Before ‘The Hurt Locker,’ Kathryn Bigelow Gave Us These Movies

Kathryn Bigelow photo

You only need to see one film directed by Kathryn Bigelow to know that few, if any, other directors can create such an unrelentingly intense movie going experience the way she can. Bigelow didn’t win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” because she is a woman. She won it because she made a war movie which was unlike many we saw at the time. She gave us yet another intense war movie with “Zero Dark Thirty” which looks at the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It won the New York Film Critics’ Awards for Best Film and Best Director, and it maintains a strong level of intensity from start to finish.

But the truth is Bigelow has always been a great director, and her talent behind the camera has never been in doubt. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” or “Detroit,” her films keep us on the edge of our seats throughout and barely give us a moment to breathe. If you enjoyed these movies, here are some of her other efforts which deserve your attention.

The Loveless movie poster

“The Loveless”

This 1982 film marked Bigelow’s feature film directorial debut, and she co-directed it with Monty Montgomery, the actor who played the Cowboy in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” “The Loveless” stars Willem Dafoe and tells the story of a motorcycle gang that makes a pit stop in a small southern town while on their way to Daytona. Once they arrive, however, trouble starts brewing when the gang starts fancying the female locals.

Blue Underground, which released a special edition of “The Loveless” on DVD, called it “the thinking man’s biker movie.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Bigelow does give us many beautiful images of leather and chrome, and she does show a love for the look of neon lights as well.

Blue Steel movie poster

“Blue Steel”

Bigelow’s 1989 action thriller next because was the first movie of hers which I watched, and I was absolutely stunned by her unflinching style of direction. The always terrific Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Megan Turner, a rookie New York City police officer who shoots and kills a grocery store robber (played by Tom Sizemore) on her first day. But while staring in shock at what she has done, New York Stock Exchange trader Eugene Hunt (the late Ron Silver) grabs the suspect’s gun and uses it to go on a psychotic killing spree.

What looks like your average police thriller ends up turning out to be a far more violent and unsettling movie than you might expect. Silver gives us one of the craziest and most unhinged psychopaths ever to appear on the silver screen, and Bigelow gives the action sequences a thrill as vicious as it is visceral. Regardless of “Blue Steel” having a plot which has been used over and over, it still stays with me years after having seen it as Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the violent natures of Curtis’ and Silver’s characters.

Near Dark movie poster

“Near Dark”

Forget the “Twilight” films, this is a real vampire movie! Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) gets up close and personal with the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) only to be bitten on the neck by her. It soon turns out Mae is a bloodsucking vampire who travels from town to town with her extended vampire family which includes actors Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller. They end up taking Caleb in once he has become one of them, and this forces him to make some tough decisions which he may not be able to live with.

“Near Dark” was a box office disappointment upon its release, but it has since gained a large and deserved cult following. Bigelow, along with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, gives the film such a beautiful look which is aided by one of the many great Tangerine Dream film scores of the 1980s. Its best scene comes when the vampire gang visits a bar in the middle of nowhere, and Bigelow does a literally bloody good job in how she stages it.

Strange Days movie poster

“Strange Days”

Like “Near Dark,” “Strange Days” was a box office failure which has since gained a cult following over the years. Co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a former cop who deals in SQUID equipment, devices which record images taken directly from an individual’s cerebral cortex. When those images are played back, it allows the user to experience a person’s memory as if they are living it themselves.

This concept allows Bigelow to stage some exhilarating point of view action sequences which must have been insanely difficult to choreograph and put together. While it may be tempting to compare “Strange Days” to other futuristic movies which show a major city in peril, this film really has its own unique look. And like your typical Bigelow movie, you don’t watch it as much as you experience it.

K19 The Widowmaker movie poster

“K-19: The Widowmaker”

Okay, I know many had issues with Harrison Ford’s and Liam Neeson’s accents and of the liberties taken with the movie’s true story, but I still think “K-19: The Widowmaker” is a far better movie than people give it credit for. It’s no “Das Boot,” but Bigelow mines a lot of raw emotion out of the story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine. This comes about when the ship’s reactor malfunctions to where it will explode if the temperature to continues to climb, and members of the crew are dispatched to work on the reactor while wearing chemical suits which do far too little to protect them from severe radiation sickness (“they might as well wear raincoats,” says Neeson’s character).

Watching these young men essentially sacrifice their own lives in order to prevent World War III is devastating to witness, and Bigelow makes you respect their selfless act to where you cannot help but be on the verge of tears while watching them go into a room they will not come out of in one piece.

Kathryn Bigelow

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‘The Hurt Locker’ Raises the Bar on Seriously Intense War Movies

The Hurt Locker movie poster

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense war movies I have ever seen. It follows an elite Army EOD bomb squad in Iraq assigned with the task of disarming IED’s, or explosive devices designed to create the most damage possible. Chris Hedges was once quoted as saying war is a drug, and this perfectly the movie we are about to witness. Every time these soldiers go out into the field, it’s either life or death, and no one has any idea how it will turn out. We get to view things from the soldier’s perspective, and the result is a film of wished it was.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a highly experienced bomb technician who takes over a bomb disposal team after its previous leader is killed in combat. Aside from William, the team is also made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are immediately taken aback by William’s seemingly reckless tactics. From the moment he steps onscreen, it is clear William finds much more excitement in this most dangerous of jobs than any human being should ever be allowed to experience. It ends up being more important for him than anything else in his life, including raising a child his girlfriend just gave birth to.

When this movie was released, it was already past the point where Bigelow should have gotten her due as one of the best action directors working in movies today, and “The Hurt Locker” may very well be her masterpiece. As I walked out of the movie theater, my nerves still jangling from this intense experience, I was just waiting for someone, anyone to say they never realized a woman could direct an action movie so effectively. It’s like I was almost daring someone to say this. For those of you who are surprised at seeing a female director pull this off, I got a few things to tell you about: “Near Dark,” a vampire-western hybrid, “Blue Steel” with Jaime Lee Curtis, “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset and directing from a script by ex-husband James Cameron, and the vastly underrated “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow directed all of these movies. She didn’t start yesterday folks!

By using four or more hand-held 16 mm cameras, Bigelow gives “The Hurt Locker” a documentary feel which makes it seem all the more real. You are down in the dirt and heat with these troops as it sears away at their bodies during their tour of duty. Their current tour lasts about a month, but when this movie is finished, it will certainly feel like a long month. Bigelow also shows the majority of the action from the soldiers POV and, like them, we are not able tell for sure whether the Iraqis staring at them from a distance are friendly or if they are terrorists waiting to push a button to set off a bomb which could very well be under our feet. She is clearly more interested in seeing how American troops survive in a land overwhelmingly hostile to their presence. Every moment these soldiers are out there is a matter of life and death, and the unpredictability of it all keeps them on their toes and at full attention 100% of the time.

The script was written by Mark Boal who also wrote the script for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” another film dealing with the Iraq war and its effect on those who fought in it. Boal also spent some time in Iraq embedded with a real military bomb squad which became the source of this screenplay. What makes this unique among other Iraq war movies is it’s, thank god, not concerned with the politics of it all. Neither Boal nor Bigelow are interested in getting into a debate over whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, but instead in getting the detail to the letter of how this army squad does its job, and they appear to have captured this line of work perfectly. There is an authenticity here we cannot and should not question in the slightest.

Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as William James, a military sergeant who seems to have gotten far past the realm of fear. The way the movie is designed, it could have tumbled into the clichés of “Top Gun” with Renner “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes”. The fact it doesn’t descend into the kind of a film you’ve seen a hundred times is a credit not only to the filmmakers, but the actors as well. Renner gives us a character who is not entirely trustworthy, but not without a soul. His character perfectly personifies what Hedges talked about when he said war is a drug. He succeeds in showing us without words what effect this war has had on him. It has given him a strong sense of being alive he has not previously experienced anywhere else. But at the same time, he soon realizes how destructive it is not only to himself, but to others around him.

Another great performance comes from Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. He is actually one step away from wearing that bomb suit William wears, but the more he comes close to human life lost so horrifically in this war, the more it brings him into full view of the things he really wants in life. What William takes for granted, Sanborn wants for himself. This could have been a role where Mackie could have easily become that drill instructor who is by the book and one dimensional. But instead, he gives us a character who is almost intimidated by what his new leader is able to accomplish as he is angered at his insubordination.

It’s amazing to see what Bigelow pulled off with “The Hurt Locker.” With a budget of only $11 million, she made a movie more intense, exciting, and thrilling than male directors could have made with multimillion budgets. The answer is not to give audiences tons of special effects with no discernable story or characters, but to give us a movie which draws us in emotionally no matter what the budget is. Perhaps if Hollywood ever bothered to realize this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many bad movies or unnecessary remakes constantly being hurled at us.

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