The Hurt Locker is not your average war film. No ballet of battle, no falling in love with a pretty local, no thrill of victory. Yet: It's tense, taut and getting rave reviews. And it was directed by a woman.

Set in Baghdad, following soldiers specially trained to dismantle IEDs, The Hurt Locker made more money per screen than Transformers: Rise Of The Fallen this weekend, though it was shown on only four screens. (Critics panned Transformers, but it made $201 million anyway.)

Director Kathryn Bigelow — who has won a Sarris award — had a great idea — The Hurt Locker is based on a Playboy piece by Mark Boal — but no money.

"We raised the money," says Bigelow. "It took a year, and we didn't raise much, but every penny is on the screen."

But the big problem is that some critics can't get over the fact that a woman can direct a war movie about men. (Apparently, some can't get over her looks, either.) In the June 14 edition of the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter wrote:

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… Everything about her speaks of refinement and class: She has a salad and a latte… She's so damn perfect it's quite annoying…How does the extraordinary movie director Kathryn Bigelow, 57, know so much about the alpha male?

It's condescending, really, for him to assert that because she's female and attractive, she can't make a movie about an aggressive soldier. But as Andrew O'Hehir writes for Salon, "If she wanted to play the role, Kathryn Bigelow could easily present herself as Exhibit A of the enduring sexism of Hollywood."

Advertisement

Having seen the movie over the weekend, I can agree with Caryn James of The Daily Beast who raves that it is "a taut psychological thriller" and "fiery with action that never calls distracting attention to its sophisticated camerawork." (The audience in the screening I saw in downtown NYC was evenly mixed in terms of gender; the one Anna saw on NYC's Upper West Side, however, was 80% male.) Obviously, the experiences the soldiers have - fear, exhaustion, irritation, hope, hopelessness, determination, workplace camaraderie — are universal; you don't need a penis to understand them. James also claims that:

The Hurt Locker explodes the simple-minded myth that women don't make great action directors, and the even more persistent delusion that if ladies ran the world we'd all live in some peaceable kingdom.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times was even more enthusiastic, gushing:

If "The Hurt Locker" is not the best action movie of the summer, I'll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise.

But when it comes down to it, does it matter what gender a film's director is? Is the fact that Bigelow is female giving critics, writers (and this blog) a "hook" for their stories? Is it fair to fair to remark on a female action/war movie director because it is, indeed, remarkable? Or should critics discuss Bigelow's work without obsessing over the fact that she's a woman (an "imperially slim" one)?

Advertisement

As The New York Times' Manohla Dargis put it in a feature on Bigelow from June 21:

The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she's called a great female director. But here's a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker.

Box Office Weekend: Transformers Rule [Time]
Kathryn Bigelow Gets Columbia Honor [Variety]
Seeing Through Mr. Tough Guy [Washington Post]
"The Hurt Locker", Defusing Bombs At 115 Degrees [Salon]
The Best Action Film and the Woman Who Directed It [The Daily Beast]
Action!, Soldiers on a Live Wire Between Peril and Protocol [NY Times]
The Hurt Locker [Official Site]