Not many people would draw a comparison between making movies and defusing bombs, but The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal can think of at least one: risk. "This movie was like going to Vegas and putting all your money on black 42. Being a bomb tech's a little like that."
If that's so, then Kathryn Bigelow is the one with nerves of steel. Long famous as the only female action director in Hollywood (although Karyn Kusama and a few others have worked their way in since), Bigelow has perfected the art of playing both ends against the middle, subverting the genre's conventions while still providing plenty of thrills. In her previous full-length feature, K-19: The Widowmaker, she told the story of a Russian submarine crew struggling to keep its nuclear-powered vessel from melting down and starting World War III, a post-Soviet allegory of sacrifice that fizzled at the box office despite the presence of Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in the lead roles.
The Hurt Locker is something different: a relatively low-budget procedural set on the front lines in Baghdad, following a soldier (Jeremy Renner) whose unseen enemies are trip wires and trigger mechanisms. Iraq movies, so the conventional wisdom goes, are box-office poison, but Bigelow and Boal, a journalist who based his script on extensive reporting, focus on the imminent tension of life in a perpetual war zone, essentially glossing the conflict as one big action movie.
Bigelow opens the movie with the quote, "War is a drug," suggesting that the bomb technicians are in some sense addicted to the constant life-or-death pressure of their jobs — not an uncommon situation in Bigelow's movies, from the virtual reality vendor hawking sex and violence in Strange Days to the vampires of Near Dark.
Bigelow prefers not to examine the common threads among her films. "I see them all as character studies, and I see them incredibly distinct from one another," she says. But she does allow that she is "drawn to experiential filmmaking," the kind that immerses you in the immediate sensations of a character's world.
At the same time, Bigelow holds fast to the basics of storytelling and character development. "Sensation comes from emotional investment," she says — not a sentiment you're likely to hear Michael Bay second any time soon (nor, for that matter, is he likely to casually use the phrase "the soldier in situ"). "If you're not emotionally invested in the character, it doesn't matter how quick your cuts are or how much the camera moves or how kinetic the surfaces. It all comes from character."
What fascinated Bigelow about the characters Boal developed from his time embedded with a real-life bomb squad was, she says, "the incredible paradox of a sort of reckless bravado combined with a profound skill set, and that it's actually somewhere in that intersection that keeps you alive." By staying at grunt's-eye level, the movie avoids getting mired in the politics of the conflict. "I wanted to put the audience in the soldier's shoes, to look at this particular situation from the soldier's point of view and put a human face on it," she says.
The Hurt Locker's niftiest twist on action-movie cliché is the way Bigelow fills the main parts with relatively fresh faces, including Anthony Mackie as Renner's disapproving but grudgingly respectful superior, and places Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in pungent but short-lived roles. The move has its practical benefits — big names for financing and overseas sales without the expense of keeping a star on retainer for several weeks — but Bigelow says the main idea was to simulate the "surprise and chaos and randomness" of combat. "I've never been in combat," she says. "I've never been in a war. But I think that chaos is probably pretty much unimaginable unless you've been there. Just the day-to-day suspense of what will happen next. So if you can puncture that ... [Renner and Mackie] are actors that don't come with a lot of cinematic baggage, therefore they're not going to have a heroic death in the third act. You want to create an opportunity to destabilize those expectations. Any time it starts to conform to those expectations, it's like, 'OK, I'm watching a movie.'"