[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.]