Better Than The Boys: The Films of Kathryn Bigelow

Written By: Daniel Kinsley

In Hollywood, gender disparity has come to feel like something of a norm. Despite inroads being made both in front and behind the camera, it is clear to anyone paying attention that things still have a long way to go. Many of the most successful female writers or directors are helming TV (Michelle MacLaren and Mimi Leder come to mind) while there are far too few Patty Jenkins * in the world. By and large, Kathryn Bigelow has been the exception to this rule. While she has never achieved the sort of consistent mainstream success this writer believes she deserves, she remains one of the most successful female filmmakers in history.

From her earliest films, Bigelow has identified as a filmmaker interested in provocation, citing a fascination with material that spikes adrenaline. While on its face, much of her early work is outlandishly genre based, there is a clear fascination with those on the fringe; each of her films deal with those that identify as other and examines the ways in which they live by a different code. It is an attraction to duty and violence that calls to mind the likes of Michael Mann. Similarly, Bigelow has never been one to shy away from the depiction of violence; in fact, it is a constant in her work, which is no surprise when considering much of the subject matter of her films:

“I think violence in a cinematic context can be, if handled in a certain way, very seductive. I think that an audience can be titillated by violence in a cinematic context. It’s wonderful in the safe confines of a theater to experience that aspect of your imagination or subconscious.”

While Near Dark (1987) was not her first film, it does feel like the one that announced the arrival of a new voice. Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is the son of a farmer, itching for a sense of something bigger in his small town. One night, he meets a woman named Mae (Jenny Wright), and the attraction is immediate and intense. After spending the night together, Mae bites him on the neck and runs off before the sun comes up. What begins as a honky-tonk one-night-stand turns into a nightmare when Mae returns with her “family” of vampires, an RV group of roaming predators. The film arrived in the midst of a vampire revival of sorts (and is still often overshadowed by the other classic ‘87 vamp flick, The Lost Boys). It was not a hit upon release, but it has picked up enough steam to be considered a cult classic these days, and for this writer, it rightly takes its place among the canon. While the horror-western had been attempted at least twice before ** the film came at a time when it was not commonplace to fuse horror with such disparate ideas. The result is a marriage between the cowboy aesthetic with a stylish, bloody revenge tale that feels fresh, and somehow totally natural at the same time.

Bigelow’s love of chasing adrenaline is perhaps most evident in the action-classic Point Break (1991) about FBI man Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfers-cum-bank-robbers, led by the enigmatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). It is a landmark action film, and all the more notable for the way it subtly puts an erotic subtext on its buddy action trappings. The engine of the film is a seduction of sorts between the two men, as Utah is stripped of much of his former identity in following Bodhi deeper down a Zen-like rabbit hole. With a foot-chase through the streets of L.A. as its thrilling centerpiece, (considered gospel enough in action circles to be sent up by Edgar Wright and co. in Hot Fuzz [2007]) plus a nerve-shredding skydiving sequence, the film cemented her cred as one of the most confident, muscular action directors in the modern era.

Strange Days (1995) marked a sort of pivot in her oeuvre; while it is still very much a genre film, it feels like a dry run at something a little more grounded. Though the story was written by the one and only James Cameron (also: Bigelow’s ex-husband) the filmmaker was reportedly inspired by the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots that followed. Set in the final days before the new millennium (remember when that was a thing?) the film follows a former homicide police turned black market-hustler as he becomes embroiled in a murder-conspiracy plot. At the heart of this mystery is a new VR-like product called SQUID, a tech which allows people to record memories, along with physical senses. It is a slick film, blending science-fiction with ideas about voyeurism, racism, and abuse of police power under the trappings of an ultra-violent noir. While the film’s reputation (along with the film itself) has aged well, it was a box office flop upon release, and very nearly derailed Bigelow’s career at the time.

It would be seven years before she would make a return to the big screen with K-19: The Widowmaker (2002). While the film itself has not lingered in the same way that her prior work has, it is significant nonetheless for sparking the filmmaker’s interest in the military, and the psychology behind many of the men and women in uniform. After K-19 failed to be a hit, six more years would pass before she returned again. After being seemingly cast to the far reaches of the independent scene, Bigelow’s new film The Hurt Locker (2008) would be significant in skyrocketing her back to the heart of the Hollywood scene. It is a landmark film for a number reasons, beginning with the fact that it is terrific. The story of an elite unit of bomb disposal experts in the Iraq War, the film cuts through nearly all of the political commentary (an anomaly based on the number of films made on the subject in the aughts) and presents a masterclass in tension and character through action. It’s a tightly wound story, and a small one, but its impact was enormous. In 2010, Bigelow became the first female director in history (!) to win an Academy Award for Best Director for the film. It also won Best Picture, marking the first time a woman had directed a film to that acclaim. In an interesting twist of fate, the film was up against Avatar (2009) the triumphant return of wunderkind (and ex-husband) James Cameron.

Bigelow would re-team with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal several years later for Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a thorough procedural about the decade-long hunt for the Osama Bin Laden following the terror attacks on September 11th. It is uniquely told, a lightning strike landing somewhere between investigative journalism and narrative fiction that captured the mood of the zeitgeist at the time. When Bin Laden was finally located and killed during pre-production, the screenplay needed to be entirely re-written; as if Bigelow and Boal had not been timely enough with their previous work, the film feels eerily omniscient about how on the pulse it is. While these films are less obviously bloody than her previous work, she seemingly doubled down on the procedural nature of the craft, partly due to the partnership with Boal. The film was meticulously researched, and given such extensive access to information by the CIA that several internal investigations were conducted to determine whether they were given too much access. A congressional investigation was also announced, but was later dropped. While the film faced controversy over its depiction of enhanced interrogation techniques, it is the opinion of this writer that much of the anger was misplaced. Like The Hurt Locker, the film is presented without political bias; it is Bigelow taking on Bin Laden the same way David Fincher did the Zodiac Killer. It may not be exactly the way it happened, but it feels credible, and authentic in a way that most films about intelligence work simply are not interested in. It is an incredible growth progression to go from her earliest work, and as a whole it feels like the culmination of a lifetime worth of storytelling, a maturation of themes that Bigelow has been chasing film after film.

Bigelow and Boal have continued their partnership once again with the racially-charged Detroit (2017). Debuting this weekend, the film presents a grim portrait of the motor city in the late 1960s, chronicling the abuse (and murder) of several young black men at the hands of National Guardsmen and city police at the Algiers Hotel during a period of civil unrest marked by riots. While this writer has yet to see the film, it has followed in the footsteps of their previous work and come under fire for its depiction of police brutality against minorities, and perhaps more importantly, whether this story was Bigelow and Boal’s to tell at all. To their credit, neither Bigelow nor Boal has resorted to defending their positions as allies, instead pointing to their careful research and a belief that the story needed to be told. Boal cited the conversations he had with real people who were involved, and was moved to share their experiences. For her part, Bigelow considered “‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.’ However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.” Whether the story qualifies as appropriation is not for this writer to say (particularly without having seen the film yet) however, it is a question worth asking and one can hope it will not be the only lively conversation that the film sparks. Based on their previous work together, it is clear that both Bigelow and Boal are not interested in placating audiences, perhaps embodying the belief that it is the responsibility of great artists to challenge us.

Nearly 40 years into a filmmaking career, Bigelow has helmed several bonafide classics, and made what this writer considers to be one, or even two, of the definitive films on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there are some constants throughout the entirety of her work, it is truly impressive to observe her growth over time. As a woman in Hollywood, it is noteworthy that she has found such success, particularly while occupying the hyper-masculine territory she has, yet it remains frustrating to wonder whether she would have been (rightly) labeled an auteur instead of a fluke owing largely to an X chromosome. Time will tell whether things will continue to change for the better, but in the meantime, we should all be grateful for the presence of a strong, bold woman like this one leading the charge.

*The director behind Wonder Woman (2017) for those living under a rock.

** Curse of The Undead (1959) and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula (1966) both attempted the mash-up. This writer has only seen the latter, but it is far less successful attempt than Dark.

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