Big ups for Bigelow

“Did Kathy yell ‘cut’? I don’t wanna ruin the scene, bro, but the Earth’s getting nearer.”

“Did Kathy yell ‘cut’? I don’t wanna ruin the scene, bro, but the Earth’s getting nearer.”

When Kathryn Bigelow won her Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, she became just the 62nd filmmaker to ever receive the award. Now that Ms. Bigelow has joined the ranks of such cinematic luminaries as Barry Levinson and Norman Taurog, her career deserves serious study.

Bigelow has been making films for nearly 30 years, but The Hurt Locker was only her eighth feature, not counting occasional TV work like Homicide and Wild Palms. Her first film was 1982’s The Loveless, a sultry biker flick starring Willem Dafoe in his movie debut; it’s uneven but also snarling and hypnotic, one of Bigelow’s best overall pictures.

It was the 1987 vampire movie Near Dark that got Bigelow noticed. One of her key obsessions is the group dynamics of hypermasculinized environments, be it the bomb patrol of The Hurt Locker or a gang of bloodthirsty vampires. The violence in her films is often unsettling—Near Dark doesn’t deliver scares or chills so much as a pervasive unpleasantness.

The Hurt Locker opined that “war is a drug,” and most of Bigelow’s films have concerned that link between thrill-seeking and violent professions. In 1989’s Blue Steel, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a cop whose job scares off every man except the serial killer who’s shadowing her. It’s claustrophobic and kinky—Bigelow perverts rather than subverts genres—but also shows her overeagerness to lean on rank exploitation.

Bigelow’s films could rarely be described as “fun,” but 1991’s Point Break is the obvious exception. It sits at a crossroads of the undeniably entertaining and the unquestionably insipid (Keanu Reeves plays an FBI agent … named Johnny Utah … who used to play quarterback!), and as such is beyond criticism.

It was Bigelow’s first “hit”; next week, we’ll look at the string of duds that preceded her Hurt Locker comeback.