Click here to read Dana Stevens' review of Kathryn Bigelow's new film The Hurt Locker.
Through her long and fascinatingly unpredictable career, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has always had prescience on her side. She cast Willem Dafoe in his first credited screen role (as a blank-faced biker in The Loveless, 1982). Two decades before Twilight, she made an irresistibly overwrought teen vampire romance ( Near Dark, 1987). She was the first to envision Keanu Reeves as an action star—his hot-shit FBI tyro in Point Break (1991) laid the groundwork for his turns in Speed and The Matrix. And speaking of The Matrix, Bigelow beat the Wachowski brothers to the virtual-reality universe by several years with Strange Days (1995), a sci-fi freakout with action sequences so complex that her production company had to design and build new camera equipment to capture them.
At first glance, then, it may seem disheartening that such a forward-thinking director has found herself on the wrong end of a failed trend. Bigelow's latest is an Iraq-war film that arrives after years of Iraq-war flops ( Jarhead, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Redacted, The Lucky Ones, Grace Is Gone, et al.). But The Hurt Locker, which tracks 38 days with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Baghdad, is not a treatise on the war any more than Point Break was a disquisition on the FBI or the Soviet-sub drama K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) was a position paper on the Cold War. Like many of Bigelow's films, it's an adrenaline-fueled immersion course in how people adapt to physical and psychological extremes.Athletic without being concussive, Bigelow's chases, fights, and battles strive for maximum you-are-there immediacy, frequently through the use of point-of-view shots—not for nothing does the director prefer the term experiential over action—while still prizing fluidity and spatial coherence (unlike so many summertime blockbusters).
Pick any scene at random from among Bigelow's films and it's possible to mistake it for a high-grade Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver production: the roiling guitars, the guns 'n' ammo, the flaming cars, the shirtless guys punching one another. But one of Bigelow's many virtues as an auteur—and perhaps her box-office Achilles' heel—is her willingness to break some unwritten rules of the hard-charging spectacles that are often her stock in trade.
Rule 1: Heroes should be heroic.
Bigelow's heroes are weak, aggravating, irresolute, even nonexistent. The Hurt Locker's Staff Sgt. William James (the extraordinary Jeremy Renner) is a bomb-disposal savant whose professional conduct is a sine curve of sweet, friendly camaraderie and uncommunicative passive-aggression; his No. 2, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), is a born leader but can do little more than splutter at the sidelines. In Strange Days, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), a sleazy black-market salesman of virtual-reality headsets, fills much of his days either mooning pathetically after his trashy ex (Juliette Lewis) or leaning on single mother Mace (Angela Bassett) to clean up his messes—emotional and otherwise—and drive him around L.A. In Blue Steel (1989), a Freudian stalker drama that hinges on a stolen gun (castration anxiety ahoy!), rookie cop Megan (Jamie Lee Curtis) is both authority figure and vulnerable target, hero and damsel-in-distress. Even in Point Break, football star-turned-fearless Fed Johnny Utah (Reeves) has at least two wide-open chances to get his man, bank-robbing surfer swami Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). But Johnny can't bring himself to close the deal.
Rule 2: Violence should both excite and relax your audience.
As we all know, action movies share some basic mechanics with pornography: bodies collide and fluids are produced; a sweaty hustle climaxes with a big blast, etc. Bigelow's films—which are obsessed with the sensation of violence, but also with its consequences—don't quite follow the same neat grammar of cause and effect, tension and release. (An attenuated desert stakeout in The Hurt Locker doesn't end so much as it sinks away, in tandem with the setting sun.) The gory last act of Blue Steel offers little in the way of triumph or delicious revenge; Megan's terror and suffering are not part and parcel of self-discovery. Near Dark becomes an all-out horror film during a lengthy, brutal sequence in a roadhouse, where the vampires linger sadistically over the slaughter of the assembled humans. And in The Hurt Locker, of course, the audience's sympathies are aligned with James and his team, so the primal satisfactions of a totally awesome explosion are probably out of the question.