Hello my name is John Charet and I am the owner of this website Cinematic Coffee and today, I will be welcoming back Pamela Lowe Saldana, who is the owner of the website All Things Thriller. Today, we will be discussing the films of Kathryn Bigelow. We will discuss Bigelow’s style and themes as well as our personal five favorite films directed by her 🙂
PLS: Hi John. I’m settled in with a cup of coffee now and I’m ready to discuss when you are…
JC: Alrighty, let us get started. Kathryn Bigelow’s first film as director was one she co-directed with Monty Montgomery from 1981 entitled The Loveless. Both also wrote the script. The film was a biker drama starring a young Willem Dafoe with a conventional plot about a motorcycle gang causing trouble within a small town. It was good even though it suggests that better things were to come. The most interesting aspect of it for me was the neon look of it that foreshadows Near Dark. What is your take?
PLS: Yes, I looked this one up and watched it on YouTube. I liked it, though it had an amateur feel to it. It felt like it was unfinished. I liked the neon vibe to it, but it was very slow. I don’t know about you, but I thought The Loveless was more or less a new wave version of The Wild One, though not as good. But the slow burn and build up to a sudden blast of violence is definitely a Bigelow signature.
JC: It did feel like that in many ways which is why it can never be labeled a true classic. 6 years later in 1987 though, Bigelow directed and co-wrote Near Dark, which I consider to be her breakthrough film. Unlike a lot of vampire films of the day, Near Dark plays out like a combination of a Neo-Western and a horror film with elements of a crime drama thrown in for good measure. The rural Oklahoma settings prove my point and Adam Greenberg’s cinematography gives it that atmosphere. Also, let us not forget Tangerine Dream’s equally atmospheric music score.
PLS: I think she hit her stride quickly with Near Dark. I hadn’t seen it before, never heard of it. I can see where it has become a fan favorite and a cult film. It’s very atmospheric. The lighting is great and she ratchets up the tension and violence. In fact, I thought the violence was over the top–kind of a splatter-fest while the rest of the film is artsy and romantic. It was cool to see such a young Bill Paxton. I have an affinity for him, but he kind of over did it with the uber villain.
JC: The violence most certainly was over-the-top like a splatter-fest as you say. One perfect example of that comes in the bar shootout with John Parr’s song Naughty Naughty playing in the background. Whenever I hear that song, I think of Near Dark 🙂 Interesting enough, the word vampire is never uttered in the film based on my knowledge unless I missed something. The romantic relationship between Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright) is fascinating because it does not come off as cliched. The strangeness of this film is what makes it so brilliant. The Lost Boys may have been more popular that year (it was released two months earlier), but Near Dark stands out for me as the superior film. Nowadays when it comes to discussing vampire films, people talk about how underrated this is and they are totally right.
PLS: Well, I’m a big Lost Boys fan…I really liked Near Dark and I agree that it’s the superior film, but it doesn’t have the humor or sweetness of The Lost Boys…at least not to me. But, yeah, the bar scene is awesome and the whole contrast of light vs dark is very interesting and though it should feel like a cliche, it doesn’t. I think this is a stellar film.
JC: The Lost Boys is not a bad film and it is an interesting take on the vampire sub-genre, but Near Dark is just so enthralling in how it dissects it all. This does not completely feel like a horror film as I implied earlier. The blending of elements relating to the Western and the crime drama with those those of a horror film concerning vampires is just so intriguing and it is all executed perfectly here.
PLS: So, the first film from Katheryn Bigelow that I saw was 1990’s Blue Steel. She put a feminist twist on the action/thriller genre. To me, this is the film where she established the great opening film sequence and her realistic cinematography as film signatures. The convenience store sequence is riveting cinema. I love the tension and the camera work. I love the cinematography…and yet the film feels flat to me. Too contrived. She set me up with a great beginning but I was disappointed with the meat of the film. Though the ending was tense and suspenseful. There’s the signature violence and her preoccupation with rape, all heavy feminist themes but I thought Blue Steel was a let down.
JC: Blue Steel is the first Kathryn Bigelow film to feature a female protagonist as it’s lead. Camera work, cinematography and that opening shootout are all fantastic as you imply. If the film feels flat, that is possibly because it plays out like an unpretentious B-thriller. I will say that compared to her previous film Near Dark, Blue Steel feels like a slight letdown, but standing on it’s own, it is anything but. I also agree that it’s “preoccupation with rape” is most certainly a feminist theme and Bigelow has tackled possible elements of feminism occasionally in future works.
PLS: I don’t know if you’ve heard of Ronnie Montrose, he’s a classic rock act. He had really great intros to his songs. They rocked, but then the rest of the song just never equaled the intro. That’s how I feel about Blue Steel. It has all the ingredients, I just don’t think Bigelow put them together effectively. I liked the Jamie Lee Curtis casting, but I didn’t like Ron Silver as the bad guy.
It’s a completely different film than Near Dark. But the cinematography and action sequences are familiar ties that bind the films together. I didn’t like this one as much as you do, but I see it’s potential.
JC: I have heard Ronnie Montrose and I love his music. The following year, Kathryn Bigelow directed Point Break with Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze. Unlike those last three films, Bigelow only directed this one. As with Blue Steel, it plays out as a B-action-thriller, but this one is a whole lot more fun. I love the action sequences whether it involves surfing or shootouts and the chemistry between the two leads could not be better. Gary Busey is just a riot as that head FBI agent. Your thoughts.
PLS: I love Point Break and I avoided watching it for years. Why? I’m not a big fan of Keanu Reeves or Patrick Swayze. This was before Bigelow was a big thing so I didn’t know that I was watching one of her films. All that said, I was pleasantly surprised and riveted by the camera work. Spectacular filming of surfing. My gosh, it’s gorgeous. Another thing that stands out to me about that film is the foot chase scene. It was really different. Here you had Reeves–a good looking, incredibly fit guy, and he’s huffing and puffing as he’s running, he barely gets over a fence and he’s clearly exhausted…I loved the realism of it. That juxtaposition against the gorgeous surfing and ocean shots…And then the parachuting scene…Wow! It’s a great action film.
JC: I will say that it is madly entertaining. Point Break was also the first Bigelow film to be both a commercial hit and a cult classic. That same year, Kathryn Bigelow and fellow director James Cameron divorced (1989-1991). Nevertheless, this did not stop BIgelow to revive a 1986 screenplay by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks co-writing the final product) resulting in 1995’s Strange Days. At the time, it was Bigelow’s most expensive film to date ($42 million). The film was a commercial flop, but has since gone on to become something of an overlooked gem. According to Wikipedia (read here), Bigelow wanted to explore themes of racism, abuse of power, rape and voyeurism within a science-fiction film blended together with that of a film noir. Bigelow also made allusions to the Lorena Bobbitt trial and the 1992 Los Angeles riots (read here). At first, it might look like Bigelow’s most compromised film to date given the fact that Cameron wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, but after viewing it all, it feels like an ambitious neo-noir that resembles the work of a partnership. While it does come off as Bigelow’s most polished work to date, it is also occasionally uneven like the majority of her previous work (with the exception of Near Dark). It comes close to being as masterful as Blade Runner, but it does not quite hit it’s target. I still admire it though.
PLS: Too much going on at the same time. Again, I feel this film was miscast. I’m a big Ralph Fienness fan and I like Angela Bassett, but not here. I wasn’t impressed with Julliette Lewis either–though she’s always hit or miss.
All that said, I love the opening sequence…The first person camera work/technique is amazing and it’s jarringly original. This is where Bigelow really makes her mark as filmmaker to me, the camera work. Nowhere in her cannon is it better, in my opinion, than in this opening sequence.
I like some of the themes: The emphasis on feminism, the bi/racial love story, the racial injustice is edgy and real at a time when we as a society were still tip toeing around this stuff. But then, you’ve got totally unnecessary nudity and over the top sexuality that is the antithesis of feminism to me…It’s kind of WTF.
And then there’s that squid thing that goes on the head of the characters…Too bizarre and awkward.
JC: The casting choices are hit-or-miss as you say, though Angela Bassett is the scene stealer in my opinion. James Cameron may be skilled at writing smart sci-fi action, he does not do so well with the super complex ideas behind it. Bigelow’s skills as a filmmaker really mature here and it is kind of a shame that it is on display in a slightly flawed film. I had no problem with the nudity or the sexuality for I love that kind of stuff in a film. Again, I hope you do not see me as some kind of weirdo 🙂 As to whether or not that is the antithesis of feminism, it depends on what one woman’s definition of feminism is because there as many ones out there that love this kind of stuff as there are those who are turned off by it. Visually, the film is impressive and the camera work just blew me away. If only the film could blend all of it’s ideas more coherently, it would have been a great film as opposed to a very good one. In the end, Strange Days is a film that I admire more than I adore.
PLS: Ha! No I don’t think that you’re a weirdo, John. I just think it’s strange for a feminist director to objectify women. But that’s just me…Strange Days is a very ambitious film that doesn’t quite meet it’s objectives. I think we agree on that.
JC: We agree on that totally 🙂 Five years after Strange Days, director Kathryn Bigelow scaled down in size and on a budget of $16 million dollars for a film adaptation of Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel The Weight of Water. The film was supposed to come out in 2000, but for some odd reason (maybe negative reviews), it was theatrically released here in the United States in 2002. The film navigates back and forward to the then present day and back to 1873. The plot deals a female newspaper photographer, who after researching an article about an 1873 double homicide, she finds her own current life eerily mirroring the situation of that historical incident. It sounds pretty complex and it is. I respect it for that and while it does mystify, it never really goes full circle like a great David Lynch film would. I do not know If you saw the film, but it is worth a watch.
PLS: Yes I saw it when it first came out. I really love Sean Penn. (He’s a great director too, I think.) Anyway, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I could never really make heads or tails out of it. Is it a ghost story? It’s certainly trying to be soooo mysterious…It didn’t strike an accord with me. But here, I really liked the cast and I thought the acting was great.
JC: Same here, the acting was great, but as with Strange Days, it is a film that I admire more than I adore. The same year that The Weight of Water finally got a theatrical release here in the States (2002 in this case), Kathryn Bigelow directed a submarine thriller entitled K-19: The Widowmaker. The plot is loosely based on a real life incident from 1961 involving a Soviet Union submarine malfunctioning while voyaging to the North Atlantic near Greenland. You can read more about it here and here. While criticism was aimed at some of the liberties taken, it was praised as a highly engrossing submarine thriller and Harrison Ford did surprisingly well playing a Russian ship Captain. I too found it to be intriguing and is on par with The Hunt for Red October in my opinion. Have you seen the film?
PLS: I have seen it John and I actually prefer K 19 to The Hunt for Red October. I think it’s a great historical thriller. Yes, there were liberties taken with the true story, but there almost always are with movies. It is a movie–not a documentary.
JC: I actually have no problems with liberties being taken in crafting a historical piece either because it actually happens all of the time. I also agree with you that these are movies and not documentaries 🙂 I was referencing what some historians and even a scattering few critics thought of it. Interesting that you preferred it to The Hunt for Red October and Harrison Ford actually did a pretty good job playing a Russian.
PLS: Yes, his accent was a bit sketchy at times but overall I think he was very good. I almost always like Harrison Ford and I think Neesom was equally good. I’ve heard some critism of Bigelow’s films, that she often gets wooden performances out of her actors, but I thought this was a great assemble piece. It was entertaining, engaging and it actually made me look up the incident. Bigelow’s camera work is spot on–per usual–she used the close camera to get the claustrophobic effect and she was very successful. The effects of the radiation poisoning were horrifying.
JC: I never think that her films feature wooden performances. I wonder why some critics thought that at the time. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade (2009 in this case), director Kathryn Bigelow would achieve full blown maturity (for lack of better word) with The Hurt Locker, which for my money at the time, ranked as her greatest film since Near Dark 22 years earlier. Not only was it nominated for Best Picture, Director and for it’s lead actor Jeremy Renner (Ha take that critics) and countless others, but Bigelow beat her ex-husband James Cameron (who was up for Avatar that year) in the win for the Best Director prize. The Hurt Locker is a truly thought-provoking take on the Iraq war and what is really interesting is how Renner’s character treats his job as If it’s his dream lifestyle, which in this case would be defusing bombs. Your take Pam.
PLS: I think The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s masterpiece. I love everything about this film. To me it’s a psychological thriller/ action film. It’s very thought provoking. Jeremy Renner’s character is a psychopath. No, he’s not the boogeyman and he doesn’t stalk women. Actually, he is a very realistic portrait of what most psychopaths look like. They are adrenaline junkies. They push the envelope over the table because that’s the only way they can feel anything. They are basically fearless, but most don’t have a taste for rape or murder. The military is a safe haven for them. You’ll find them there, and in the police force, and engaging in extreme sports. They are EMTs, pilots, race car drivers etc. It’s a tragic thing–but at least war, gives this character an outlet and something productive to belong to.
JC: I could not agree with you more about your description of the character. Prior to Zero Dark Thirty from three years later in 2012, I also saw The Hurt Locker as Bigelow’s masterpiece, but with Zero Dark Thirty (in my opinion) she topped herself once again. As a political thriller, it offers both intelligence and excitement. As you know, it is a dramatized retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, who was the terrorist mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Jessica Chastain plays her lead CIA intelligence analyst character with not only conviction, but with quiet dignity and grace too. Not only that, but she is also a strong heroine at the same time.
PLS: I would agree that Zero Darth Thirty is also a masterpiece, though in my estimation–a lesser one that The Hurt Locker. I agree that it’s a political thriller and Bigelow took some heat for her realistic depictions of waterboarding and other tortures. In fact, the criticism of the film became very political–there were accusations that then President Barack Obama (2009-2017) had carelessly turned over too much information–some of it supposedly classified. All of that was white noise to me–and off putting. I knew about the waterboarding and black site torture chambers. Everybody did.
I thought Jessica Chastain was brilliant. I thought James Gandolnfini was excellent as a thinly disguised Leon Panetta. I think the film was very accurate and Chastain’s character is based on a real CIA operative–though she was not recruited straight out of high school like in the film. That didn’t ring true to me when I first saw the film.
JC: I too have also read about those accusations. I think Seymour Hersh wrote a 2016 book about how the hunt for Osama Bin Laden really went down or at least from his perspective. I think director Kathryn Bigelow depicted waterboarding as If it was all part of the job within the CIA or lack thereof. I too also noticed James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta and yeah he was spot-on. Sadly, Gandolfini would pass away the following year in 2013. As for Bigelow’s most recent film Detroit, I would like to hear your thoughts first 🙂
PLS: Obviously Bigelow has an affinity for historical films and in this case she explores a racially charged incident in the 60s that–sadly–I had never heard of until I watched the film. I was blown away by it. The screenplay is excellent. I’m a stickler for dialogue and it’s spot on and authentic to time and place. The dress, the cars everything is authentic to the early to mid 60s. Bigelow is very OCD with the details of her films. It really pays off here.
It’s funny–I love The Dramatics. In The Rain is one of my favorite songs. I never knew about lead singer Larry Reed being caught up in this horror.
The story is terrifying. To me this is Horror–much scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
The Soundtrack is wonderful, by the way.
JC: I too agree with everything you say about Detroit. I think it is sad that this one does not get as much credit as the other two films did. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Riots and watching it was like witnessing a period longer ago than that of the twentieth century. Sounds awkward I know, but that is what it feels like. I also love the use of music in this film and considering that this was based or loosely based on something that actually happened, does make it scarier than Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street in a historical sense.
PLS: My understanding is that this is pretty close to how it went down. It probably does feel like that to you–though to me, it’s oddly comforting. Not the circumstances of course, but I like this time period and the 70s. It’s nostalgic. I was a baby during the Detroit riots but still, I can remember a quite a lot of the late 60s.
I don’t understand why this film bombed at the boxoffice. I think it’s very solid.
JC: We may never know why Detroit bombed so badly at the box-office. Maybe it was the subject matter, but either way, let us all hope that director Kathryn Bigelow continues to direct some more great films. Now I shall give you my top 5 favorite Kathryn Bigelow films in descending order below:
5.) Strange Days (1995) (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *)
True, it is a slightly flawed film, but for me, this is the first film of director Kathryn Bigelow’s in which her filmmaking skills mature to a new level.
4.) Detroit (2017) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Considering that this is her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Bowl, one could call this (along with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) to be the cinematic equivalent of a three-pitch home-run.
3.) Near Dark (1987) (* * * * out of * * * *)
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s second film to date is her best film of her early filmmaking years.
2.) The Hurt Locker (2008) (* * * * out of * * * *)
This is the film of hers that really demonstrated director Kathryn Bigelow’s skills as a true mature filmmaker.
1.) Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (* * * * out of * * * *)
For me, this is the film that showed director Kathryn Bigelow taking all of her skills as a filmmaker and putting it all into one.
That is my list. What is yours Pam? 🙂
1. The Hurt Locker (2008)
I love the the portrait of a psychopath find his purpose in wartime.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
I admire the realistic portrayal of a young, female, operative and the very unsexy life of hunting a fugitive.
3. Near Dark (1987)
4. Detroit (2017)
5. K 19 The Widowmaker (2002)
JC: Ah very interesting Pam 🙂 Well I had a great time talking to you on this edition of Discussions of Cinema and I look forward in the future to the next one. Between now and Halloween, we should (for fun) occasionally drop by on each other’s sites and let each other know what horror films we have watched so far 🙂 Thank you for dropping by and keep those comments coming as always 🙂
PLS: Likewise John. Happy Halloween to you too.