Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Weight of Water, based on the book by Anita Shreve, was released in 2000. The movie had been held back by the studio for over a year, and when it finally made it into theatres it sank like a stone. The few critics who reviewed it weren’t impressed. I remember that the night I first saw the movie the audience numbered less than ten. In fact, it might have been less than five.
So why did Bigelow, after directing a series of audacious and offbeat action flicks, decide to switch gears and film a very intimate novel about two women trapped in suffocating marriages? It’s a question worth asking, and I think there are probably a few answers.
One answer might be that she felt like a change of pace. Directors, like actors, can be afraid of getting type cast, and it may be that Bigelow wanted people to know she could do other things besides make action movies. Beyond that, though, it may be that she needed to do something that took her outside the confines of commercial formulas. While she’d managed to test the limits of the action genre, and even subvert some of its most basic rules, Bigelow understood that she still had to deliver what audiences wanted. Playing with the public’s expectations can keep them from showing up at the box office. Near Dark had been a modest critical and commercial success, but after that she ran into trouble. Nobody knew what to make of Blue Steel. Point Break made money but got trashed by critics. Strange Days got some enthusiastic reviews, but audiences stayed away. So Bigelow may have been wondering if she needed to take a break from action movies and try something different.
Another factor may have been the fact that Bigelow is a woman. I mostly avoid bringing up gender in writing about movies, because I think too often we fall back on easy stereotypes, sticking people in categories based on their sex. There’s no reason women shouldn’t be able to make action films, and Bigelow had proven her skill in the genre. But it’s a fact that the audiences for that kind of flick are mostly men, and those men have very specific expectations. I think the biggest reason her early features didn’t always go over well is that she was deliberately turning the genre on its head. A thriller centered on a female cop? Commonplace these days, but not back in the eighties. An FBI agent seeking spiritual fulfillment? Shouldn’t he just focus on shooting people? The audiences that flocked to Die Hard didn’t want movies to play with their expectations. They wanted massive explosions and a high body count. Bigelow may have gotten tired of trying to deliver what the boys were looking for.
But most important of all, I think Bigelow felt a powerful, personal connection to Shreve’s novel. It tells two parallel stories about women who are isolated and frustrated, angry and alone. Given the fact that Bigelow was one of the few female directors in Hollywood back in the nineties, it seems likely that she was experiencing all of the above. On top of everything, though, she was married to a director who also acted as producer on two of her films. Given that James Cameron was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of the time, this might seem like a tremendous advantage. Really, I don’t think Bigelow saw it that way. At all.
It’s always dangerous to make connections between an artist’s work and their personal life. However close the parallels may seem, we have to remember that the work is fiction, not fact. Because of what we know about Woody Allen’s personal life, we may be tempted think that at times he’s actually presenting scenes from his life on the screen. This is a big mistake. Even if the episodes he’s acting out seem to echo incidents we’ve read about, we should never be so lazy as to think what we’re seeing is the “truth”. Art inevitably transforms reality. Allen may be incorporating autobiographical elements in Annie Hall, but Annie Hall is not an autobiography.
On the other hand, for me, a work of art is only worthwhile if the artist reveals something of his or her self. This may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. Who cares if the details depicted in a movie reflect the details of the filmmaker’s life. All that’s really important is that artists are honest about the way they see the world, the way they feel about themselves. We can speculate forever about possible parallels between Orson Welles’ actual life and the storyline of Chimes at Midnight, but in the end, none of that matters. What does matter is that when Hal says to Falstaff, “I know thee not old man,” we can feel the pain that’s crushing the new king’s former friend, and we know Welles felt that pain, too.
Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water was inspired by a double murder that took place on a barren island off the Atlantic Coast at the end of the nineteenth century. A man was convicted and hanged for the crime, but speculation persists to this day that the jury sent the wrong person to their death. The book tells two stories, that of a young woman, a Norwegian immigrant, who relates the events leading up to the murders, and a modern story which focusses on a photojournalist who has come to the island to document the scene of the crime. Both the period story and the modern story are about relationships, both are centered on women trapped in unhappy marriages.
While Shreve’s book relates the known facts of the case, she makes it clear in a brief preface that it’s a work of fiction. The author creates a journal in which a young Norwegian woman named Maren talks about her youth, the pressures that forced her to take a husband, and the brutal challenges she faced after migrating to America, where she and her family are isolated on a remote, rocky island. The story that takes place in the present is centered on Jean, a photojournalist married to a famous poet. She loves her husband, but realizes his attention is straying, and the knowledge is slowly crushing her. As she investigates the Smuttynose murders, Jean finds Maren’s journal, and it’s clear she relates to the young immigrant’s desperation. They’re both just looking for a little affection, a little understanding.
Bigelow takes the fiction even further. Her film spends less time detailing the facts of the case and more time extending Shreve’s view of Maren as a deeply lonely, bitterly angry woman. In the book, the description of the actual killing is fairly brief. In the movie, the murders are crucial, and they are shown in terrifying detail. Like any filmmaker who uses historic fact as the basis for their work, Bigelow takes liberties to shape the story she wants to tell. Up to a point, I can accept that, but I’m not comfortable with showing a reenactment of a murder that’s based more on speculation than on evidence. Yeah, the film does offer a disclaimer, but it’s at the end, after we’ve seen a graphic depiction of Maren Hontvedt killing two family members. In reality, nobody knows who commited the crime.
It’s possible that the movie’s more visceral, graphic approach was the result of commercial considerations, but I doubt it. While I believe that Bigelow related to Shreve’s novel on a very personal level, as artists these two women are almost polar opposites. Shreve is a very careful, thorough writer who maintains a rigorous objectivity in her work. I have to say that I had trouble getting into the novel at first because the tone is so restrained. Gradually I was drawn into the world the author had created, both by her insight into human nature and the austere beauty of her prose. The book is really very moving, but Shreve always maintains a careful objectivity. She always keeps us at a distance from her characters.
Bigelow doesn’t keep her distance. As an artist and a filmmaker, she dives right into the world and drags us along with her. In her early films she used sound and image to create a voluptuous, kinetic experience, and at her best she pulled us right into the middle of it. Her characters were often thrown into situations where boundaries disappeared, and they’d find themselves caught between terror and euphoria. Though The Weight of Water is by no means an action film, again Bigelow’s protagonists find themselves pushed to their limits and beyond. In this case, though, the limits are less physical than psychological.
Here Bigelow uses her gifts to bring us into the characters’ state of mind. Jean sits on the deck of the yacht surrounded by placid blue water and crystalline vistas. The beauty and serenity of her surroundings are at odds with the tension that’s eating away at her. She watches her husband glancing furtively at the other woman on board the boat. She watches the other woman sliding a piece of ice down the length of her body. Seeing all this through Jean’s eyes, we know she’s just barely managing to hold herself together. The world Maren lives in, on the other hand, seems to be an expression of the melancholy she feels. The inside of her home is claustrophobic and dark. Within its oppressive quiet every small sound, the groan of the floorboards, the creak of a chair, is clearly heard. Even when Maren leaves the house, she’s still a prisoner on a barren island. There is no escape.
The script is extremely intricate, balancing the two stories against each other and weaving them together using deft, often abrupt, transitions. There are sudden shifts that may seem arbitrary, but actually the various threads are woven together with tremendous skill. Screenwriters Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle make Jean’s investigation of the murders an exploration of her own troubled marriage. The more she learns about the case, the more she’s convinced that Maren is the killer, and the more she understands Maren’s motives.
And Maren’s motives are complicated. She goes about her chores dutifully, sticking to the routine that keeps her sane, but inside she’s drowning in a sea of conflicting emotions. She seems to have accepted her life of lonely drudgery, but the arrival of her brother and his wife creates new turmoil. The presence of Maren’s jealous, vindictive sister Karen makes life even more unbearable. Maren’s family isn’t a source of comfort. It’s a prison.
Bigelow is not credited as a writer, but I wonder how much input she had on the screenplay. The film sticks to the general outline of Shreve’s novel, but there are a number of alterations, some of them important. One change that strikes me as crucial is the fate of Jean’s husband, Thomas. At the climax of both the book and the film, the boat they’re on is battered by a terrible storm. In the book, Thomas survives. In the film, he dies. In my mind, I can’t help associating this choice with the break-up of Bigelow’s marriage to James Cameron.
And here I may be making the kind of assumption that I was criticizing earlier. How can I justify drawing a connection between something that was happening in the director’s personal life with a fictional event that she depicts on the screen? But honestly, I’m not trying to tell you that Bigelow wanted Cameron dead. And I’m not even trying to tell you that Thomas is a surrogate for Cameron. The way I see it, his death has a broader and a deeper meaning.
Earlier I talked about the fact that Bigelow was one of the few women directing films back in the nineties. While she had a few female allies in Hollywood, for the most part she was trapped in a system controlled by men. And whatever her personal relationship with Cameron was like, it had to be difficult making movies with your husband acting as producer. I think Bigelow’s choice to make The Weight of Water, at least in part, came out of a desire to change both the course of her career and the course of her life, to break away from the action genre and the limitations imposed by a male-dominated studio system. I think killing Thomas was a symbolic way of setting herself free, of burying the past. The more I think about The Weight of Water, the more it seems to me that the film is an exorcism. A way of casting out the demons.
While Bigelow’s earlier work had a spiritual dimension, it was usually in the background, easy to miss amid the shootouts and high-speed chases. In The Weight of Water, spirituality is right in the forground. In her misery, Maren feels cut off from God, and wonders why God has imposed this harsh, loveless existence on her. And while Shreve’s book outlines Maren’s religious beliefs in a general way, the film explicitly embraces a Christian perspective. The cross is used as a symbol throughout the movie, sliding across the screen in the title sequence, worn as a necklace by one of the women on the boat, cast as a shadow on a wall in Maren’s home. Bigelow is clearly exploring the Christian themes of suffering and salvation, asking difficult questions, and not necessarily expecting any answers.
The Weight of Water came and went very quickly. While Bigelow has enjoyed greater recognition than ever in recent years, this movie is pretty much forgotten. It’s certainly not for everybody, but it doesn’t deserve its obscurity. No question the film is a grim, sometimes harrowing, journey into the souls of two women who feel completely, desperately lost. But it’s also one of the director’s most passionate and personal works. Near the end of the movie Maren says, “I believe that in the darkest hour God may restore faith and offer salvation.” The Weight of Water is Kathryn Bigelow’s statement of faith.
A young man and a young woman are running through a deserted industrial area. The sky is a sheet of black, lit only by dim yellow orbs hanging overhead. The woman stops, and raises her hand.
‘Look. The night. It’s so bright it’ll blind you.’
The young man is Caleb, a cowboy who’s come into town looking for some fun. The young woman, Mae, is a pretty girl he flirts with on the street. Before he knows what’s happening, she has taken him through a door he never knew existed into a world he never imagined. A world where the night is so bright it’ll blind you. A whole new kind of experience.
Kathryn Bigelow’s early films are about people walking through that door. Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break all deal with characters who find themselves embracing an ecstatic experience of the world, a kind of experience that is equally exhilarating and terrifying. In Near Dark, Caleb’s world is turned inside out when Mae bites him on the neck. Without even understanding what’s happening, he’s soon travelling with a family of vampires who roam the American Southwest, hunting for prey.
Caleb tries to escape, but finds it isn’t easy to get away. He’s horrified by what he sees, but there’s a part of him that’s drawn to these people who “keep odd hours.” Even though they’re a hundred and eighty degrees from the family he lives with back on the farm, there are strong bonds that hold this clan together. Whether hunting, stealing or hiding, they work as a team, and when the chips are down they back each other up. Jesse and Diamondback are the imposing father and mother figures. Severen is the wild older “son” who enjoys toying with his prey. Mae is more passive, and seems troubled by the life she leads. Homer is the angry, lonely boy who has lived more than enough to become a man, but will always be trapped in the body of a child.
Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red splice two genres together, creating a dark, dynamic fantasy landscape. The western is purely American, and speaks of a clear cut, black and white morality. The horror film hails from the dark corners of Northern Europe, and dares us to step into a terrifying, irrational world. The monsters may die in the final reel, but they live on in our imagination. The tension between these two genres comes across in images that resonate in powerful, inexplicable ways. The shootout at the outlaws’ hideaway becomes a startling, hallucinatory sequence where our hero braves the burning sunlight to stage a daring rescue, and saves his newfound “family”. A barroom confrontation becomes a bloody slaughter, while the jukebox reels out pop tunes in the background. Even a conventional love scene is twisted into something strange and unnerving. Not having tasted blood since his transformation, Caleb is weak and pale. Mae opens a vein in her wrist and offers it to him in order to bring him back to life. He drinks deeply, and feeling miraculously rejuvenated, he kisses her passionately, traces of blood still smeared across his lips.
All this probably sounds like a far cry from the classic westerns of John Ford, but actually Bigelow is a direct descendant of that American master. In fact, among living filmmakers, she is probably the one whose perspective is closest to Ford’s. They are both deeply, unapologetically American, while at the same time obsessively examining the violence and the arrogance that are inextricably woven into this country’s fabric. They’re both poets, relying on a sound, an image, a gesture to express themselves where others would speak to us in words. And they both deal with individuals who find themselves in conflict with their community. The comparison may be easier to see in films like K-19, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which deal with stubborn outsiders who collide with rigid institutions, but the similarities are very much there in Near Dark. It’s a story about a young man who has to choose between the seductive, dangerous outlaw “family” and returning to the safety and comfort of his own family.
In the end, it’s easy for Caleb to choose because his young sister, Sarah, is in danger. But it’s actually the vampires’ humanity that brings about her release and their own destruction. Mae wrests Sarah from the grasp of her younger “brother” Homer. At a crucial moment, Diamondback urges Caleb and Sarah to run. As the sun rises, Homer chases desperately after Sarah, not as a vampire chasing his prey, but as a child who is losing his only friend. He frantically calls her name as his body is engulfed in flames. Jesse and Diamondback clasp hands, knowing it’s all over, calmly accepting their fate.
Caleb frees Mae of her curse, and the two lovers are united. In Bigelow’s early films, her innocent heroes usually walk away a little wiser and not too much worse for wear. But in her later work she has focussed on characters who are more complex, and the moral issues aren’t so clear cut. From The Weight of Water on, Bigelow’s protagonists aren’t just struggling with their fate, they’re struggling with themselves. There are no more happy endings.