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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Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.