From her breakthrough with Near Dark, a contemporary vampire movie featuring undead who roam the West in a van, Kathryn Bigelow has broken new ground for female movie directors.
Simply following her instincts for atmosphere and suspense, she's become a specialist in fable and adventure. Even skeptics acknowledge her knack for splashy action-film iconography in movies like Point Break, which turned Keanu Reeves into a Gen-X version of the strong, silent type and showcased Patrick Swayze as a specialist in tough-guy karma while mixing surfing and grand larceny.
She displays a mesmerizing talent for capturing mood, emotion and atmosphere, in gesture as well as action, in The Hurt Locker, which closes the Maryland Film Festival on May 10. The festival has had a knack for picking grand finales, but usually they're quirky, relatively quiet gems like Doug Sadler's Swimmers and Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science.
Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is different: an aesthetically explosive look at bomb-defusing teams in Iraq. It earns the right to its volatility with rock-hard observations of men at war.
A festival that will showcase the latest work of Barry Levinson, a favorite-movie pick from John Waters and Matthew Porterfield's work-in-progress will, thanks to Bigelow, also end with a bang.
Iraq has resisted effective portrayal partly because its environment is so volatile. As Bigelow says over the phone from Los Angeles, "My understanding from our research and members of the military and private contractors we spoke to is that nowhere is safe. So you're on point 24/7, even if you're in the Green Zone."
But this director had the smarts to focus on the psychological "flash points" that result from this unceasing tension. Partly through wizardly combinations of fresh staging and crackerjack cutting, but mostly through miracles of empathy, she lets audiences sick of hearing politicians throw around terms like "boots on the ground" really enter those boots and walk that ground.
Bigelow's first Hollywood supporter was director Walter Hill (The Warriors); she was once married to James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic). The Hurt Locker is in part a portrait of the bomb tech as artist - a cocky fellow who manages to be an improvisatory craftsman and wise-guy loner, even in a close-knit three-man squad.
Walter Murch, the sound and editing whiz who won two Oscars for The English Patient, worked with Bigelow on her Soviet submarine adventure, K -19: The Widowmaker. "She has, I think, an almost visceral reaction against doing the kind of movie we normally think of women making," Murch says.
What impresses him most about Bigelow is her immersion in her material, and in the filmmaking process. "Working with her on K-19 was the first time I'd ever had a director move into the editing room long-term. I set her up with her own TV monitor so she could see everything I was doing without feeling - or having me feel - that she was looking over my shoulder."
She's known for her energy and hyper-alertness on the set, relentlessly moving her cameramen and actors through forbidding sets and locations such as Hurt Locker's approximation of Iraq in the Jordanian desert. On the phone last week, Bigelow put all the credit for the power of The Hurt Locker on the shoulders of her screenwriter, Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a bomb squad for Playboy. "In my humble opinion," she says, "this movie was the result of extremely strong material and an opportunity for a filmmaker to be topical and relevant and really benefit from this embed."
Already familiar with Boal's reporting, Bigelow knew she'd be interested in what he'd bring back from Baghdad as soon as he took the assignment. And when he returned, she found "his first-hand observations to be extraordinary." He handed her "a day in the life of bomb techs, these men who I think have the most dangerous job in the world. These were profiles of heroism and courage and masculinity and 21st-century combat that are fairly unique and not that well-known to the public at large."
With this look at Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Bigelow wanted to bring home to contemporary audiences that the Iraq war "is not air-to-ground or ground-to-ground; it's basically a war of bombs that are carefully crafted to be invisible." With their cunning mixture of sniper fire, rocket-propelled grenades and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), "the insurgency has mounted a well-crafted method of asymmetrical warfare." Bigelow seized the chance to acknowledge the service of the men who must face this unconventional combat and give the audience "a raw, visceral, perhaps edge-of-your-seat look at what these men are doing day in or day out as we speak."
Equally important for Bigelow was the mystery of what drives these men to take chances. "This is a volunteer army. What most human beings would run from, they walk toward several times a day and by choice." For an inspired inroad into the nature of combat heroism, she relied on combat reporter Chris Hedges' book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.
"The enduring attraction of war is this," Hedges has written. "Even with its destruction and carnage it gives us what we all long for in life. It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living."
Bigelow strove to capture, she says, the hypnotic tension and cathartic release of "men making decisions requiring extreme precision under extreme pressure - pressure any normal human being couldn't even imagine. You have to identify how many meters you are away from an ordnance. At about 100 meters out, you're taking what they call 'the lonely walk' - you're by yourself. [The rest of the unit] stops the war for you, because they try to contain the space where a blast may occur and the lower the potential for collateral damage. At 50 meters, you're thinking of your family. At 25 meters, you're at the point of no return and nobody can help you, no matter what. You're at a place where few people visit hypothetically, let alone experientially, and you're doing it 10, 12, 15 times a day. This demands and creates a particular psychology - and that's where the film wants to live."
"The Hurt Locker" screens at 7:30 p.m. May 10 at the Charles Theatre.