Kathryn Bigelow: Defining the extreme

Ever since her classic 1991 blockbuster ‘Point Break’ hit cinemas, Kathryn Bigelow has transgressed Hollywood convention, and, ultimately, re-defined the action film with her approach to directing. She is, as critic Jim Hemphill argues: a filmmaker whose work ‘both satisfies and transcends the demands of formula to create cinema that’s ideologically complex, viscerally thrilling, and highly personal’. Bigelow herself prefers to not directly brand her films as action, but instead says they have the ‘potential to be kinetic.’ There is a dynamism and energy invested into her work, which makes her films unique, as a result of her ‘purpose-built’ camera equipment, allowing her to create a variety of extremely mobile shots, reinforcing how much she values practicality and physicality as part of her approach to filmmaking.

Bigelow shot to mainstream Hollywood success with her 1991 crime thriller Point Break which starred Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. It told the story of an undercover rookie FBI agent who is tasked with investigating and infiltrating a band of surfers who commit a series of bank robberies. The film was a critical and box-office hit with Bigelow receiving acclaim for her direction. The film was praised particularly for its stunning action sequences with which Bigelow made a name for herself, and showing her ability to direct spectacular thrilling action scenes made for the big screen.

For the next decade, Bigelow’s career ventured into a series of critical and commercial failures with films like ‘Strange Days’ and ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’, which received mixed reviews and bombed financially. It wasn’t until 2008 that Bigelow made her comeback, with the award-winning ‘The Hurt Locker’, which follows members of a bomb squad serving in the Iraq War. It was with this film that Bigelow transitioned into a more serious style of filmmaking; deviating from the highly-stylized manner of her previous work, and instead adopting a more experimental approach, with the film’s fast-paced editing, hand-held cameras, and rapid zoom techniques. Following the film’s release and critical success, it triumphed at the following year’s awards season. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, winning 6 of those, including Best Picture and Best Director, making Bigelow the first and, to date, only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director.

Bigelow’s next film, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, released in 2012, about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, was similar to ‘The Hurt Locker.’ It saw Bigelow advance with the same style of filmmaking, whilst maintaining the geopolitical undertones and commentary. The film may have sparked controversy in its depiction of the CIA’s torture practises, however, it was once again a critical and financial success, which saw Bigelow’s film earn a further 5 Academy Award nominations. Bigelow inverted genre conventions by placing a female lead at the film’s centre, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who subsequently went on to win a Golden Globe for her performance.

Bigelow’s latest film, ‘Detroit’, released last year, about the city’s 1967 riots, may have been a financial disappointment, but it certainly pleased critics, with Bigelow once again receiving high praise for her direction. Her last three films have been substantial proof of her ability to tackle controversial and daring themes and issues, whilst producing films that are captivating, meaningful and that challenge her audiences.

Arguably, there is no other female director like Kathryn Bigelow. She has defined what the extreme film is and can be for over two decades, whilst tackling the political, and doing it well. Her filmmaking is visceral, immersive, and utterly relentless, and we shall certainly be anticipating her next cinematic endeavour: the black American.