Let's Be Careful Out There
2008 // USA // Kathryn Bigelow // August 11, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B+ - The Hurt Locker telegraphs its thematic thrust with its opening epigraph, a quotation from Chris Hedges' (somewhat overrated) War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: "War is a drug." The essential cunning of Kathryn Bigelow's gripping Iraq war feature—an "anti-action" action film in the vein of Munich—is its choice of protagonist. In order to establish the fundamentally addictive character of danger in a theater of war, Bigelow chooses not a Working Joe soldier or a Special Forces superman, but an unusual stripe of cowboy: a bomb disposal specialist, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). James is a technician first and foremost, but a damn good one. He dodges when an officer asks how many bombs he has disarmed, but under pressure he confidently replies "873." James is not a straight-arrow professional, however. He is fearless, reckless, and utterly addicted to the thrill of stopping explosions before they happen, the sort of soldier who elicits awe, but not confidence. The man who is supposed to have James' back, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), lays out his dilemma bluntly: he won't stand by while a hot-shit redneck with a death wish gets him and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) killed.
James is rotated into the bomb disposal unit of Bravo Company with Sanborn and Eldridge after their previous technician (Guy Pearce) is killed during a disarmament mission. The other two men are ticking off the days until their rotation is finished. Sanborn yearns to start a family back home even as he questions the wisdom of doing so, while Eldridge is increasingly bedeviled by existential panic. Bigelow presents the story of the last month and a half of the unit's rotation as a series of linked set pieces depicting isolated missions. Each one starts out more or less the same. The three-man unit receives a call, loads up James' specialized equipment, and rolls out in an armored Humvee to deal with an explosive device. The hazards faced by a civilian bomb squad seem like child's play compared to the working conditions these soldiers face: unholy heat, choking dust, unfamiliar surroundings, and a hostile population. Every minute that James spends trying to disarm a bomb is a minute for locals to gather and gawk, any one of whom could hold a cell phone that will detonate the device.
Bigelow adds texture to the story by varying the events and demands of the missions. Each one is fundamentally the same, yet each possesses unique perils. James and his fellow soldiers must contend with snipers, fires, runaway cars, private contractors, flat tires, goat herds, dehydration, dirty ammunition, poor intelligence, and a reluctant suicide bomber. Compared to a normal infantry unit, James' squad has a routine characterized by discrete tasks and simple goals: disarm the bomb. This lends their work a tone probably familiar to civilian police officers or even utility repairmen, albeit with exponentially higher risks. You get the call, you go to the job, you finish the job, you head back. Sanborn and Eldridge want to keep their heads down, focus on each mission as it comes, and make it out alive on the other end. Try as they might, however, they can't resist mulling over why they do what they do, what it all means, and how the world got so fucked up. James, for all his nonchalant machismo, seems to be searching for something, perhaps a connection to his lethal profession that runs deeper than the titillation of risk. He tries to strike up a jovial friendship with an Iraqi kid who hawks DVDs on the base, but the consequences of this outreach only intensify his doubts.
Bigelow and novice screenwriter Mark Boal don't approach their material with an overtly political tone, at least as one might ordinarily understand it. There are no voices for or against the Iraq war as a political or military action. The Hurt Locker's characters are simply too close to the ground, and if they have any opinions, they keep them close to the chest. Bigelow aligns our sympathies with the soldiers, even as she makes it clear that these are macho blockheads with hefty reserves of racism, rage, and cynicism. While acknowledging these aspects of her characters, Bigelow doesn't sit in judgment. The film's sociological dimensions are broader, more in line with Hedges' thesis about the role of war in structuring the human experience. While Bigelow's exploration of this theme isn't especially intricate—she is directing an action-thriller at bottom, after all—but it is decisively, cleanly, and brilliantly mated to her storytelling. What she presents in The Hurt Locker is a neat little arc about James' emergent awareness that war fulfills him in way that is exclusionary, terrifying, and unsolvable.
What sets The Hurt Locker apart from its fellow travelers in the genre is Bigelow's masterful direction, which really is a revelation. The film's central scenario is designed to elicit tension: James tries desperately to deactivate bombs while Sanborn and Eldridge anxiously stand guard. And indeed, the film is unbearably, thrillingly tense. This is, of course, absolutely necessary for the film's thematic aims, as the viewer must share the illicit rush of dancing on that metaphorical ledge with James. Given the handheld, grainy 16 mm format and rapid cutting that Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd employ, the clarity of the action is stunning. Here is a film that is marvelously articulate in its use of space, never engaging in confused cinematic language in the service of questionable stylistic whims. The Hurt Locker is a devastating rejoinder to the notion that a handheld, naturalistic technique necessarily dooms a film to a muddled, disorienting, seizure-inducing hell.
What emerges from Bigelow's efforts is a stellar action film, almost as vital as The Dark Knight, but its formal antithesis: gritty, straightforward, and uncluttered. It's an achievement, to be sure, and if it seems a touch underwhelming, perhaps that's because war films are expected to be grandiose, as though flabbiness were a cinematic virtue. When a toned, harrowing little marvel like The Hurt Locker comes along, it unbalances and electrifies.