Willem Dafoe in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless.

In films populated by cops and robbers, gangs and armies, and adrenaline junkies, director Kathryn Bigelow has proven time and again that the tease of impending action might be testosterone-fueled filmmaking’s greatest pleasure. From her 1982 feature, The Loveless, to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009), Bigelow has become a master of hyper-realistic tension. “She reinvents the genre and bends it to her will,” says Museum of Modern Art film curator Jenny He, organizer of Bigelow’s first museum retrospective, opening June 1 in New York. Her formalist fascination with traditionally male-directed Hollywood war films, vampire grind house, and dystopian sci-fi was stoked by her education as a film theorist at Columbia University in the Seventies and life as a painter and conceptual artist. “Her art continues to inform her filmmaking,” explains He, who plans to showcase Bigelow’s early drawings, storyboards from her films, and screenings of her entire cinematic oeuvre—a series of pictures not meant for the faint of heart. “Her films are just so visceral,” He says of such works as Strange Days and Near Dark. “There’s not a moment in The Hurt Locker where her characters are safe”—and neither, by artful extension, are we.

Photo: Jeannette Montgomery