In the latest Flickering Myth directors guide, Tom Jolliffe looks at Kathryn Bigelow…
In a male dominated field, Kathryn Bigelow has risen up from being a cult genre film director, stepping out of the shadow of James Cameron (her former husband) and re-inventing herself in the last decade as one of the best directors in the business. From cult vampire films to becoming the first female director to win an Oscar. She spent years cultivating a strong visual aesthetic and injecting dramatic weight and prescience into her work. What you are left with is powerful, affecting works (which mark particularly the latter part of her career) and fantastic B pictures with their own very unique, Bigelow style.
Bigelow got her start as a director by co-directing (along with Monty Montgomery) Willem Dafoe in The Loveless. It’s a fairly formulaic tale of youth in revolt, with biker gangs, but it’s certainly an interesting early indication of Dafoe’s talents, even if Bigelow’s gifts don’t shine through in this. Bigelow would wait six years until her next chance, and this time she was flying solo in the directors chair. Near Dark, co-written with cult horror writer Eric Red (The Hitcher), was a perfect combination of styles. Red’s best work has an almost dream-like quality, odd but engaging, and that is fully evident in Near Dark. With Bigelow directing, this film is essentially what Twilight wishes it was. Gorgeous visuals, a slow drawl pace, eccentric characters and a romance that plays out with minimal dialogue. There’s certainly the mid-80’s music video influence on the aesthetics, though not to the same degree of 1987’s other stand out vampire flick, The Lost Boys. The script, the visuals and a perfect musical partnership with Tangerine Dreams score all combine brilliantly.
Near Dark wasn’t a big hit, going a bit under the radar initially, but gaining a cult following over the years (like many, initially due to its video run). Bigelow wasn’t particularly regular over the years, dipping between occasional music vids, TV work, around her features. Blue Steel followed Near Dark. This was more routine certainly, but still showing impressive visual style, and engaging performances from Jamie Lee Curtis and the villain in particular, Ron Silver (an ever reliable villain Mr Silver was). A solid film, but without that ‘special’ quality that Bigelow’s best work has. If Blue Steel lacked it, Point Break had it in spades.
With Keanu Reeves a star in demand (and trying to shake off his Ted Theodore Logan image), and Patrick Swayze coming off the back of Ghost’s super success, Point Break was a big Hollywood star vehicle. The kind of film that could act as a breakout for someone like Bigelow. Female directors were finding some success over that period in romance and comedy, but Bigelow had a chance to really assert herself in as male-led a genre as they come, action. Point Break does not disappoint. Reeves both embraces and develops his Ted image. Glorious visuals, great soundscapes, exceptional action and great performances. Point Break was somewhat dismissed as dumb upon its release. Okay, it kind of is in some ways, but it’s so gloriously, uniquely put together, with complete self belief in its Cali-style. The surfing and skydiving sequences take the breath away. The foot chase was visceral, thundering and inventive. Reeves is an engaging hero, and his kind of hound-dog, slightly dim demeanour, with a quiet, unassuming intelligence beneath (as well as impulsiveness) works perfectly. Gary Busey and John C. McGinley offer excellent support, whilst Swayze is at his magnetic best.
Up next comes Strange Days, a criminally forgotten, mid-90’s Sci-fi thriller that was written and produced by James Cameron.It’s a great film, a technical marvel and meticulous. The cast is a really interesting mix too. The concept is quite prescient, particularly in a time when VR has become so popular. Ralph Fiennes is an ex cop turned VR dealer, where a new kind of VR allows users to experience the recorded memory and feelings of another person. During the course of the film he uncovers a conspiracy. The film bombed. It got fairly middling reviews critically too, but on reflection and reconsideration it has slowly become a cult classic. The timing of the film, with Fiennes as a leading man, coming off the back of playing the monstrous Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, meant the film had no viable ‘box office’ power in the cast. Likewise it came during a mid-90’s infatuation with cyberpunk, tech and VR obsessed films (most of which were poor). Strange Days whilst exceptionally well made would kind of get lost as ‘another one’ in a long list which saw audience burn out by around 1997. This is certainly a good one to discover (or rediscover), even if the film never quite lives entirely up to the stunning opening.
The next decade and a bit was a bit of a forgettable period. If a male director needs to do a lot of digging to recover from a big budget bomb, then it’s even worse for a female director. Bigelow made a couple of forgettable films with The Weight of Water (notable for Liz Hurley) and K-19: The Widowmaker (notable for dreadful accents). Another stint in wilderness would follow before Bigelow came back, and came back serious, with a desire to tell psychologically complex stories within prescient and real conflicts. The Hurt Locker, which by Hollywood war standards, is a small, Indie, intimately focused drama was exceptionally gripping. Jeremy Renner would become a star off the back of a gripping and emotional raw performance as the psychologically damaged mine sweeper. The ‘action’ sequences are also breathtaking and crank the tension up to eleven. The film would, quite rightly, earn her the Oscar for best direction (and picture).
This would start a solid, if infrequent run for Bigelow. Zero Dark Thirty was another film laced with critical acclaim, offering a stylised account of the hunt for Osama Bin-Laden. The film earned a best picture nomination. It isn’t a breezy watch by any stretch of the imagination, and of course takes a lot of liberties, but it’s gripping. The same can be said of Bigelow’s last film, Detroit (set during the 1967 Chicago riots). More acclaim with a gripping, exceptionally crafted piece of cinema, that some perhaps found a little too intense. Once again, Bigelow has shifted into telling historical (as well as prescient) and important stories based on real events.
Bigelow’s recent pattern suggests a very definitive step away from B movies, or high concept, but I’d really love to see her lighten things again and go back to those roots again, even for just a temporary break from such intense material. Frankly though, that glorious visual style lends itself so well to genre pictures, and the kind of worlds we saw in Near Dark, or Point Break, or Strange Days. It would be fantastic to see them again from one of the best in the business.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.