. agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover as a surfer to ingratiate himself with a cabal of bank robbers led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a poser whose philosophies of pacifism and individuality mask a streak of authoritarian self-absorption. Yet Bodhi’s fascination with courting death gives him a stature that complicates his hypocrisy. Bigelow’s at once critical of Bodhi and drunk on his magnetism, and how could she not be? Bodhi is Swayze’s most graceful and indelible creation, a sexy and poignant embodiment of the barely perceptible line that exists between revolution and corruption.

Like Near Dark and Zero Dark Thirty, this film follows an outsider who stumbles into a netherworld that seeks to operate above death by embracing its proximity. Point Break is the epitome of Bigelow’s poetry of suspension, of annihilation as transcendence, and the weightlessness of her sky-diving and surfing set pieces contrasts with the visceral, pounding corporeality of her gun fights and foot chases. Perhaps Bigelow recognized Near Dark‘s central flaw: that the human hero wasn’t tempted to join the vampire clan. The filmmaker solves that problem in Point Break, forging a love story in which two daredevils get a whiff of each other and recognize kindred spirits, enacting a sweet, fleeting dance of simpatico bravado.

Violence As Drug: Ranking the Films of Kathryn Bigelow

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Continuing what The Hurt Locker initiated, the film further de-tethers Bigelow’s increasingly abstract aesthetic from the strictures of genre. Zero Dark Thirty snatches a ripped-from-the-headlines premise—the hunting and killing of 9/11 architect and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011—and dries it out, fashioning a universal parable of the quest to contain and resolve the uncontainable and unresolvable. In this fashion, the film’s reminiscent of procedurals such as All the President’s Men, Munich, and Zodiac, as these productions share an obsession with obsession itself, as well as a distrust of American ego.

Bigelow rhymes the behavioral intricacies of the torture sessions at the C.I.A’s Middle Eastern “black” sites with the bureaucratic procedure of conventional white-collar office meetings, showing how the two blur in operatives’ minds to inure them to the moral implications of their actions. (This acknowledgment of the numbing of perspective in the face of chaos runs through Bigelow’s oeuvre.) The true protagonists here are the webbed global infrastructures that nabbed bin Laden, as the human characters are purposeful sketches. The film is staged as a nightmare of jargon and ultraviolence, courting tedium and confusion to show how these jobs grind people down into cogs within an expanding machine of surveillance and suppression. There isn’t a narrative in a traditional sense, as characters appear and disappear and leads surface and evaporate with maddening randomness over a period of years that seem to elapse in a matter of minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow’s ultimate portrait of violence as an eradicator of human specificity, and her sharp, jittery editing syntax suggests the omnipresent dread that characterizes modern life—until the climactic killing, when she reinstates the supple formal fluidity of her early films, giving the audience formal beauty as an illusory reprieve from the uncertain opaqueness of her expositional standoffs. Watching as the United States grows increasingly desperate to find bin Laden and reinstate its sense of powerfulness to the world, we realize with dawning horror that he was successful beyond his wildest dreams, helping to detonate America’s self-illusion of democracy.

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