PHILADELPHIA — Slim as lightning, Kathryn Bigelow makes movies charged with adrenaline and electricity, action thrillers like “Blue Steel” and “Point Break.” The 6-footer with the radiant presence of a Redgrave and the steel nerves of a high-wire artist is drawn to stories about daredevils addicted to the rush.
Her latest, “The Hurt Locker,” about a U.S. bomb-disposal technician in Baghdad in 2004, plugs viewers directly into the central nervous system of such a risk junkie, and it’s earning Bigelow the best reviews of her career. “An instant classic that demonstrates ... how the drug of war hooks its victims and why they can’t kick the habit,” the Wall Street Journal salutes.
“The Hurt Locker” is a topical exploration into mindful violence and one warrior’s mindset: The acute focus that makes Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) such a cunning creature of war is the very quality that makes him unsuited to just about everything else.
“He is walking toward what you and I and everyone else on the planet would be running away from,” says Bigelow, 57, who made it her mission “to transport the audience into the mind of a bomb technician.”
Is he a hero, this sergeant who unties improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as though they were shoelaces? Or is he a daredevil testing his mettle in the world’s most dangerous job?
For Bigelow, who in her untucked black shirt and skinny trousers resembles a human exclamation point, Sgt. James is the kind of man attracted to no-man’s land. And she is the kind of woman who’s just as magnetically drawn there.
Over the course of eight films since 1983, Bigelow has mapped this uncharted territory variously populated by vampires (“Near Dark”), bank robbers (“Point Break”), and military men (“K-19: The Widowmaker” and “Hurt Locker”), and punctuated by random acts of violence. Some call her a “manthropologist,” but she is loath to analyze her work.
“I try not to,” she says, in a Philadelphia hotel room last week. “I work instinctually. Each film begins with characters. This time the opportunity arose to work with material that was relevant and topical.”
“I read about the war in Iraq, about expressions like ‘roadside bomb’ and ‘IED,’ without fully understanding them,” she says. When she read journalist Mark Boal’s dispatches as an embed in Baghdad that are the basis of “Hurt Locker’s” screenplay, she grasped the risk and danger.
“Here was an opportunity to give meaning to the abstractions,” she says.
As Bigelow pictures them, IEDs are assemblages, infernal and ingenious, potentially lethal sculptures that Sgt. James disarms while playing beat-the-clock.
“This is not your typical job,” she says. “He has a special skill set, like a surgeon. Difference being,” she adds drily, “if a surgeon makes a mistake, the patient dies. If a bomb technician makes a mistake, he gets atomized.” Success means getting hooked on the adrenaline.
Born in the Bay Area community of San Carlos, Bigelow studied at the San Francisco Art Institute (where one of her teachers was experimental filmmaker Gunvor Nelson) before establishing herself as a sculptor. Awarded a fellowship to the Whitney Museum, she arrived in New York in 1972 when Lower Manhattan was a desert of abandoned warehouses.
Putting together an installation of scavenged 6-foot steel tubes, she liked the reverberating music they made when they rolled against each other. She audiotaped the sound, which accompanied the installation.
By day she supported herself renovating lofts. “I did the drywall; (composer) Philip Glass did the plumbing.” Still, money was tight and she knew how to stretch a dollar.
One summer she crashed at the loft of performance artist Vito Acconci, where other aspiring artists, including painter and future filmmaker Julian Schnabel, took advantage of a rent-free squat. Though her visceral, keenly observed films couldn’t be more texturally different from Schnabel’s surreal visions, there are few American filmmakers more alert to physical and psychological atmospherics than these refugees from the art world.
Excited by the sex- and violence-charged imagery of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bigelow moved from sculpture to film. Her debut was “The Set-Up” (1978): Two fighters box while, in voiceover, two theorists hypothesize about the meaning of the punches traded. All but one of Bigelow’s subsequent features resonate with such images of masculinity and aggression.
From the first, her heart-pounding films pulsed with adrenaline. In “The Loveless,” Willem Dafoe slices through space astride a motorcycle. “Point Break” is a triathlon of running, surfing, and skydiving.
The sinewy filmmaker is herself an athlete — “I hike, I bike, I ride horses” — who translates that physicality to the screen. Though some call her the only female action director, back in the day Ida Lupino mounted her camera on speeding cars and horses and between opposing tennis players. As with Lupino, for Bigelow action reveals psychology.
She lives near Hollywood, but except for a brief marriage to director James Cameron (1989-91) Bigelow is not of it. Her films are independently financed. She is the opposite of prolific, averaging a film every three years.
When “The Hurt Locker” debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September, some criticized it for not being more explicitly critical of the war.
“It seems pretty clear to me that it’s a dangerous job and in a volunteer army, the psychology defines the people who fight there,” she says of Sgt. James, the cowboy craving the increasingly intense highs that are soul-corroding.
“War’s dirty secret,” Bigelow has said, “is that some men love it.”
Asked whether her enigmatic title alludes to the Kevlar suit worn by bomb technicians that make them resemble astronauts in their space suits, Bigelow shakes her head. “It’s a slang term that Mark heard on his embed. Hurt locker is a place you don’t want to be, like up s—- creek. It could also mean a coffin.
“I like the ambiguity.”