Kathryn Bigelow – Director Overview

It’s kind of surprising, but this week’s Detroit is the first movie Kathryn Bigelow has directed in five years. In an era where random dudes are being pulled from single-camera TV comedies and lining up seven movies over five years out of the gate, that Bigelow has often gone three years or more between movies seems notable.

It’s even more surprising considering the consistent high quality of the movies she’s helmed. While not all of these have gone on to be considered cinematic classics, they almost uniformly are really good movies, largely due to her influence. So with Detroit in theaters now, it’s a good time to look back at her previous efforts to see how the trailers for each has sold the movie to audiences.

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark would fit so well in today’s cinematic marketplace I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been a feature or TV remake. The story revolves around Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), who becomes part of a group of traveling vampires after meeting – and being bit by – the lovely Mae (Jenny Wright). Things get complicated due to the presence of the violent Severen (the late Bill Paxton) and the protective leader of the group Hooker (Lance Henriksen).

The trailer for this 1987 drama, Bigelow’s second movie, surprisingly doesn’t play up the vampire aspect of the story to much. There’s plenty of talk, either in the dialogue of the characters or in the narration, about how nighttime is the most dangerous and that daylight will be much safer, but vampirism isn’t mentioned explicitly. Instead the activities of the gang are presented mostly as just psychopathic, people who just enjoy violence and want to see if the new recruit will pull his weight.

Blue Steel (1990)

Let’s all fondly remember the 80s and early 90s, when Jamie Lee Curtis was a dependable and powerful leading lady, capable of being funny in ensembles or leading dramas on her own. Blue Steel falls into the latter category, with Curtis starring as a rookie cop who is suspended after the questionable shooting of someone holding up a grocery store. Through a series of circumstances, she becomes involved with a stock trader (Ron Silver) who winds up being at the heart of a mystery Curtis’ Megan Turner is investigating.

As the trailer starts we get the backstory that she’s being suspended after the shooting that no one can corroborate was justified. We see that incident and see Silver’s Hunt take her gun, which is part of the problem. It then goes on to show that he uses that gun to go on a killing spree of his own, with the complication being that he and Turner used to date. It’s selling a story of violent obsession and is tense and pulse-pounding.

Point Break (1991)

I think we all know the story of Point Break, which features Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah, a cop who goes undercover to break up a gang of thieves led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). This is no ordinary gang, though, as they’re all involved in extreme sports such as surfing, skydiving and more. So in order to fully become accepted by Bodhi and his crew, Utah has to become just as good as them. the two bond, making Utah’s betrayal that much more emotionally impactful.

Reeves is certainly the focal point of the trailer. We get the background of The Ex Presidents (the name the gang as adopted due to their habit of wearing masks of former presidents during their heists), and see how committed they are to not only crime but sports. Likewise, we watch as Utah is given his assignment and begins to become part of the surfing and sporting lifestyle. There’s not a whole lot here about the brotherhood that forms between the cop and the criminal, showing the main appeal in 1991 was deemed to be the presence and personalities of Reeves and Swayze.

Strange Days (1995)

Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days took advantage of the emerging presence of the web and increased interest in the cyberpunk works of William Gibson and others. Set just four years out in 1999, the story follows ex-cop Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), who now deals in black market discs of people’s personalities and emotions that others can plug into their own cybernetic implants and experience for themselves. He gets pulled even deeper into the underworld when he receives a disc containing the memories of a murderer and is motivated to investigate it for himself.


“Have you ever jacked in?” Nero asks as the trailer begins. It’s explained that experiencing someone else’s memories and emotions is better than TV, better than any kind of artificial high. We see the setting is the last day of 1999 and that Nero has started getting disks he’s not comfortable with from someone he doesn’t know. The violence increases as police, criminals and others all come after the tape for their own reasons, all set against the backdrop of the dark days when the world might end when the clock strikes midnight.

The Weight of Water (2000)

Jean (Catherine McCormack) is a newspaper photographer who travels with her husband Thomas (Sean Penn) and others to New Hampshire as part of her research into the murder of two women in 1873. Tensions arise as Thomas openly flirts with Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), one of their companions. Meanwhile Jean becomes increasingly convinced that the century-old murders were not committed by the man who was ultimately hanged for them but by a third woman exacting revenge for that man’s failure to requite her love.

As the trailer starts we see the two couples in present day setting out on a boat for some time at sea. There’s some setup that Jean has come to investigate the murders, accompanied by her husband, brother-in-law and his wife (Adaline). Scenes, and narration, about the simmering desires and tensions aboard the boat are intercut with scenes pulled from the past of the trial that followed the murders and it’s clear there are parallels between the two stories. Again, this is all about building up the tension to the point where the audience can’t wait to find out what happens next.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Bigelow started to expand the scope of the stories she told with K-19: The Widowmaker. In the movie, Harrison Ford plays the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage in 1961, the height of the Cold War. The nuclear plant that powers the sub experiences a catastrophic failure on that voyage, one that could not only destroy the ship and kill its crew but be interpreted as a sign of war that could have worldwide repercussions.

We meet Ford’s Captain Vostroikov as the trailer opens and see that he’s being given a mission to command a sub not just as a demonstration of Russia’s power but a response to perceived U.S. provocation. Various events, including contact with an American sub, create tensions between Vostroikov and a political officer played by Liam Neeson. The narration tells us it’s based on an “astonishing true story” as the reactor meltdown occurs, leading the captain to make impossible decisions to save his boat and his crew and prevent all-out war.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

If Bigelow wasn’t a household name before 2008, she was when she directed The Hurt Locker. We meet Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) as he arrives in Iraq to help disarm bombs. The story follows not just James but others in his crew as they all deal with the psychological impact of living in a war zone. James’ methods are a bit off-book, which brings him into conflict with others in the squad, including Sgt. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie.

The trailer starts just as James arrives in Iraq and begins to acquaint himself with his new deployment. We watch as he takes off his protective gear to deal with one particular bomb, a move the others question. It’s clear his unorthodox methods aren’t always appreciated by those who depend on him to save their lives. Still, they all bond as they all know they’re working toward the same end and devoted to the same mission. It ends with shots of James’ personal life and family, showing the emotional stake he has in surviving each and every task he’s sent out on.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Staying in the political and military realm, Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won a Best Director Academy Award, was Zero Dark Thirty. This time the focus was on Maya, a fictional CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain who’s been tasked with finding Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Beginning in 2003, the story follows Maya as she uses every method available to her to turn sources, decipher intercepted communications and more to bring justice to bin Laden.

There are lots of hijab and guns and more as the trailer opens, accompanied by comments from an interrogator about how he’s not a nice guy. We meet Maya and we see how dedicated she is to her job and how good she is at doing it, though it’s often frustrating. 10 years go by and she’s still at it, culminating with a mission to find bin Laden that not everyone in the agency is convinced will work. It ends with the SEAL team opening a remote house in the desert, presumably on the raid that would ultimately take down the terrorist leader.

While Bigelow has focused, particularly in the last 10 years, on political stories (including Detroit), the common theme throughout her work is tension. Sometimes that’s on a boat of people with evolving relationships, sometimes it’s in an RV full of vampires, sometimes it’s in a bomb disposal unit deployed to Iraq. The marketing of her movies has worked to highlight not just the action but the relationships between those involved, with all of creating pulse-pounding moments that the audience is asked to invest in.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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