The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow breaks all the rules of action movies. Thank goodness for that.

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June 25 2009 10:59 AM

100 Percent Pure Adrenaline

The four rules of action movies Kathryn Bigelow breaks every time (and thank goodness for that).

Click here to read Dana Stevens' review of Kathryn Bigelow's new film The Hurt Locker.

Director Kathryn Bigelow.
Director Kathryn Bigelow

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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.

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.

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