It's a little disappointing that Kathryn Bigelow's next (understandably much chattered about) movie is going to be about killing bin Laden. Whether it remains about one of the unsuccessful attempts, or commits to chronicling the Navy SEALs mission that, well after the original idea was being developed, finished the job, it sounds too similar to The Hurt Locker. For what was Osama if not an explosive device stashed in plain view near a war zone? And how different are the SEALs who stormed bin Laden from Jeremy Renner's bomb-defusing Sergeant William James? All are recklessly brave, adrenalized, quick-thinking, and potentially complex - will the top SEAL get his own home front supermarket aisle inner void-contemplating moment? A SEAL would fit a long line of Bigelow protagonists, respectfully fetishized for their innate drive and commitment to codes of justice that they sometimes draft themselves, but the leap from the last one seems too short. We'll see.
Bigelow developed and made her multiple Oscar winner with embedded Iraqi journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, who is also working on the bin Laden project. The 2009 film was her first since 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, and its reportorial, shaky roughness marked a shift from the unique, romantically lush style she refined in films like Blue Steel and Point Break. But the concerns were similar, and close viewing revealed that The Hurt Locker's superficially "vérité" camerawork and editing were just as, and in some ways more, meticulous—playing with ideas of perspective and how it defines different personalities—as that in her great 80s and 90s films. (An excellent L Magazine video essay explicates The Hurt Locker's visual strategy and relation to previous Bigelow films.)
The California native earned a painting BFA in San Francisco and studied at the Whitney Museum, and while it can be banal to compare painting to film, every one of Bigelow's movies up until K-19 evinces a painter's concern for color palette, composition, and visual mood. The Hurt Locker continues the director's interest in deconstructing and questioning genre (while remaining very entertaining). It's visually sneaky, but having more kinship with war photography than Edward Hopper, it doesn't have as many frames you'd want to hang on a wall. MoMA is acknowledging Bigelow's artistic process and multimedia background by pairing a complete retro of her directorial features with a gallery exhibition that includes "paintings, concept art, film posters, drawings, storyboards, scripts, short films, and props." It's a thorough way to explore the development of a style of which The Hurt Locker and slated journo-political films do not, to me, seem an inevitable progression.
Bigelow's precociously slick 15-minute debut film Set-Up (1978) shows two dudes violently fistfighting while two semioticians deconstruct the action on the soundtrack. It sounds like either a microcosm or parody of her filmography in toto, in which she questions the complexities of violence and masculine assumptions. As quickly as 1987, with Near Dark, she had become too skilled as a genre stylist and entertainer for her work to sit comfortably entombed in theory class textbooks. The film, a practically perfect western/horror mashup, follows Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a cowboy-civilian introduced into the Nightlife by adorable Mae (Jenny Wright)—an equation of vampirism and dumb young small town love that predates the glossier Twilight by 21 years. This early triumph, shot by Adam Greenberg, is a ravishingly photographed series of magic hour dreams and dawn nightmares, scored aggressively and gloriously by Tangerine Dream. "We keep odd hours," grins Severen (a patently insane Bill Paxton) about his leathery posse of vampires, and the understatement is typical of the movie in which the "V" word is never uttered.
1982's The Loveless is how Bigelow got from Set-Up to Near Dark. A bike gang led by a young Willem Dafoe is waylaid in a one-bar Georgia town, where they mildly harass a few locals, do some drinking, and generally preen and pose like they're all Brando in The Wild One. The nothing plot gives Bigelow the chance to perfect her road photography, graceful camera glide-pans, and soundtrack taste (here, it's mostly 50s girl groups). As she will in Near Dark and Point Break, Bigelow in The Loveless both celebrates and satirizes excessive attitudes and lifestyles that aren't ridiculous to that specific world's members. As in Point Break, seemingly laughable dialogue ("let's flush out of this toilet") makes sense within the film's stylized boundaries.
It's pat to assume that 1989's Blue Steel, about a female cop (Jamie Lee Curtis), fresh out of the Academy, trying to make it in a tough, mostly-male profession, is autobiographically inspired. Pat, and no doubt correct. Bigelow's films in general are more interested in men (The Weight of Water is another exception), but it's worth noting that while Curtis's Megan Turner does face sexual discrimination hurdles, her primary concerns become those a cop of any gender might face - confronting sadistic violence and preserving justice. Sadism arrives in the form of Ron Silver as a day trader-cum-murderer who grows obsessed with guns and Turner after he witnesses her shoot a robber (Bigelow regular Tom Sizemore). The director asks a lot of Silver (romancing charm, schizophrenic workouts, bloody toweling-offs), and the actor is admirably game. Blue Steel was set and shot in New York City, but Bigelow stylized it in such a way that it can feel like Los Angeles substituting for New York. Rain, tricky shallow focus, and hazy, colorful shafts of light turn the city into a dreamy Anywhere.
The 1990s were a great decade for American movies, and Bigelow (who was married to James Cameron at decade's start) contributed two of the best and most defining with Point Break and Strange Days. In Point Break, Bigelow further explored the limits of stylization. Everything—the attractiveness of the actors, the unreal hilarity of the dialogue, the brash abuse of cliché, the tactile beauty of the ocean photography—is pushed to the extreme, and the story of two surfing bros on either side of the law ends up grand opera. Bigelow offers Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze at their hottest as man-candy for any gender, and has the gumption to make their relationship meaningful, and create a world where lines like "he's a modern savage—he's a real searcher" take on a dignified power.
Strange Days, considered by some Bigelow's magnum opus, fused the then-topical subjects of virtual reality (like the concurrent Brainscan and Virtuosity) and a Rodney King and OJ Simpson-fueled distrust of police, with an ambitious, epic thrust that commercial audiences weren't quite ready for. In the film's dystopian 1999 Los Angeles, there's a black market for "SQUID" discs: recordings of violent, sexual, or otherwise stimulating experiences that users can plug into and undergo as if they were there. Strange Days transcends time because although the technology marks it as mid-90s, the convoluted plot and seedy atmosphere hearken back to The Big Sleep and Touch of Evil, and in a looser and less mechanical way than close cousin Blade Runner. Ralph Fiennes, so good as a seedy art fence in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, provides much of the movie's considerable sleaze as the unbuttoned, multiple ring-wearing Lenny Nero, and William Fichtner and Michael Wincott do their part to add more.
K-19: The Widowmaker has some outward indications of dullness - the clunky title, the multinational cast all playing English-speaking Soviets, and the fact that it's a National Geographic co-production. And the telling of a Chernobyl-like meltdown on the nuclear-armed K-19 Soviet sub during the height of the Cold War does tend towards the soggy, but more often it's rousing historical action, and the amicable, respectful dueling between captain (Harrison Ford) and executive officer (Liam Neeson) echoes the manly negotiating sparring in Point Break.
In The Hurt Locker and (probably) the bin Laden movie, Bigelow the journalist, or at least craftswoman honoring journalistic integrity, takes over from Bigelow the painter. The film can't be considered an attempt to re-achieve the commercial heights of Point Break after the box office bombing of K-19, because it never enjoyed a commercial success commensurate with its critical and Oscar coronation, and the films are very different. The Hurt Locker, with its creative experiments in visual perspective, unforgettable lead performance, and Bush-era tweak of Bigelow's macho rebel hero theme, marked a genuine comeback for a director with concerns not limited to vampires and surfers. But the look, however considered, feels obligatorily adapted to the modern action film’s preference for realism—the default 21st century style, derived from copious digital documentation and permanent warfare—which is only disappointing in light of how singular her worldview seemed in the past. While Bigelow's planned bin Laden film sounds suspiciously like a detail-rearranged sequel, a filmmaker who's proven herself so capable of interesting adjustments might deserve the benefit of the doubt.