Kathryn Bigelow and the Tough-as-Nails Heroine

One of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movie about men & masculinity. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an active, genuine interest in the topic as auteur, but rather that it’s curious that the filmmaker fixated on telling men’s stories happens to be the one woman director to ever win her field’s top prize. Bigelow’s preoccupation with macho, dirtbag men is especially noticeable in our current Movie of the Month—the Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—in which a scumbag anti-hero played by Ralph Fiennes is inexplicably centered in the film’s narrative instead of the more traditionally heroic badass played by Angela Bassett. Bassett’s stunt-driving, punches-throwing, testicles-kicking, politically radical heroine is a true wonder—a spectacle in herself—which makes it all the more tragic that even she is helpless to Fiennes’s greasy macho charms in the main role. That letdown is an intentionally frustrating aspect of the script (which Bigelow penned with her creative partner and already then-former husband James Cameron), but it still left me wondering what the film might have played like if Bigelow were more interested in Basset’s inner life and instead centered the woman as the lead. It would at least have been a novel departure from her usual mode.

As far as I can tell, Bigelow’s 1990 cop thriller Blue Steel is her only feature film to date with a woman in the top-billed role. Jamie Lee Curtis stars a rookie NYC police officer with a violent streak that immediately lands her in hot water. She’s not exactly the tough-as-nails badass Bassett portrays in Strange Days, but that archetype is exactly what she aspires to be. When pressed by her male colleagues about why she wants to be a cop in the first place, she “jokes” about coveting the violent authoritarianism of the position, musing “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to shoot people.” The truth turns out to be more that she grew up powerless to stop her abusive father from physically assaulting her mother, and her new badge & gun armory allows her to wield power over him and other abusers. The first time she dons her blue uniform, she struts down the street with newfound, first-in-her-lifetime confidence. During her first night on the job she overreacts to the threats of an armed suspect and unloads every bullet she’s got into his chest. She just as capable of violence as Bassett’s tough-as-nails heroine, but lacks that role model’s cool, even hand and moral sense of justice. It’s a dangerous inner conflict that the film eventually likens to the sociopathic impulses of a deranged serial killer – a man. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Bigelow film if there wasn’t some destructive, alluring force of masculinity present to steer the central conflict.

Blue Steel’s grotesquely macho villain subverts Jamie Lee Curtis’s hero status at the film’s center by realigning her with the Final Girl archetypes that first made her famous. Ron Silver costars as a dangerously narcissistic Wall Street brute turned serial killer, essentially laying out the entire American Psycho template in an underpraised stunner of a role. This mustache-twirling villain is first inspired to kill when he witnesses Curtis decimate her perp on her first night of patrol. His fetishistic obsession with her (and her gun) quickly escalates into erotic thriller territory, a tension he relieves by shooting randomly selected victims on the NYC streets. He also shoehorns his way into the rookie cop’s romantic life with his Wall Street wealth, so that she’s unknowingly dating the very killer she’s professionally hunting. While the film is willing to link the trigger-happy cop’s penchant for violence with the Wall Street creep’s own sociopathy, this largely becomes a tale of a woman who’s boxed in on all sides by macho bullies. Between her abusive father, her gaslighting boyfriend, and the police force higher-ups who do not believe her accounts of being attacked by creeps on the street, Blue Steel’s heroine is awash in a flood of insidious machismo. For at least this one film, Bigelow proves that she can center a woman protagonist’s story why still satisfying her auteurist preoccupations with the nature & textures of masculinity. In that way, Blue Steel deserves to be regarded as one of the director’s foremost texts.

There are plenty of other reasons why Blue Steel deserves higher critical prominence in the Bigelow canon that have nothing to do with its tough-as-nails heroine. From the harsh noir lighting to the ice-cold atmospheric score & eroticized gun violence, this deeply creepy, mean thriller finds Bigelow at one of her most stylistically indulgent moments as a director. She’s channeling some serious 80s Friedkin vibes here, which I mean as a high compliment; all that’s missing is an elaborate chase scene & a Wang Chung soundtrack. Still, the most readily recognizable significance of the film within the director’s larger catalog is the rare chance to see her center a woman protagonist while remaining true to the violence & masculinity of her typical milieu. It’s not exactly the hypothetical “What if Angela Bassett was Top-Billed in Strange Days?” scenario that genre nerd audiences are likely to hope for, but it is the closest Bigelow has ever gotten to satisfying that ideal. It’s also, notably, an exquisite chiller of a film in its own right.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017).

-Brandon Ledet

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Prom Night (1980)

Is Jamie Lee Curtis the original scream queen? There were multiple generations of femme horror legends who preceded her (including her own mother in Hitchcock’s pivotal proto-slasher Psycho), but the “scream queen” designation specifically feels like a product of the first-wave slashers of the early 80s. Curtis was a central figure in that initial crop of body-count slasher films thanks to her starring role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, which (along with Black Christmas) established many of the tones & tropes now associated with the genre. Previous femme horror legends like Barbara Steele, Karen Black, and Vampira would often be typecast in horror films for their naturally spooky looks, while Jamie Lee Curtis’s generation were better known for their reactions to the horrors of the world – their screams. Curtis was a frequent go-to for the Final Girl Next Door archetype in the earliest crop of formulaic slashers (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train specifically), establishing a scream queen career template that near-future horror actresses like Barbara Crampton, Heather Langenkamp, and Linnea Quigley would later transform into lifelong convention-circuit celebrity. Her mother’s stabbed-in-the-shower scream may have echoed much louder throughout horror history than any of her own on-screen scares, but one isolated fright does not make a Scream Queen. As of last year, Curtis was still extending her Final Girl status in the ongoing Halloween franchisefour decades after its debut. If she’s not the originator, she’s at least the one with the most follow-through.

Prom Night is a significant episode in establishing this scream queen status for Curtis, but only because it faithfully repeats a pattern initiated by Halloween a couple years earlier. If anything, it repeats that pattern a little too faithfully, as its initial gimmick is essentially a mashup of Halloween & Carrie with nothing especially novel to add to either side of the equation. Curtis stars as a suburban high school goody-two-shoes who finds herself the target of two dangerous adversaries: a hot-girl bully who wants to steal her thunder as prom queen (like in Carrie) and a maniacal killer who’s stabbing her friends to ribbons one by one (like in Halloween). When Curtis is gabbing about boys with her more promiscuous friends, walking just out of earshot of reports of an escaped mental-patient maniac, and stumbling blissfully unaware into a cruel prank just as she’s being crowned prom queen, all the audience can think about is Laurie Strode and Carrie White. There are a few key deviations here, to be fair. Instead of the escaped maniac being the assumed killer like Michael Myers, there’s a murder-mystery set-up involving a past wrong when the victims were children – calling into question the masked killer’s identity & motivation. Also, not for nothing, Curtis possesses no telekinetic superpowers here and must survive her bullies’ pranks with good old-fashioned Final Girl purity & wit. Prom Night also tosses in the menacing phone calls from Black Christmas to spice up this Halloween & Carrie mash-up, further emphasizing its adherence to first-wave slasher tradition (and Jamie Lee Curtis’s prominence within that milieu).

Thankfully, Prom Night eventually does come into its own as a unique object & an admirably stylish feat in low-budget filmmaking. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, this turnaround arrives during its titular high school prom dance. Working with a glorious Disco Madness theme, the prom sequence is a pulsating teen dance party where the hormone addled dum-dums we’ve been following all movie show off their best Saturday Night Fever choreography on a light-up dance floor, then file away one at a time to be brutally murdered by the masked killer. In a welcome deviation from a typical first-wave slasher, these kills do not directly correlate with whether or not the teens in question drink, screw, or revel in sin; the kids simply suffer the consequences for a past act of cruelty they’ve kept under wraps since they were tykes. The mysterious executioner sports an unusually glittery ski mask to protect their identity and wields a unique murder weapon—broken mirror shards—instead of the glistening kitchen knife of slasher tradition. Between these gruesome kills and the dance floor glam of the disco prom, Prom Night eventually emerges from its formulaic slasher chrysalis to become its own beautiful specimen of cheap-o grime. Its earliest stretch is guaranteed to test the patience of audiences generally bored with by-the-numbers slasher ritual, but I find that sturdy plot template can be exceptionally useful in providing structure for over-the-top aesthetic & tonal choices like, say, a Disco Madness theme. It also helped build Curtis’s legacy as the genre’s first genuine scream queen; she just also had to be crowned prom queen to get there.

-Brandon Ledet

Halloween (2018)

The David Gordon Green-directed, Danny McBride co-written, Blumhouse-produced Halloween is colloquially being framed as the Force Awakens of its respective series. This makes total sense from a franchise storytelling POV. It’s a decades-late sequel to a widely beloved classic that’s meant to reinvigorate interest in its brand by both wiping out the taste of lesser franchise entries of the past in a nostalgic return to basics and setting up a foundational storyline that can excite new fans for future installments, box office willing. However, Halloween (2018)’s context as the Force Awakens of its franchise is ringing true to me in other unexpected, even blasphemous ways. Like with The Force Awakens’s relationship to A New Hope, I found this soft-reboot to be an improvement on the original Halloween film through thoughtful, purposeful revision – although one indebted to nostalgic homage. More enthusiastic appreciators of the John Carpenter original are likely to have a drastically different relationship with Halloween (2018), but that seminal 1978 work has never been a personal favorite of mine. I much prefer the later, weirdo outliers it helped inspire: The Final Destination, Slumber Party Massacre II, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, etc. Carpenter’s score for the film and the visual design for serial killer Michael Myers are undeniably iconic, but the overall effect of the barebones horny-teens-hunted-by-a-masked-killer slasher is never as interesting to me as the stranger, more outrageous mutations of the formula that followed. I’m appreciative of Halloween (1978)’s influence on the horror genre, but skeptical of most after-the-fact academic assessments of the film that explain Michael Myers to be the embodiment of pure, senseless Evil as if that were that were a mythology it fully defined. Beyond lip service to philosophical ponderings on the nature of Evil provided by crazed psychologist Dr. Loomis, what’s mostly onscreen in the original Halloween is hot teens being punished for behaving badly (like a decades-late update to the 1950s “road to ruin” pictures where sex = death). The philosophy behind its supposed explorations of Fate & Evil have become part of its lore in the decades since its release, so that this 2018 update to its formula has much more to chew on subtextually, growing from those early seeds of ideas through focused revision.

Halloween (1978) co-writers John Carpenter & Debra Hill rationalized Michael Myers’s targeting of young, wayward teens by explaining him to be the Shape of Evil itself (even billing him as “The Shape” in the end credits), but in the text itself he effectively acts like a typical human serial killer with both prurient & prudish interests. The original sequel to Halloween, Halloween II (1982), attempted to ascribe logic to his targeting of Original Final Girl Lorie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) by making him her brother instead of a random violent stranger. Halloween (2018) ditches that sibling explanation entirely and does more with the Shape of Evil rationalization than what’s enacted in the original. 40 years after the Halloween-night serial murders of the first film, Laurie Strode is a traumatized wreck. She has alienated her family by morbidly obsessing over the murders, still attempting to make sense of Michael Myers’s impulses all these years later, preparing (read: looking forward to) his return for a “final” bout of bloodshed & closure. True crime podcasters, obsessive criminal psychologists, and a few superstitious locals share this belief that a showdown between Michael Meyers & Laurie Strode is Fate – an inevitable, momentous event. This stubborn belief in Fate and the impulse to ascribe meaning to senseless, random cruelty & chaos only leads to more personal tragedy. Laurie Strode, in her need for closure, and others obsessed with understanding the mind of the killer artificially orchestrate this final showdown with a perverse glee, like how Doomsday Preppers not-so-secretly look forward to the Apocalypse instead of approaching it with a healthy sense of dread. When Michael does eventually escape police custody to go on another killing spree (there wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t), he just sort of stumbles around, indiscriminately stabbing at anything. It’s Laurie who insists on reliving her past trauma at his hands because she’s stuck in it, putting her whole family at risk as a result. She gets the supposedly fated showdown with Michael she’s been preparing for at her doomsday compound, but only because she & others obsessed with her case make it happen. In the decades since the original Halloween, people on & off the screen have been attempting to rationalize The Shape’s chaotic, emotionless enacting of Evil. No film has actually made use of that theme in a clear, substantive way as well as Halloween (2018).

The brilliance of this conceit of artificially orchestrated “Fate” is that it allows Halloween to split itself into two separate narratives that satisfy two entirely different appetites. One narrative follows Laurie Strode as she (along with other Michael Myers obsessives) endangers her family in her struggles to process her decades-later Final Girl trauma. The other follows Michael Myers indiscriminately doing his thing, completely unconcerned with the Strode Family drama. It’s in that latter thread where the film has its fun as a nostalgic slasher genre throwback, both gleefully referencing callbacks to previous Halloween films and reliving the horny-teens-punished-for-their-supposed-transgressions formula of the genre Carpenter helped establish (for better or for worse). The payoffs in the Michael Myers murder spree “plot” are much more muted than those of the Strode Family drama. You can only derive so much pleasure from spotting the latex Halloween masks from Season of the Witch or hearing Michael’s original murder spree referenced as “The Babysitter Murders” (the 1978 film’s working title), which I suppose is the less forgiving implication when you refer to this soft-reboot as the series’ Force Awakens. The murders themselves, although they leave a grotesquely contorted body count in their wake, also have a limiting entertainment value; they’re deeply indebted to the usual tones & methods of the traditional slasher. When considered in isolation, the two separate plot threads of Halloween (2018) – the Strode Family drama & the Michael Myers killing spree – feel woefully incomplete. One is too brief in screentime to land with full emotional impact, while the other is too reference-heavy & genre-faithful to feel memorable or distinct. The film’s brilliance lies in the way these separate tracks work in tandem. Cutting between Laurie’s conviction that Michael is staging a showdown with her specifically and Michael’s entirely unconcerned, indiscriminate killing spree in seemingly an entirely different movie creates a fascinating narrative tension. It becomes increasingly tragic as Laurie gets what she wants by artificially forcing the two threads to converge as if it were her Fate.

Like with The Force Awakens, this Halloween sequel/remake/reboot has the impossible task of pleasing everyone, ranging from devotees of the original who want to know how Laurie Strode’s doing 40 years later to first-weekend horror-gobbling teens who just want some jump scares & interesting kills. I believe it did an excellent job of satisfying the most extreme ends of that divide by treating them as separate tracks, then giving them a substantive reason to converge. Fans of the franchise with sky-high standards & hyper-specific requirements of how the Laurie-Michael story should be told (Star Wars-type fans, if you will) are going to be the most difficult to please, since their beloved property has to cede so much screentime to roping in newcomers who needed to be won over for this gamble to work. For me, it’s that exact tension between the original Halloween’s storyline’s need to logically seek closure & the slasher genre’s need to propagate random, senseless violence that makes this film one of the best examples of its franchise – one that has something substantive to say about Fate & Evil in a way the original only motioned towards. And it managed to do so while still playing reverent homage to that seminal work’s iconic sense of style.

-Brandon Ledet