The Hurt Locker

[Above image from Lineweights blog.]

The hype for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker built up slowly, but right now you can’t ignore that it’s the film of the moment. The media has loved the story that the biggest challenger to Avatar at upcoming awards ceremonies was directed by James Cameron’s ex-wife, especially since The Hurt Locker comes on like a guerrilla upstart version of Cameron’s tale of a new boy to the military theatre trying to manage his emotional engagement with the indigenous peoples at the sharp end of his army’s operations. But I don’t want to force the comparisons between the two movies, for while Avatar keeps its feelings about war at a distance, alienated by layers of CGI, blue skin, predictable narrative and right-on eco-friendly politics, The Hurt Locker wants to touch the dust and dirt that cakes every building, vehicle and explosive device in today’s Iraq. It’s an admirable attempt to climb inside the sensorium of a soldier under the hottest, highest pressure in a war zone that has to keep pretending its a bustling city, keeping the action grounded, nasty and  persistently gripping. The camera stays close, as now seems de rigeur for this sort of thing, and the city becomes a conglomeration of glimpses, where any bystander could become a bomber or sniper; the soundtrack plays along – distant foes are eerily silent and inscrutable.

It’s just a shame that The Hurt Locker is good, but not that good. Whatever the visuals are doing to make it all feel authentic and asphyxiatingly tense, the plot contrivances work in the opposite direction. The film consists almost entirely of a series of missions, with little downtime or character moments in between. This is surely a deliberate decision to tell us about the protagonists through how they behave and interact while at work, but by structuring the whole thing out of a series of get-out-of-that set-pieces, it risks turning into a kind of Saw-style vision of men (because it is all men here) at war. I don’t have any experiences of war from which to draw my own comparisons, but I suspect that fighting a war is as much about the boredom and paranoia of the in-between moments as it is about the high-wire excitement of carefully-orchestrated puzzle bombs and insurgent attacks. Bigelow has always been interested in masculinity, and the masks that men put on to keep up charades of composure, strength and cool. The Loveless did a great job of queering the biker-gang movie, while Point Break knowingly pushed the testerone to self-parodic heights of dudeness. The Hurt Locker continues that project, with Bigelow’s troupe of bomb-disposal specialists manning up with acts of reckless daring and chest thumping, with ever-present hints that there is a troubled past or suppressed compassion pulsating just beneath the surface.

Jeremy Renner’s bomb expert is, let’s face it, a self-absorbed arsehole at the start of this film, and he ends the same way, with only fleeting glimmers of feeling for other humans along the way. He tunes out his family, and shows little empathy for the colleagues suffering around him. He mistakes fear for cowardice. So far so compelling, but I’m a bit fed up of stories about “the best of the best”; he’s a maverick, with all the attendant cliches, but hey, he gets the job done. He’s crazy but he’s brilliant. He’s endangering the lives of everyone around him, but he gets results. I’ve had enough of that. Tell me a story about ordinary people who have doubts, fears and butter-fingers. This characterisation leads to what I think is the film’s most perturbing thesis – that war is addictive. Is it really? It’s nothing new for a war film to focus on the physiological, psychological effects of combat on the people who have to conduct it, showing home-life struggling to match the sheer intense immediacy of being in life-or-death situations as a daily matter of course. It doesn’t even bother me that the film doesn’t engage with the causes and contexts of the war: there are plenty of other fora that are getting their teeth into those debates. Is addiction really the best analogy for men who build up a repetitive compulsion desire for the deadly sudoku that bombers have left around the city for them? I appreciate the idea that war might so overwhelm its fighters that they might end up normalising its lethal challenges, but I find it hard to believe that the biggest psychological problem facing soldiers is the danger that they might develop an unnatural attraction to their job.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on a worthy film. Perhaps, instead of being an examination of the mental interior of military men, it is another of Bigelow’s genre deconstructions, taking down the very figure of the maverick hero, showing him not to be just an efficient operator (though he certainly is that), but an empathy-bypassed shell of a man. The protective outfit he wears to march off into an uncertain sunset at the end gives him the look of an armoured cyborg, machinically stomping the track towards the next bomb, the latest fix. Such an interpretation would go against the rhetoric of authenticity that the film’s advocates have been touting, but it would confirm Bigelow as one of Hollywood’s more interesting disruptors of genre road-maps.

[As I was writing this, The Hurt Locker was picking up six BAFTAs. Not my number one choice, but at least it wasn't Avatar.]

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8 thoughts on “The Hurt Locker

  1. I’ve seen both films and even though comparing the two is impossible, I think Hurt Locker is the better film in what it seeks to say and accomplish.

    but i’m sure Avatar will win the oscar, it has the biggest exposure, sales, and hype and oscars for me seem to be more about popularity than anything else.

    i had no idea it was directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, she’s making better films it seems, hope she wins :P

    • I thought Avatar was a dead cert for the Best Picture, for the reasons you cite. The most lucrative film of the year shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded further, and the Academy voters can’t easily be made to vote en masse for something. If Avatar was sent out on DVD screeners, I’m sure its sensory impact will have been deadened. Now I think Hurt Locker has a good chance of winning, and it would be wonderful to see a female director getting some awards. She’d be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. It’s a tricky one, because no-one likes tokenism, but it would be a positive thing to see…

      Hi, Somnopolis – one of my first ever student essays was about Kathryn Bigelow, but it’s very old and shaky so I wouldn’t want to post it here. I hope her recent success (she seemed to be out of it for a while there…) brings back some attention to The Loveless, which was a really interesting attempt to do something fresh with a burned out genre.

      • Well if you are amenable, I’d be happy to read it. I think Bigelow’s due a critical reassessment.

        Yes, even the Harrison Ford with a Russian accent flick.

        While in general I am not the biggest fan of the Oscars ceremony, sometimes it casts a new light on the early work of a film-maker. Seeing as its whole modus is to promote film, this can only be a good thing.

  2. Well you know how I feel about this :-)

    Bigelow has always interested me. From the disappointment of Strange Days, to the vampires as trailer trash Near Dark, she can always deliver at least one hook that draws you in.

    It might be an idea to compare her commentaries on masculinity with John Carpenter’s obsession with Howard Hawks. There’s a blog piece in the making.

  3. I found Jeremy sympathetic – he chooses not to blow up the young dead child who has a bomb placed inside his stomach – and to find out who killed him, and in trying to save the man forced to wear a bomb toward the close of the film.

    He does, of course, seem like an empty shell; that he deals with this through risking his life for the benefit of others is an interesting take on the ‘couldn’t give a fuck’ attitude. Though his actions do lead to the injury of one of his colleagues!

    The soundtrack was way too ‘western’, but an interesting reference in itself.

    The ambush in the desert – where the English (?) guys gets killed – was an excellent set piece: the juice, the waiting, the flies that somehow portrayed the troops as cattle – was one of the best scenes in the film.

    Is it just me, or do people talk in the cinema more than they used to?

    Near Dark is excellent, one of the few DVDs I own.

    An excellent overview, as always.

    I would love to see a make your own review for this film!

  4. Agreed, Sean – the desert shoot-out is an excellent set-piece, and a fine play with the genre trope of the circled wagons. I liked how the soundtrack supported the delay in the impact: you heard the shot and didn’t see the bullets land for a couple of seconds. It really stretched the tension. I think cutting back and forth between the opposing sides (although the soundtrack stays positioned with the Americans and Brits) breaks the identification.

    Jeremy is definitely sympathetic, and the scene where he catches a moment of empathy with a suicide bomber is brave and powerful. Maybe Bigelow was playing with the concept of the renegade hero, but making him the “best of the best” was a bit distancing for me. Or maybe it suggests that the ultimate soldier is the one who forsakes personal safety and emotion.

    I thought about a Build Your Own Review for this, as I did with Precious, but I find those easiest to write when I genuinely can’t decide which side to take. Here I’m generally sympathetic to the film. I’m on the look-out for another suitable movie, though. I’ve got my eye on Alice in Wonderland, which I don’t want to hate, but I may be provoked….

  5. Just noticed there are incomplete sentences in this post. It looks like WordPress published an earlier draft before I’d finished it off. Do I really have to go through and check it. How annoying.

  6. Pingback: Visual Effects Society Awards 2010 « Spectacular Attractions

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