Click here to read Dana Stevens' review of Kathryn Bigelow's new film The Hurt Locker.
Even when Bigelow's films are literally pornographic, the viewer's response can be safely assumed to be conflicted. Take, for example, the infamous snuff-film scene in Strange Days: The villain traps his victim, hooks her up to the virtual-reality device that will download his sensory experience into her brain, and then rapes and strangles her—meaning that she experiences both her own rape and murder and her killer's pleasure in same, and we get to watch. Whether you read this scene as a provocative film-theory vignette on the internalized male gaze or just a vile precursor to Saw, Hostel, and the rest of the torture-porn genre to come—or both—you will long to scrub your brain with a Brillo Pad after viewing.
Rule 3: There should be at least one Hot Chick (viz., Jolie, Mendes, Fox).
Muggy with unchecked testosterone, Bigelow's last two films, K-19 and The Hurt Locker, have scarcely any female speaking parts between them; in Locker, the sexual tension nearly detonates in a drunken play-fight scene that's as nerve-rattling as any of the film's bomb-hunting sequences. In The Loveless, Near Dark, Blue Steel, and the giddily homoerotic Point Break, the female leads are tomboyish pixies, short of hair and somewhat epicene. Mace in Strange Days is undeniably a Hot Chick, but context is everything, and she's got bigger muscles and balls—and she wears better suits—than her male opposite. After she spends the entire movie tough-mothering hapless Lenny, their final romantic clinch seems almost incestuous.
Rule 4: Send the viewer out on a high!
At the end of Point Break, neither Johnny Utah nor Bodhi "win"; it's more like an exhausted draw. Blue Steel's Megan appears destined for a life of bad dreams and gnarled trust issues. The young navy heroes honored in K-19 are also victims—dead of radiation sickness because their ultra-authoritarian captain (Harrison Ford with a Russian accent!) insisted that their junker of a submarine was sea-ready. They were incredibly brave, yes, but they died for nothing but their boss' machismo.
And without spoiling anything, the ending of The Hurt Locker is a grim punch line that confirms its opening epigraph, "War is a drug"—though the line is not as self-evident as it first seems. War is addictive and soul-warping in The Hurt Locker, yes, but after two hours of trying to penetrate the mind of Staff Sgt. James, one might also think of war as a medication—a cognitive enhancer for a certain kind of highly useful misfit. Like much in Bigelow's oeuvre, it's a strange and unnerving concept. Her films are thrilling, hair-raising, sensational in all senses of the word—but they're not comforting, and they're not cathartic. Which is to say: Kathryn Bigelow gives us what we want, but not all of it.