Director Kathryn Bigelow’s third full-length feature, a serial-killer thriller about an NYPD rookie (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a performance that should have made her a Jennifer Lawrence-level megastar), hunting/evading a deranged Wall Street trader (Ron Silver, going big in ways that normally would bug me but totally work here), operates on about seventeen different levels. It’s a gritty cop drama. It’s a postmodern gloss on a slasher movie. It’s a dark satire of gender politics. It’s a savage take-down of toxic masculinity, and a prescient harbinger of the #metoo movement.
It’s a test-run for American Psycho and Wolf of Wall Street in how it sees capitalism-run-rampant as an absolute evil. It’s a surrealist examination of America’s obsession with gun culture. At times, it plays like an updated Bette Davis melodrama from the 1930s; at times, we could be watching a bleak revisionist Western.
And like Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, Blue Steel works as a genre-veiled autobiography. We’re not five minutes in before Bigelow conflates herself with her on-screen protagonist. When pressed as to why she wanted to become a cop, Curtis deadpans, “I wanted to shoot people.”
First she grins and tries to play it off as a joke.
Then we see how serious she was.
Curtis stumbles onto a convenience-store robbery in progress, the mugger (a very young Tom Sizemore) draws on her, and she shoots him. From a legal standpoint, the shooting seems justified, but cinematically, the moment gives us pause. Literally – Bigelow cuts between normal speed and slow motion, covering the murder from every conceivable angle as Curtis empties her service revolver into the guy.
I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah loved to fetishize bloody violence; only three feature-length films into her career (1981’s The Loveless, 1987’s Near Dark, and then Blue Steel in 1990), Bigelow shares the same zeal. Like her heroine, she “want[s] to shoot people,” too, and the mugger’s death acts as a microcosm for how Bigelow will depict violence in everything she makes.
It’s always technically accomplished. It’s always graphically detailed. And it always unfolds with almost agonizing sensual appreciation. Think the roadhouse massacre in Near Dark or the Algiers Motel in Detroit – they unfold with a languor that belies the carnage on display.
Maybe that’s why Bigelow herself seems to struggle more than her peers. If Zero Dark Thirty reads as a coded examination of Bigelow’s own decades-long travails within the Hollywood system, then Blue Steel seems like a time-stamp of how Bigelow was floundering, circa 1990. On-screen, Curtis does her job with disquieting force and immediately becomes a pariah, getting a suspension from her post and inspiring Silver’s gun-nut psycho; Bigelow could be reflecting on how the failure of her violent postmodern chiller Near Dark made her persona non grata in Hollywood for three years.
It must have been frustrating for her, to suffer because she’s too good at what she does (especially given the financial success that greeted the far more loathsome bloodshed in, say, the Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th franchises), and I love how that same anger animates Curtis’ character throughout Blue Steel. Every time Silver murders some innocent civilian, Curtis gets blamed. Every time she tries to get back to work, some ineffectual superior stops her. We want to be in her corner.
Except she still loves shooting people. So does her director. And oh, that tension is glorious.