Kathryn Bigelow: Eclipsing the boys at their own game

Tom Munday

Even today, female and minority actors, writers and directors  still find it difficult to break into A-list status. The studios play it safe, with pre-established properties and major projects regularly given to white, male directors. Of course, filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Lee Daniels buck the trend, however, fewer female directors are given first chances, let alone second or third ones. With the glowing success of this year’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins could lead a new, welcome trend for different voices in Hollywood.

Another much-talked-about movie coming to Australian cinemas later this year is Detroit. Detroit provides a capsule in time, depicting the excruciating events of the 1967 12th Street Riot. Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the incident, the movie sparked outcry, with many discussing director Kathryn Bigelow’s stance on issues in black America and police brutality. Several lashed out, claiming society did not need this brought back into the spotlight, however, the majority praised the movie for drawing shocking parallels between 1967’s America and today’s.

Bigelow is nothing short of a fighter, a director unafraid to tackle Hollywood politics and topics of immense discomfort. Her career began with dashes of pure escapism and genuine thrills. She directed Willem Dafoe in his first starring role in 1981’s The Loveless before going to helm cult vampire flick Near Dark in 1987. Both films showcased her potential, but it was 1991 action-thriller Point Break that gave her that first big shot at stardom.

For the uninitiated (spoilers ahead), the plot of Point Break sounds almost out-of-this world unrealistic. The movie sees former college football player turned FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves, at his most clueless looking) going undercover to track down a gang of bank robbers touring California, known for wearing ex-president masks while committing their crimes. Utah, while surfing the state’s biggest breaks and diving into surf culture, comes across local legend Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and his crew of fun-loving misfits. Of course, the crew turns out to be the criminals that Utah and the FBI are hunting down.

For a movie with such a silly plot, Point break has inspired twenty years of buddy-action flicks and over-the-top action. In fact, if you look closely, 2001’s The Fast and the Furious has almost the exact same plot. Bigelow turns what could have been straight-to-video-quality material into a fun, balls-out action-thrill ride. Yes, indeed, many aspects are wholly conventional. It would not be an action-thriller from the era without the attractive lead actor falling in love with the wrong woman and making enemies with a threatening badass. However, Bigelow’s stellar direction gave Reeves and Swayze the tools to deliver charismatic performances. Most importantly, the movie’s action sequences have stood the test of time. One in particular, a foot chase between Reeves and Swayze’s characters in the second act, has twists and turns copied by very action director since (and parodied by Edgar Wright for Hot Fuzz).

After Point Break, Bigelow delivered only a handful of new output. It was 2009 that gave Bigelow another crack at superstardom, with war-drama The Hurt Locker striking a chord the world over. The movie sees Jeremy Renner play a bomb disposal expert who ventures into Iraq numerous times to carry out his job. Renner’s character, Sergeant First Class Will James, must look out for colleagues Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), both still recovering from their former superior’s horrific death in the field.

The first set piece alone is a masterclass in action filmmaking. The opening sequence establishes the movie’s level of suspense and dread, putting us right in the characters’ position. During their operation, the scene cuts between our main characters and different people watching it all take place. It all builds to one iconic shot – Guy Pearce’s character running away from the scene while a bomb is detonated on the street. The tension only increases from there, with similar sequences unveiling just how nerve-wracking their lives are. The movie never shies away from the truth, with our lead characters dicing with death for a living.

After The Hurt Locker’s Oscar-winning success, many anticipated Bigelow’s follow-up feature. In 2012, she re-teamed with writer Mark Boal to chronicle the biggest manhunt in human history. Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the investigation into Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Set between September 11, 2001 and Bin Laden’s eventual demise, the movie follows Maya (Jessica Chastain) on interrogations, operations and discussions with key leads before turning to Seal Team Six for help with the final part of the decade-long mission.

Like with The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a tense, nail-biting and ultimately unforgiving look at one of modern history’s most important times. Bigelow’s direction never gets in the way, with her and Boal providing an honest, objective version of events. Maya’s journey is 110% relentless, with the director putting herself and the audience in the lead character’s shoes. Like Bigelow in Hollywood, the lead character wrestles with difficult situations while surrounded with male colleagues on a regular basis. Maya goes out of her way to rise above expectations, get everyone on her side and get the job done with aplomb. Bigelow stitches every set-piece, conversation, and detail together seamlessly throughout an overwhelming two and a half hours.

Despite not having an extensive filmography, Bigelow is proof that directors of different ages, genders, races etc. will bring varied perspectives to a project. She’s not just committed to each movie, she finds new angles and choices to the tables that most would not have even considered.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 


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