For a long stretch, it seemed like Kathryn Bigelow would never realize the extraordinary promise of her first few films. Bigelow endured more than a decade in the filmmaking wilderness between the release of 1995’s fascinating, infuriating cult provocation Strange Days and her comeback with 2009’s The Hurt Locker, which made her the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. (Give the film industry credit, it only took a little more than a century to reach that milestone.) Bigelow’s glorious, hopefully permanent comeback was all the more welcome given the paucity of strong female voices onscreen, both in front of the camera and behind it. It was even more encouraging that Bigelow followed The Hurt Locker with an even bigger, more important and ambitious follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty.
It’s not like Bigelow spent the years between Strange Days and The Hurt Locker in a motel room in Florida, smoking meth and bemoaning the industry’s cruelty and fickleness. She continued to work in television, directing episodes of Homicide and Karen Sisco, but the film projects she helmed were either depressingly impersonal (2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker) or unsuccessful, like 2000’s The Weight Of Water, which barely saw release, in spite of a cast that included Sean Penn and Sarah Polley.
Whether Bigelow is dealing with a surfing, bank-robbing former college football hero-turned-undercover detective in Point Break or chronicling the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, the director always takes her subject matter seriously. That’s what makes Point Break such an enduring cult touchstone: Where seemingly any other director would place the action between ironic quotation marks, Bigelow plays it seriously. That unexpected sincerity lends the film an unexpected resonance.
Similarly, there’s a potent strain of dark humor coursing through Bigelow’s 1987 breakthrough Near Dark, as when Jesse Hooker, an ancient vampire played by Lance Henrickson, answers a question about his age by saying he fought for the South: “We lost.” It’s a funny line that benefits from being delivered by an actor grizzled enough to pass for someone at least several hundred years old, but Near Dark never winks at its audience. It isn’t a campy, tongue-in-cheek exploration of the existential angst of redneck vampires in the 1980s: It’s a fundamentally serious, moody, ultimately powerful exploration of the existential angst of redneck vampires in the 1980s.
Near Dark deals with a recurring theme for Bigelow: a group of outsiders whose obsessiveness and shared mission bonds them together, even as it separates them from the rest of society. In this case, the outsiders are separated on a biological level as well. They’re a group of vampires who travel across the country, scouring shitty bars, truck stops, and honkytonks for humans to feast upon, or turn into vampires.
As the film opens, this grizzled, country-loving gang—leader Jesse (Henrickson); his sexy partner Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein); Homer (Joshua John Miller), an ancient, angry old man in the body of an androgynous little boy; demented, blood-thirsty wild card Severen (Bill Paxton, in his greatest role and performance); and nubile innocent Mae (Jenny Wright)—are exhausted from decades of rampaging. But resting isn’t an option. Like sharks, they must keep going at all times, or perish.
One night, a group of earnest young cowboy types stumble upon Mae looking radiant in the moonlight, and Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) musters up the courage to approach her. Mae attacks Caleb and transforms him into a vampire, in a purposeful reversal of the usual gender dynamic. Mae is as traditionally feminine as women get in Bigelow movies, but she’s nevertheless the aggressor who bites Caleb. And he, as a relative innocent sucked into a world of violence and degradation against his will, occupies a role usually inhabited by women in movies like these. Mae instructs him with what might be a signature line, not just for Near Dark, but in Bigelow’s entire filmography: “You have to learn to kill. Don’t think of it as killing, don’t think at all. Just use your instinct. It’s just something that you do, night after night.”
She could just as easily be addressing the cop hero and serial-killer villain of Blue Steel, the cops and criminals of Point Break, the super-soldiers of The Hurt Locker, or the CIA operatives of Zero Dark Thirty, all of whom need to abandon the fundamental directives of morality (most notably: thou shalt not kill) to realize their missions.
Near Dark has the moody, hypnotic power of a waking dream. Bigelow gleans an incongruous romance and glamour in the scuzzy iconography of the open road, in the buzzing, lurid neon of beer signs and truck stops. She delivers a profoundly sexy movie powered by dream logic, as well as Tangerine Dream’s hypnotic electronic score.
Bigelow made a film that was simultaneously romantic and brutal, most notably in the setpiece where the vampires descend on an unsuspecting bar where people think they’re tough, until they’re violently, hilariously disabused of that notion. Most notable: Severin, who delivers the line, “Give me a couple of shots of whatever donkey piss you’re shoving down these cocksuckers’ throats” with wonderfully profane panache. In this scene and elsewhere, Bigelow gets off on the violence and carnage of the vampire world, in the decidedly mixed promise of being able to do, in Mae’s words, “anything we want, until the end of time.” At the same time, she depicts it as a grueling dead end that leaves the vampire clan at its center halfway wishing to be put out of their endless misery.
Near Dark stumbles only during a happy ending that betrays much of what has come before. Near Dark inhabits a world without happy endings, for its characters or for anyone else, only an eternity of sexy brooding. Yet the film nevertheless closes with Caleb and Mae improbably finding peace, and undoing that unfortunate being-a-vampire problem that has been afflicting them. Bigelow’s world is so brutally unsentimental that any kind of hokey sentimentality feels like a violation.
Bigelow’s troubled, Oliver Stone-produced follow-up, 1989’s Blue Steel, has all manner of shortcomings and weaknesses, but an excess of hokey sentimentality isn’t one of them. If anything, the film is even bleaker and more despairing than Near Dark, without even the promise of sexy vampire loving to make it more palatable.
The film opens with the sounds of a man viciously beating a woman, and then a handheld shot following cop protagonist Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis, hot off A Fish Called Wanda) as she unsteadily approaches the scene of the domestic disturbance, gun in hand. She shoots and apparently kills the man as he raises his own gun, only to have the wife turn around and shoot her in retaliation. The scenario is revealed as a simulation of the kind of dangerous situations cops have to enter. In a preview of what’s to come for the luckless, overmatched Turner, she’s given no credit for pretend-killing an abusive man, only blame for getting killed by a woman who answers her rescuer with gunfire.
No matter how hard Turner tries, or how admirably she acquits herself, she can’t win. The odds are so stacked against her that even surviving becomes an incredible achievement. Everyone in her life is a threat. Still, she clings to her image of herself as a police officer. In a world with seemingly nothing but bad in it, she wants to be a force for good. The film lingers on the obsessive, military precision with which Turner maintains her police uniform. Bigelow fetishizes the iconography of police authority: the elaborate uniforms, the immaculately kept shoes, the smart hat. But more than anything, the sleek, sexy, dangerous curves of guns, which function throughout as metal phalluses with the power to destroy everything they come across. Blue Steel is, on many levels, a film about guns, the way they affect people, and particularly the strange, powerful role they play in the preservation and muddling of conventional gender roles. On that level, it’s a film of enduring fascination. But as a bloody, melodramatic twist on the someone-you-know-is-crazy-and-coming-for-you subgenre that flourished in the aftermath of Fatal Attraction’s success, it’s much less compelling.
Bigelow highlights Turner’s exuberance over joining the force in inventive ways, like a shot of Turner striding happily down the street in her crisp uniform. In this moment, only Turner is in focus; everyone else is slightly blurry. The shot highlights how Turner’s profession, and particularly the combination of her profession and her gender, separate her from everyone else.
In Blue Steel, even Turner’s fellow officers treat the idea of a lady cop as a walking contradiction, a sentient oxymoron. They think female cops shouldn’t exist, especially attractive ones like Turner. At a barbecue where a friend promises to fix her up with a “nice guy,” the man in question (played by Matt Craven) asks her, point blank, why for the love of God a beautiful woman would ever want to become a cop, rather than pursuing a life more suited to coasting exclusively on her looks, like marrying an eccentric billionaire.
For Turner, being a cop isn’t a job; it’s a destiny she’s pursued ever since watching her dad (Philip Bosco) beat her mother (Louise Fletcher). Blue Steel isn’t subtle or understated in its psychology. It doesn’t just posit her father’s abuse as the easy, clean rationale for her obsession with becoming a law officer; it later has her arrest her dad for beating her mother, which is a little like a film resolving a character’s heavy-handed Oedipal complex by having him kill his father and have sex with his mother.
With the exception of best friend Tracy (Elizabeth Pena), who is on hand mainly to get murdered in a narratively convenient fashion, no one is happy about Turner becoming a cop, especially after she stumbles upon a red-eyed, .44 Magnum-toting criminal (Tom Sizemore, in his film debut) holding up a store. Turner is freaked out and intimidated, and he doesn’t take her seriously as police; he sees a scared woman. But he pays for his cockiness when Turner kills him with her service revolver.
Then a bystander, suit-clad stockbroker Eugene (Ron Silver), picks up the criminal’s gun. Something breaks inside Eugene during the robbery. It put him in a position of childlike helplessness: lying prone on the ground, hoping a woman with a big gun will keep him from being murdered by a man with an even bigger gun. Attempting to regain some of his lost power, Eugene takes the gun back to his huge, expensive home. Since there’s no evidence to prove Turner killed an armed man in self-defense, she’s kicked off the force a mere day after entering it. Everyone seems to agree that her entire career was a misguided experiment in open-mindedness and progressiveness that failed miserably, and should be shut down as quickly and quietly as possible.
The robbery echoes the simulation scene that opens the film. Once again, Turner enters a tense, violent situation, acts quickly and decisively, and shoots an armed criminal. Once again, her glowering, openly sexist superiors treat her like an amateur who failed in the moment of truth, with devastating consequences. Even when Turner succeeds, she’s treated like a failure by a world that won’t let her succeed.
In the aftermath of this personal and professional disgrace, Turner finds comfort in an unexpected place: She meets creepy with Eugene, whom she didn’t notice at the scene of the robbery, and they begin to see each other romantically, even though he’s frothing, out-of-his-mind, howling-at-the-moon insane. Even on a first date at a nice restaurant, Eugene sounds like Travis Bickle and the Son Of Sam are feeding him dialogue, Cyrano De Bergerac-style.
The staccato, Christopher Walken-like inflections Silver brings to his line readings only heighten the creepiness. It isn’t entirely implausible that a deeply damaged, extremely lonely woman reeling from devastating personal and professional setbacks might be attracted to a man offering kind words and a warm smile. But there are people who have carved swastikas into their forehead with rusty paper clips while still giving off less of a crazy vibe than Eugene.
Something sick, sad, and twisted comes alive within Eugene during the robbery—he decides he’ll never feel powerless or vulnerable again, even if it means transforming himself into either a yuppie man-god or a mass-murdering angel of vengeance. He becomes particularly obsessed with the gun used in the robbery, as if by picking it up, he inherited a dark, sinister energy.
Blue Steel is already half a horror movie, but it would only take a single cheap special effect (say, an eerie glow emanating from the revolver just before Eugene picks it up) to transform this into a supernatural horror movie about a seemingly normal, non-violent man who devolves into a deranged, homicidal lunatic the moment he picks up the robber’s haunted gun. In Blue Steel, the gun has a talismanic quality; it’s nearly as much of a character as Eugene. Once it’s illegally in his possession, Eugene and the gun become inseparable; James Woods in Videodrome wasn’t as attached to the firearm that was literally part of his body as Eugene is to his .44. Once he begins thrill-killing people with it, that gun becomes an essential part of his identity. He is no longer Eugene the nebbishy nerd who responds to the threat of violence by dropping to the floor: He is now the .44 Killer, a malevolent force rampaging through New York at night, using gun casings into which he’s lovingly carved Turner’s name, in a somewhat misguided display of affection.
Eugene resembles Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy whom Tom Noonan filled with such heartbreaking poignance in 1986’s Manhunter. (The role was played much less memorably by Ralph Fiennes in Brett Ratner’s The Red Dragon.) Like Dolarhyde, Eugene is a seemingly unremarkable man of secret and sinister obsessions whose psyche cracks to such an extent that he thinks he’s evolving into a superhuman monster. What makes Noonan’s performance as Dolarhyde so shattering is its underlying tenderness and vulnerability, its humanity. Noonan lets us see the ferocious battle between good and evil raging within him, and his ultimately unsuccessful struggle to find some balance between the sweet, meek, modest man the world sees and the raging monster lurking within. Silver, on the other hand, goes from 0 to batshit within seconds in Blue Steel. He broadcasts his character’s violent insanity from his first moment onscreen, and only grows more hammy and over-the-top as the film grows increasingly melodramatic and implausible.
Halfway through the film, Eugene’s unnerving sexual fetishization of Turner, her job, and her gun reaches its apex when he asks her to point her gun at him. With that familiar crazy-man gleam in his eye, he starts ranting about having found his brightness and his radiance. Eugene opens up to Turner, but because he uses the vague terminology of insanity rather the clear-cut language of confession, there is apparently nothing the cops can do to Eugene. At that point, Eugene stops being human being and becomes a monster. He stops being Francis Dolarhyde and becomes Halloween’s Mike Myers: ubiquitous, unkillable, devoid of shading or moral ambiguity, and possessed of a seemingly superhuman ability to be anywhere, at any time.
Everywhere Turner goes, Eugene is there with a crazed look, eager to kill everyone close to her. Eugene murders Tracy in front of Turner—though in the world of Blue Steel, Eugene could point a gun at Turner’s head in the middle of a police station and vow to splatter her brains all over the walls and her superiors would, at best, grudgingly concede that maybe there might be something a little off about Eugene. Then Eugene shows up at Turner’s parents’ homes wearing his signature look of crazed psychosis, apparently because Turner neglected to tell her parents that she was being stalked by a murderous lunatic.
Blue Steel occupies a realm populated by characters and institutions so ugly and all-encompassing in their misogyny that the most supportive man in the entire movie is a fellow cop played by the hulking Clancy Brown, who is semi-famous for playing giant creeps. Brown’s Nick Mann (boy, the film is not subtle in its gender commentary, is it?) is introduced telling a humorous anecdote involving a hooker sewing a john’s dismembered penis on backwards in the back of a cab. Perhaps that’s why Turner is such an easy mark for Eugene and his free-floating, all-encompassing crazy: Before Nick decides that he does believe her, and becomes her partner and eventual lover, Eugene is literally the only man in the entire film who is nice to Turner, even if his “niceness” comes filtered through a dense layer of crazy.
After a disappointing third act, Blue Steel nearly redeems itself with a haunting final shot that foreshadows triumphs to come for Bigelow. Turner ends the film in a cop car after having finally, and with great forethought, shot Eugene dead—something that might also represent the ecstatic culmination of Eugene’s violent, masochistic sexual fantasies. This tough woman has overcome the vicious sexism of seemingly everyone around her and killed a man who personifies evil. She has won, but the look on her face is not one of triumph. It’s not even really a look of relief. It’s one of exhaustion and emptiness, an expression that comes with knowing that even when the bad guy gets caught, the world will continue to be a largely hateful, violent, grotesquely sexist place, particularly for women in positions of authority.
That look presages the look Maya, the C.I.A. agent played by Jessica Chastain, has at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. These moments are extraordinarily powerful in part because they are filled with such emotion, intensity, and ambiguity, but also because they’re so quiet. In Blue Steel, this moment of silence stands out because it so dramatically contrasts the screaming, unrelenting volume of Silver’s scenery-chewing, film-devouring performance. In Blue Steel’s haunting final shot, this intense filmmaker realizes the power of understatement. The delicate interplay of silence and deafening volume, of pummeling intensity and melancholy understatement, has gone on to serve Bigelow beautifully, particularly in the her post-comeback triumphs.
Up next: Noah Baumbach, Mr. Jealousy (and Highball)