Kathryn Bigelow, Following Her Fighting Instincts in 'The Hurt Locker'

By Stephen Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 14, 2009

How does SHE know so much about HIM?

You'd never think it, to see her sitting in the gray late-afternoon light of a sublime Georgetown restaurant. She is slim -- imperially slim -- fashionably dressed, startlingly beautiful. She has big eyes and big hair and is the sort of woman who looks good in restaurants, on the fantail of a yacht or on the cover of a magazine. Anyone remember Martha Gellhorn? What about Slim Keith? What about Lauren Bacall? In our time maybe Lara Logan -- the extreme beauty, the aristo's grace, yet a kind of character-driven toughness, and all that damned talent. So unfair to us of the normal tribe.

Anyhow, to continue with the purple stuff, everything about her speaks of refinement and class: She has a salad and a latte, easily exchanges mots bons and not so bons with a reporter. She has the great listener's ability to focus and seem to weigh a response. She nods, possibly laughs, her eyes alight with engagement. Ugh, she's so damn perfect it's quite annoying. She can probably hold her liquor, discuss art, socialize with senators and duchesses, shoot skeet and dance an incredible rumba.

So how would she know so much about HIM? He's a knuckle-dragger, a curser, a drinker of shots and cans and bottles with worms in them. He hurts people; he blows things up; he breaks things and takes things. He knows about guns. He's part animal, smells like a hog and couldn't tell a teacup from an athletic cup. He's driven by a duty he can't articulate, and if you give him snark, he'll take your teeth out without an uptick in pulse rate.

That's the question: How does the extraordinary movie director Kathryn Bigelow, 57, know so much about the alpha male, the Universal Soldier, Sgt. Rock, Joe Palooka, John Wayne, what have you? Clearly she does and her career, remarkable in the canon, is intertwined with his sweat: She probes him, puzzles over him, tries to understand, even love the fellow many women would dismiss as a dinosaur, that hulking chunk of testosterone on the hoof called the Hero.

And she's made what is certainly her best and one of the best movies on the subject of the guy: "The Hurt Locker," which is about one such specimen who could be cop, paratrooper, Navy SEAL, bank robber, fighter pilot or running back, but happens to be a bomb disposal technician in Baghdad during the hottest days of the late war, when things were blowing up all over the place and it was up to a guy with the nerves of a bullfighter to disassemble the intricate, lethal gizmos called "improvised explosive devices." Or die trying.

"I suppose I'm drawn to them," Bigelow says. "It makes sense when it's all connected -- " she's talking about her other alpha vehicles, like "Point Break," "K-19: The Widowmaker" and "Blue Steel" -- "into some kind of pattern. But at the time I didn't think about it."

It's really been an extraordinary career, maybe not quite fully realized until "The Hurt Locker." Originally a painter so good that she studied for two years on scholarship in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, she segued into filmmaking via the low-end horror route, unusual for a woman. Her first film to attract major attention has become something of a cult classic: "Near Dark," which adroitly combined biker and vampire genres. The studios beckoned, and she made two more films with genre stylizations, the previously mentioned "Point Break," about an FBI agent infiltrating a surfer/robbery crew, and "Blue Steel," about a guy morphing into alpha by exposure to a beautiful, charismatic, heavy revolver. While both did well, more was expected of her collaboration with then-husband and soon to be ex-husband, James Cameron, the millennial sci-fi detective thriller "Strange Days." Equally disappointing for the director was her last film, "K-19: The Widowmaker," about a heroic Russian sub crew trying to survive a meltdown in the reactor. Nobody was interested in heroic Russians.

What the films seem to have in common is a flair for violent action and male archetypes. She did diverge from her own type in a small independent movie, "The Weight of Water," with female stars and derived from a novel by Anita Shreve.

As she tries to explain her attraction to the bad boys, she returns to her beginnings: "As a painter, I was drawn to gesticular canvases within the overall framework of abstract expressionism. Maybe it's the same thing, and what I like about film is how experiential it is. I like extreme relationships."

"Extreme relationship," indeed. The core of "The Hurt Locker" is exactly that as it chronicles how, under the press of the mission, the three men of a small unit of disposal technicians get along, which is not too well. They flash all over the insurrectionist city to deconstruct the cunning jihadists' infernal machines, nests of wire and detonators and switches twisted into the nose cones of stolen artillery warheads. They do it to save lives, property and American dignity, and somehow, under all this pressure, they have to get along. The problem is that two of them are normals, who want to do the job as safely as possible and make it back, and the third is your basic hero type, the guy seemingly without nerves or doubts who clearly gets a thrill out of the game aspects of it all and loves to test his mettle against the bombmaker's. It's just that the more he tests, the more metal his two colleagues might catch in the guts at 1,800 mph.

So the movie isn't just about the alpha; it's about how the alphas and the betas get along, and what it costs vs. what it gains. It's really a study in etiquette. Do you kiss the guy's ring finger or wait till he turns his back and dump a magazine into him, because his bravado is surely going to get you killed?

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