With her recent run of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and the newly released Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow has established herself as one of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers of serious, adult drama. But it wasn’t always that way. Her seven features previous to 2008’s The Hurt Locker were a seeming mish-mash of genre fare, from hard boiled police thrillers to futuristic sci-fi neo noirs and everything in between [you know, like vampire westerns and surfer bro bank robberies].
First off, watching through Kathryn Bigelow’s early filmography [all for the first time], her films are insanely entertaining. Aside from perhaps Point Break, none of her films are the quintessential versions of their place in genre filmmaking, but she has delivered top shelf entertainment more often than not.
Bigelow might be most notable for working in genres and with budgets that female filmmakers aren’t often afforded. She has built a career and thrived in an industry that rarely gives her sex a chance. Many of her films aren’t what one would consider a typical “woman’s film”—which is both an indictment on the types of films Hollywood has given women the opportunity to make and also undeniable proof that claims of women not being able to handle a blockbuster or macho cinema are completely false.
That said, Bigelow has created many strong female characters that are still entirely feminine. Maya from Zero Dark Thirty is the most prominent example and also the more complicated. Earlier films Blue Steel and The Weight of Water are her only other female-led films with two opposing types of characters—the former with the tough but feminine archetype while the latter is the more cinema traditional, artistically and emotionally-driven woman.
More than sex or gender, the filmmaker seems to be more interested in professional exceptionalism, a thematic throughline in nearly all her films. Whether involving cops, criminals, military personnel or surfer dudes, she captures characters at their best. Her best films are certainly her best examples of this and maybe why they are so much fun. Seeing Staff Sergeant James’s maverick confidence, Bodhi’s laid back confidence, Maya’s resistant confidence, or Capt. Alexei Vostrikov’s grisled confidence all work.
Recently, Bigelow’s collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal have set a path of prestige filmmaking with a more consistent auteurist aesthetic. Going forward it will be interesting to see if the now A-list filmmaker continues exclusively down this path or if she will return again to humble beginnings within genre.
A quick note before I run through Bigelow’s work: I was unable to see her sophomore film, Near Dark, which is strangely unavailable aside from overpriced used DVDs on Amazon. This is a real bummer as a horror fanatic who has never seen the film, I was probably most interested in catching up with that one to see how the vampire western fit in with the rest of her early work. Alas.
The Loveless 
Bigelow’s feature film debut was as co-director [with the wonderfully named Monty Montgomery] of a small throwback to the biker youth movies of the 1950s. The Loveless is a fairly modest start, a rambling film without much plot that leans heavily into ultra-cool. It is buoyed by fantastic opening and closing scenes that provide a whole lot of tension, barely hanging back the threat of violence—the opening all through silence and performance while the conclusion is amped up through perfect cross cut editing. The Loveless is also notable for another debut: that of star Willem Dafoe [OK, he had an uncredited role the previous year in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but this is a definite breakthrough]. The fresh faced actor [as “fresh faced” as the actor can be, anyway] plays Vance, a smoldering angry young man who pals around with a biker gang, hangs out at a local diner, picks up chicks, and generally gets in trouble. He is appropriately stoic for the role, but I can’t help but feel unsatisfied he isn’t allowed to use his trademark crazy energy at any point. In a small role, Marin Kanter [Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains] is completely alluring and ultimately tragic. The Loveless is probably for completists only, though it is a fine nostalgia piece. And it’s also only 82 minutes, so it is quite breezy.
Blue Steel 
Blue Steel centers around Bigelow’s first strong female professional, New York City cop Megan Turner, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Opening the film, Turner is involved in a traumatic police shooting that leads to a spiral of violence. Shortly after, she begins dating a seemingly well put together man [Ron Silver] who has a specific link to her past and growing obsession. Blue Steel is absolutely of its era. From the grungy look of New York to the exaggerated effects of bullets on human flesh, this is a very standard thriller from the early 90s, like comfort food for someone my age. Curtis gives a really good performance as a complex character—she’s tough, smart, principled, and appropriately vulnerable. The film’s script might be full of cliches and too many plot contrivances, but Turner is a nice twist on the badass cop almost exclusively held for macho male actors at the time. There’s no doubt that Bigelow’s influence is key for that. In scenes where Turner defends herself within a masculine world I can’t help but think of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty—they’re not perfect analogs for each other, but it is a dynamic that clearly mirrors Bigelow’s own experience. Perhaps the most fun thing about Blue Steel, however, is a knockout cast of future “that guys,” including Clancy Brown as Turner’s hard-nosed colleague, Kevin Dunn as her hard-assed boss, and Richard Jenkins as the slimy attorney for the accused psychopath.
Point Break 
The level of reverence for Point Break is extreme—for those who grew up watching the surfer crime film non-stop on cable in the early 90s, it is on the Mt. Rushmore of its era. Seeing it for the first time, I get it. By the end of the film I was actively rooting for Bodhi and Johnny Utah to run away together and live happily ever after, ever searching for the biggest wave possible. As a so-Cal surfer buddy movie, Point Break works. As a bank heist movie, Point Break works. As a FBI investigation movie, Point Break works. While it isn’t on the same level of technical, intricate detail as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow showed here that she could work within many complicated levels of drama. Because it is so centered on the relationship between Bodhi and Utah, it works as more than the sum of its many-genred parts. Swayze and Keanu are perfect in their respective roles even if they aren’t perfect actors—they are unmistakable superstars, but I never saw them as anything but these characters. The supporting cast is phenomenal, too. Lori Petty as the love interest? That is such an inspired and amazing choice. Gary Busey is even great as the grisled, take-no-shit partner to Utah. It is tough to say Point Break is Bigelow's best film, but it is no-doubt her most accessible and enjoyable one.
Strange Days 
Bigelow turned to hard science fiction with her next film. Strange Days stars Ralph Fiennes a former cop turned pusher who specializes in providing his clientele with virtual reality experiences that give them the opportunity for no risk sexual or violent altercations. Lenny’s dealings get him involved in a widespread murder conspiracy that is coming after a former lover. This is a big, bold vision with excellent action setpieces, a fantastic mystery, and elements of horror. The sci-fiyness is definitely on point, as well—the way VR is used in the film is shockingly similar to our newest, biggest wave with the technology. Strange Days might be Bigelow’s most complete production up to this point, even if it isn’t as beloved as Point Break. Oh, and Angela Bassett absolutely kicks ass a friend of Lenny’s who gets tied into the situation—it is inexplicable and a damned shame that it didn’t launch her into a higher big budget action profile. She might be the clearest example of a Bigelow heroine that holds her own in a male world as she navigates the criminal underworld [as tough as she is, Maya never had to get in any fist fights]. After seeing Strange Days for the first time, I desperately hope Bigelow returns to science fiction cinema. And I can't wait to see it again. I would happily sacrifice her next Oscar contender for her next Strange Days.
The Weight of Water 
I was surprised that there was as recent a film made by Bigelow that I’d never really heard of. The Weight of Water is rarely mentioned as part of her work and truthfully it is a fairly weird film. Ultimately, I appreciated it more for its structure and ambition than I enjoyed it on any level—it is sadly Bigelow's only misfire. The Weight of Water is broken between two stories: a late-19th Century drama about a scandalous murder and subsequent trial and the modern story of a photojournalist who is researching it. The two parts play very differently in their tones and styles, though they are intercut in a naturally cinematic way. Compared to the luscious, yacht-set cinematography of the modern story, the past looks a little stodgy, even dull. Then again, the narrative drama is much more interesting in the past than the rich people relationship problems. This mix is interesting in the scope of Bigelow’s career, as the period piece doesn’t blend well in her style and the modern story has strangely low stakes. The Weight of Water has an exceptional framework, though, and doesn’t have any issue editing together a complicated narrative [though the cross-cutting climax is a little on-the-nose]. It also features another Bigelow staple, a great ensemble cast—here featuring Catherine McCormack, Sean Penn, Josh Lucas, Elizabeth Hurley, and especially Sarah Polley as the on-edge young woman at the center of the vicious crime.
K-19: The Widowmaker 
Also known as the film where Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson try on Russian accents, K-19: The Widowmaker was Bigelow’s last film before her Oscar breakout. Like her previous films, this is an exceptionally solid entry into a macho genre, this time the submarine thriller. It doesn’t have quite the same scale or emotional stakes as the defining film of the genre, Das Boot, but the film’s editing and character development is really there—very much a prelude to two of The Hurt Locker’s best aspects. This is shown during the first act of the film, which is essentially a stakes-less training sequence given the intensity of any battle scene of any war film. As we’re stuck in the confined space over the course of the film, the interplay between Capt. Vostrikov [Ford] and Capt. Polenin [Neeson] takes over. All joking aside about their iffy accents, we see two brilliant actors challenging each other at times subtly, at times with great bravura. I don’t think K-19 is as easily approachable to new viewers as Point Break or Strange Days, given their more mainstream genre elements, but this stands in the same arena as pure entertainment. It isn’t a flashy film, but it further established Bigelow as an expert of diverse filmmaking. As she continues to solidify into a more auteurist light, K-19: The Widowmaker may further recede into the background of her filmography. After experiencing much of her work for the first time, though, there is no doubt in my mind that Bigelow’s incredible skill across disparate narratives and genres will always define her career.