Watching NEAR DARK Before the Oscars

There are a lot of reasons to root for Kathryn Bigelow at the Oscars today, even if you’re not, like me, DETERMINED to win your office pool. If you are like me, you may also be mostly unfamiliar with the rest of Bigelow’s filmography, and–if Point Break looks like too much Keanu–1987’s Near Dark, Bigelow’s (then-)contemporary vampire western, is a great place to start.

The film follows Caleb Cotton, an aimless young Oklahoman, as he picks up Mae, a strange new girl in town. They hit it off, so she bites him and turns him, hoping Caleb will join the pack of vampires she roves the country with. Caleb’s unwilling to kill, which becomes a problem about as soon as he gets hungry. It becomes clear shortly thereafter that Mae’s redneck vampire friends will eventually kill him if he can’t find the nerve.

The most surprising thing about Near Dark is the influence MTV seems to have had on Bigelow; cuts happen quickly and often, and the synth-heavy score (by Tangerine Dream) occasionally threatens to drown out all diegetic noise. Partially because of Near Dark‘s rapid cuts, the film is a model of efficiency, done in ninety minutes and with cool set pieces to spare. Like with The Hurt Locker, we get just enough of any given character’s interior to keep us invested–both movies showcase Bigelow’s ability to race across surfaces while suggesting the depths underneath.

Near Dark‘s casting makes this all possible; even after watching him for an hour and a half, it’s unclear whether or not Adrian Pasdar (Caleb) can act, but he’s a convincing square-jawed dope. Same with Jenny Wright (Mae), who floats from scene to scene as a pixieish vampire babe. Lance Henriksen, meanwhile, is pretty perfect as Jesse, the terse, menacing vam-patriarch, and Bill Paxton inhabits that woefully underused character type: the vampiric loudmouthed creep.

Some genre subversion occurs over the course of Near Dark–Bigelow’s vampires don’t have fangs, for instance, and rely on various sharp objects to drain the blood of their victims. The film draws particular attention to the old tropes it does use near the end, when a cowboy-hatted Caleb approaches his final confrontation with Paxton’s Severen on horseback (a winking bit of self-consciousness that made me wince, even as someone who loves winking, self-conscious cinema). But Near Dark isn’t the work of an ironist any more than The Hurt Locker is. Bigelow is less interested in toying with the conventions of the horror movie or western than hitching them to a van and hitting the gas–it’s a meaner, faster kind of genre film.

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One Comment on “Watching NEAR DARK Before the Oscars”

  1. Nathan Says:

    I actually had my own Bigelow-fest a few days after the Oscars, featuring “Point Break” and “Strange Days” (the latter nobody seemed to remember was co-written by James Cameron). I thought both of them were overall decent and often very beautiful (the extraordinary skydiving/surfing scenes in “Point Break”; the confetti-strewn Times Square Y2K police battle in “Strange Days”), but both were hampered by severe problems, namely Keanu Reeves and some very 90s surfer talk in the former and a completely implausible, even laughable ending in the latter.

    Bigelow clearly has extreme visual talent but I don’t think I’d put her in the class of directors that thrive on elevating secondary material–“The Hurt Locker” is largely a success I think because it’s by far the best script she ever directed.

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