In their continuing series, Kyle and Ben sat down this week to discuss their five favorite Kathryn Bigelow films. When you’re simmering over the controversy that is sure to arise from her latest film Detroit, reflect on this journey through her earlier works.
BEN: It’s funny. I hadn’t seen this film prior to this year, but I’m glad I got to experience it on a theater screen. Bigelow’s take on vampires is every bit as fun as Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. Where Schumacher intentionally brought in a sexual overtone, Bigelow demonstrated her action chops while managing to combine a dramatic story. Her characters feel real, thanks to her relationship with James Cameron. Many of the actors he successfully used in prior films make an appearance here including Lance Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton. Their respective performances really drive the dangerous side of vampirism. Adrian Pasdar is Caleb, who unfortunately falls in love with Mae (Jenny Wright) and as their love grows deeper, Mae’s dark secret comes to light. Tim Thomerson, who made a splash in smaller movies like this, plays Caleb’s dad. His relentless concern is really the driving force in this film. I thought it was a lot of fun to see Thomerson and Henriksen square off in the finale. The film is dated and cheesy, but it cemented Bigelow’s status as a cult-action director with interesting stories to tell.
KYLE: I don’t think it’s cheesy so much as a product of its time. Bill Paxton gives one of the best performances of his career in this. I love how it fuses the western genre with the bloated vampire catalogue to create an unforgettable experience. It’s also shot remarkably well given the time. One of my favorite parts is that the word “vampire” is never said, yet the viewer instantly knows that this is a vicious band of predators. This was also Bigelow’s feature debut and it is the template for all of her films. She’s a filmmaker who is interested in relationships and characters, and how the often overlooked ingredients are usually glossed over in favor of spectacle. It’s what makes Near Dark work so well. My only complaint is that the finale is a tad…abrupt given the setup, but regardless, this is a cult classic for all time.
BEN: I was too young for this movie, but the allure of this film was just overwhelming. It still is. Based on W. Peter Illiff and Rick King’s story, Bigelow’s action sense combined with dramatic tension truly drive this poetic cult classic. Where she tried to bring in a troupe of actors in Near Dark, here she starts fresh with Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, and Lori Petty. The story is amazing, Donald Peterman’s cinematography is truly unmatched as he had to combine a wide range of shots from aerial jumps to bank heists and a lot of foot chases with handheld cameras. As dramatic and action-oriented as the film is, it is just plain fun. The actors all looked like they had a blast, especially Gary Busey: “I don’t know why the agency has to have me train some snot nosed quarterback punk named Johnny Unitas.” I could go on gushing, but you get the idea.
KYLE: Quintessential 90’s action. The homoerotic (over)undertones are pure bliss. I think one of my favorite things is the aesthetic. Bigelow takes the surfer, California subculture, and builds it into a living organism. I love how she takes classic crime and noir tropes and updates them for the 90’s. It is also a testament to her skill how she is able to use both Reeves and Swayze’s well known flaws to her advantage. This is a wonderful example of a director understanding the limitations of her cast and using them as strengths. Busey is the standout, bringing his usual captivating insanity to bear and his performance is wonderful throughout.
BEN: Before Virtual Reality exploded, Bigelow gave us Strange Days. I hate to say this, but I don’t remember the movie very well. I know I saw it when it first came out on home video and I know that the cast is a veritable who’s who. I remember it being a bit noir-ish in its Sci-Fi approach. Ralph Fiennes really lit the screen up while Angela Bassett just drove the story. I also remember Matthew Leonetti’s camerawork, especially the POV shots during the SQUID sequences. This was Bigelow’s biggest commercial failure at the box office and from what I understand it nearly derailed her career. I guess I need to see it again.
KYLE: I think this is Bigelow’s greatest film. The entire intro sequence is some of the best camerawork I’ve seen in her films. It is most definitely a neo-noir and probably the best science fiction noir since Blade Runner. I also see a lot of parallels with Detroit, which I’m screening tomorrow. Fiennes is just outstanding as the underdog and I love how there’s not a lot of action. His chemistry with Bassett is remarkable, and as you mentioned, she’s the center of this formidable machine. Juliet Lewis and Tom Sizemore are also amazing additions, with some of the best performances of their rocky careers. It’s also a great dystopian film that is extremely relevant of the current climate in America.
The Hurt Locker
BEN: As with James Cameron, Bigelow started to form her own troupe of actors, namely Anthony Mackie and Ralph Fiennes. She also would continue to use real-life situations, as she did in Strange Days, to influence her future narratives. And, thus we begin her working relationship with Mark Boal, a freelance journalist who used his real-life experiences to write the script. Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker features Jeremy Renner, David Morse, and Guy Pearce as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team who are trapped by insurgents. Boal’s story and Bigelow’s direction focus on the psychological trauma which results from the stress of combat. The film would go on to win best director for Bigelow and best picture for the film, a distinction that Bigelow holds as the first and only woman to have won both. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography firmly places us in the middle of the action without losing the sense of perspective. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this one too. I guess I’m due for a revisit.
KYLE: My favorite scene is when Renner and Mackie are trapped by snipers and Mackie is on the Barrett. When Renner gives him the capri sun to drink, virtually ending their feud through an act of camaraderie is something you don’t see often in war films. That is the genius of this film. On the surface it’s a war film, but truly, at its heart, it is about the trauma that our armed forces experience every day when in combat. The cinematography is outstanding. You are, as you mention, right in the thick of things. I remember not breathing for the duration of my screening and I was thinking about the film, about its implications on modern warfare, for days after. While it’s not my favorite of hers, I think it might be her best made film.
Zero Dark Thirty
BEN: And this is why I enjoy these conversations, Kyle. Your insight into these films is spectacular. Our final film is a doozy and it created such a firestorm over its authenticity with the federal government at the time of its release that Julian Assange probably could have leaked it and it would have attracted less attention than Bigelow received for Zero Dark Thirty. Again written by Boal, who used information he had gleaned from a speech given by former CIA director Leon Panetta during a ceremony is the story of a fictional CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain who is on the hunt for Osama bin Laden after gaining new intel which spurred on the real-life incursion which brought the Al-Qaeda Emir down. Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, and Kyle Chandler co-star. Greig Fraser’s cinematography in the desert is amazing as are his nighttime shots, especially the hand-held action during the final raid. Thirty represented Megan Ellison’s first major production credit as her Annapurna Pictures independently financed the movie. This film created quite a controversy with audiences as well, but it was well-received and was recognized with Bigelow’s second directorial Oscar nomination. Chastain would win the Best Actress Golden Globe and cemented her work in A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Martian, and last year’s spectacular Miss Sloane. She is as tough as they come.
KYLE: I think Jason Clarke was robbed of a supporting nom. His scene with the monkeys is heartbreaking, and a simple, quiet symbol of the madness of covert warfare. Chastain is cold, but intimidating in every scene. I love how the entire film is an extended procedural, with the payoff being the hand held madness of the compound raid. Hand held apparently plays a big part in Detroit, and I can’t wait to see it. I think the aspect of this one that works so well is how it is very removed. Outside of the chilling intro, with actual calls from victims in the towers, the entire film is sterilized; presenting a possible narrative on how the most wanted man in the world was captured. This is Bigelow at her finest. Meticulous, artful control and searing, unapologetic presentation.
BEN: Thank you for the amazing insight, Kyle. A pleasure as always. Next week we celebrate the life of Jeanne Moreau and a special review of Jaques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
KYLE: I’m looking forward to it! Also, a shout out to K-19: The Widowmaker. While it didn’t make the list, it’s a fun film for sure. See you next week!