VENICE - In "The Hurt Locker," the latest film about the war in Iraq, a bomb disposal expert takes risks beyond the call of duty as he comes to realize that only one thing makes him feel truly alive -- dicing with death.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, in her first feature for six years, explores why, in a time when most armies are full of volunteers rather than draftees, many men choose to fight.
Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, takes over a bomb disposal team in Baghdad, and the loose cannon quickly ups the already high stakes by going where he does not have to go.
The movie, which premieres at the Venice film festival on Thursday, is packed with tension and violence, and paints an essentially sympathetic picture of a group of men stuck in a living hell which affects them in different ways.
From the point of view of a paranoid soldier counting down the days until he goes home, every pile of rubble on the streets could be a bomb and every passer-by could be a killer.
"It's almost a dirty little secret of war that, as horrible as it is, there are some men who through the intensity of the experience come to find it alluring," said Mark Boal, the screenwriter who was in Iraq as a reporter in 2004.
Bigelow, for whom "The Hurt Locker" is the first feature since submarine drama "K-19: The Widowmaker" in 2002, said she wanted to try and put the audience into the situations soldiers in Iraq faced every day.
"My interest was to give this conflict a human face and to enable an audience to actually experience what a soldier experiences," the U.S. film maker told reporters.
"I think this is a war that certainly in my country is extremely under-reported, so that is another reason to pursue it," added Bigelow, best known for her 1991 hit "Point Break" starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze.
WILL ANYONE WATCH?
Producer Greg Shapiro acknowledged that films based on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have struggled to find an audience in the United States.
"It is a very tough marketplace for Iraq war films," he said. "There's not a great appetite for them in America for whatever reason.
"Up until now there hasn't been a great desire to see them, but hopefully this film presents the war in a new and a fresh way that people haven't seen, so we're hoping that perhaps that will break the trend in America."
Last year the competition featured two movies with an Iraqi war theme including "Redacted," Brian De Palma's shocking reconstruction of the real-life rape and killing of a teenaged Iraqi girl by U.S. soldiers who also murdered her family.
"Redacted" made a paltry $65,000 in domestic ticket sales and opened in only 15 theaters, according to movie tracking Web site boxofficemojo.com.
"In the Valley of Elah," also in competition in Venice last year and starring Tommy Lee Jones, made a modest $6.8 million at the domestic box office.
Bigelow is the only female director among the 21 film makers in the main competition at the Venice festival, which winds up with an awards ceremony on Saturday.