The Hurt Locker (2008)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

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By Roderick Heath

Here There Be Spoilers.

“War is a drug,” The Hurt Locker’s foreword assays, and the film follows this thesis to the bitter end. An Iraq War film in all its sundry details and yet, in its way, apolitical and even timeless, The Hurt Locker is more about the dark, corrosive addictiveness of action, even when you know it’s doing you no good. In the midst of a landscape that deals out disaster almost arbitrarily, its core group of macho-macho men, engage in a job—bomb disposal—that can entail the thinnest margins of survival, but that ironically endows them with vivid, immediate power over life and death.

Kathryn Bigelow’s first new feature in six years charts the last two months of Bravo Company’s deployment in Iraq and its key personnel, SSgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is placed in command after a predecessor, Thompson (Guy Pearce), dies in a remote-detonation blast. The careful, professional Sanborn is soon dismayed to the point of rebellion by James’ cavalier approach to his job, which is to march up to bombs and defuse them, if possible. Such a job is intolerably dangerous not only in its immediate necessities, but also because they never know which onlookers and seemingly innocent locals might be terrorists luring them into a trap. James’ habit, then, of ignoring broadcasts from his fellows and even stripping off his headset so he can go about his business stirs Sanborn to punch him in the head. Eldridge, meanwhile, is tormented by his fears of death, but can’t bring himself to open up to sympathetic Army psychiatrist Col. Cambridge (Christian Camargo) without insisting that he prove he’s got some idea of what life in the field is like.

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James’ taciturn, almost wilfully autistic demeanor and love of contending with danger soon threatens to bleed out of its prescribed parameters when he thinks a boy who sells pirate DVDs on the unit’s base, dubbed Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) for his love of soccer, has been killed and used as a “body bomb” by insurgents. Unsure if the bloodied, mangled corpse he has cut the bomb out of is the boy, James begins a search for Beckham, only to blunder into the living room of a polite Iraqi and his wife, who assaults him and throws him out. Increasingly hysterical under his dissembling surface, he insists Sanborn and Eldridge venture with him away from a bomb blast zone to chase after the terrorists he thinks may still be close by, an off-mission venture that ends with a shattered leg for Eldridge and a ticket back home.

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The title of this film is a metaphor for the way these men stow their inner tension and wounds away whilst continuing about their business, which, as the psychiatrist notes, can be a lot of fun for those immune to any sense of their own mortality. The bomb squad offers these death deniers the convulsive thrills of adventure, danger, comradeship, fame, and power—an angle on war generally acknowledged these days only in safely distant fantasies like The Lord of the Rings. Even in their downtime, these men work to keep their blood pumping, listening to ear-thrashing metal and indulging in comradely beatdown sessions. Far from being expressions of hate, the violence these guys commit on each other is actually a form of love.

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The film’s best and most intense sequence, however, has not much to do with the squad’s actual job, but rather comes when they’ve been out destroying collected explosive devices. Sanborn considers blowing up James with them, knowing it’s possible James will get someone killed before their rotation comes. But they and a unit of British mercenary “contractors” (led by Ralph Fiennes) are ambushed by insurgent snipers, forcing Sanborn, James, and Eldridge to carefully take out their opponents at a distance. Bigelow’s beautiful camerawork communicates the parching sun that quickly sucks the energy out of the soldiers, the difficulties in perceiving distant enemies, and the dangers of facing excellent marksmen, as Eldridge must contend with cleaning blood off ammunition and sticking a straw in a container of orange juice while under fire.

It’s both fitting and ironic that a film directed by a tough lady be one of the most unironically intensive looks at haute-macho culture in recent cinema. Deep down, The Hurt Locker is related less to antiwar parables like Paths of Glory or Apocalypse Now than to John Wayne films like Hellfighters or The Alamo that portray heroism, camaraderie, and dedication in the face of intense danger, or any number of the movies he made with John Ford in which a corps of hard livin’ pros are given to half-play, half-serious fistfights in between stepping out manfully to do their job. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism, because in their naïve way, those films are still alive today because the habits they portray still underpin organisations like, well, the military.

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The trouble is that although evil stuff happens around the protagonists in The Hurt Locker, what it truly, intrinsically means to them is hardly examined, and the screenplay by Mark Boal has very little to say about them or the war. Why James swings between extremes of cowboy self-endangerment and clammy, righteous vengefulness is stated rather than explored, and Renner’s sturdy, elusive performance doesn’t help us discern much. The Hurt Locker utilises a tactic of evoking that aforementioned arbitrariness of fate by casting star actors Pearce and Fiennes and then killing off their characters within minutes of their first appearance. It’s a facile way of upending audience expectations when all you do is substitute them with other clear protagonists, even if they’re played by lesser-known actors. Underneath such ploys is a fairly familiar type of war drama, and despite all the raves this movie’s received, it doesn’t do much that’s particularly original. It tackles the Iraq war in a fashion that’s free of overt proselytising, but also free of any particularly compelling viewpoint. It’s a straight combat drama, except most of the combat is intimate and delicate.

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Likewise, the ploy of revealing the secret sensitivity of a hard-ass through a young boy whose apparent mortality exposes him is an old ploy, especially in the films of Samuel Fuller (eg The Steel Helmet, The Big Red One), and, indeed, The Hurt Locker possesses much of Fuller’s anti-rhetorical toughness. Where Fuller’s corn was leavened by his ironic humour and passion, Bigelow takes the opposite tack of elision and restraint. The revelation that Beckham isn’t dead is an almost throwaway moment that underlines that James’ panic over his fate was barely related to the actual boy and more to the fact that war is a mode of personal expression for him, projecting reasons on events to do things his way. There isn’t much in the way of detail or personality to any of these characters that make their plights especially engaging or even relevant, except for the plainly protective Sanborn, whose tiring of war is signaled by his shift from not wanting children to a desperate urge to have a son.

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Unlike the year’s superior action dramas, Public Enemies and Inglourious Basterds, Bigelow doesn’t interrogate or deconstruct the generic underpinnings of The Hurt Locker, or even ask as pointed questions about the relationship of our morality to necessities of violence: in truth, it’s really an efficient thriller with an immediate setting. One could defend its lack of engaged psychology as a broad portrait of war, but a broad portrait would encompass a larger perspective on both sides. All we see here are empathetic, if stoic Americans and nice Iraqis (and, oh yeah, vaguely sleazy Brits) endangered by shadowy threats. It’s easy to suspect that The Hurt Locker’s landed a solid punch where no other recent War on Terror films have because it lets the audience off of specific questions. Not that it lacks telling details, like the soldiers’ inability to communicate with the locals repeatedly manifesting in their commanding shouts that often only befuddle the Iraqis, whilst the more educated Cambridge tries to politely clear away a crowd of onlookers and before finally resorting to loud urgings to get them to move.

Bigelow is a vastly talented filmmaker who’s had more than her share of bad luck in the past 20 years since hitting a box office bull’s eye with the lame Point Break (1991). She stumbled badly with the genre-contorting Strange Days, then with the melancholy and troubling The Weight of Water (2000) and the techno-melodrama of K19: The Widowmaker (2002). Although the latter two films failed to find favour with studio heads or critics, they’re both terse, interesting, highly underrated films. Like her debut Near Dark (1986), the still-unsurpassed modern vampire film, The Hurt Locker builds dread in slow-burn situations; like K19 it tackles the brutal exigencies of militaristic dedication with spare but clear, unblinking detail. The Hurt Locker will undoubtedly revive her career and possibly cast new light on those other films. Her masterful mixture of visual sweep and concision screws individual sequences up in knots of tension. The controlled pace and tightly composed shots render even the scenes in the desert claustrophobic, intricately constructed suspense sequences building to creatively used, vivid close-ups and special effects that capture the narrowing of existence and annihilation to a singular moment to the vibration and the fall of a spent shell casing.

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These taut sequences make the cheaper touches in the film stand out more vividly. Late in the film, when James is rotated stateside, Bigelow effectively conjures the disconnection with a jump-cut, but then gives us that tired device of suggesting suburban blandness—the Muzak-riddled supermarket. Nonetheless, despite its lacks and curious dead spots, The Hurt Locker is still a bracing and stylistically original film that captures the grueling nature of contemporary war.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/11/2009 to 9:23 am

    Rod – I haven’t seen this movie, but looking at the last screencap suggests something more than suburban blandness. It suggests to me the reason, at least on paper, why we went into Iraq: to free the people of a dictator and pave the way for democracy. Yes, of course, that’s hooey, but look at that image. This is what we wanted to bring them – more choices of cereal to buy. I think that’s got a little more power than the usual supermarket metaphor.

  • Rick spoke:
    10th/11/2009 to 10:40 am

    Marilyn: choice is a primary American value, up there with mom and apple pie. It helps drive numerous industries, from cars to advertising to toothpaste (ever wonder why there are so many flavors of Crest toothpaste?). I’ve not seen the film either, but good catch on the image.
    Rod: I like your analysis. Like you, I’ve assumed that the reason the more clearly anti-war films did not succeed is because we Americans don’t want to face dangerous (to our sense of being the good guys) truths. In the past decade or so, but especially since 2001, we’ve grown intolerant of opinions that differ from the patriotic party line.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/11/2009 to 10:48 am

    Rick – I could argue that in the past 20 years, we’ve been allowed fewer and fewer choices. It’s dangerous. Look at what happened when we were allowed to buy Japanese cars! And you know what pro-choice means in another context. Truly, the engines of commerce want our choices to be artificial and somewhat meaningless.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/11/2009 to 7:46 pm

    Marilyn: All I can really say is that in context, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with that interpretation. The above shot comes from a scene set Stateside, firstly, dissociated from any Iraqi context, and is about communicating James’ bewilderment by and disinterest in the consumerist panoply after months of life-and-death intensity. This shot’s really more about trying to withdraw from the drug of war, and is therefore less about politics then it is a kind militarised edition of Fight Club‘s machismo-over-retail rhetoric.
    Rick: I don’t like to make it sound as if I think only a politicised or anti-American war film could only be good when it comes to this subject, but nonetheless I do suspect that The Hurt Locker‘s gotten lots of rave reviews because, well, it just doesn’t demand any engagement. It’s just a bomb thriller set in Iraq. I watched De Palma’s Redacted shortly after this, and in some ways it’s obviously a lesser film – less well acted, clumsier in construction – but in more ways it leaves it for dead for passion, provocation, and stylistic boundary pushing.

    Expanding on that point:
    http://thisislandrod.blogspot.com/2009/11/redacted-2007.html

  • Yann spoke:
    13th/11/2009 to 8:28 am

    I was interested in seeing this film, but what really put me off was reading somewhere online (I’m afraid I cannot remember where) that the modus operandi depicted in the film was totally unrealistic and terribly exaggerated for effect. The people saying this claimed to be (you never know on the internet) former and current members of US army bomb squads and sounded very convincing.

  • Rod spoke:
    13th/11/2009 to 9:02 am

    Well, a lot of people who whine about inaccuracy, especially when it comes to movies, tend themselves to exaggerate for effect.

  • Yann spoke:
    14th/11/2009 to 5:50 pm

    They weren’t complaining merely about inaccuracies, but rather claimed that the film completely misrepresented their work. I have no other means of judging the depiction in the film, though.

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