The Hurt Locker (Director: Kathryn Bigelow): I have only seen one other Kathryn Bigelow film, the oddly miscast Strange Days (1995), so I’m far from an expert on her work, but other critics have pointed out that she’s a first-rate director of action sequences. The Hurt Locker is not really an action film, but it somehow is able to ramp up suspense and maintain it for the entire length of the film, and so I came out of the film with the same sense of release as if I’d just seen lots of stuff blow up.
In fact, it’s the job of the characters in this film to make sure stuff doesn’t blow up. They are the three members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Baghdad. The team leader is the absurdly macho Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose predecessor was killed by a remotely detonated bomb as he was trying to defuse it. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are cautious and emotionally scarred men just hoping to survive the 38 days left of their unit’s rotation in Iraq. They don’t appreciate the recklessness of their new leader, and at one point nervously discuss whether they should “frag” him.
But as the days go by, his recklessness seems to inspire something like confidence, or at least it reduces their fear a little. We accompany this small group of men on their daily rounds, and the level of tension never lets up. The difference between James and his subordinates is that he seems to thrive on the rush of danger his job gives him. As the days are ticked off, we feel relief for the men wanting to go home, but James never seems to change. Toward the end of the film, there is a very brief scene of him back home with his wife and infant son, and he looks completely out of place. He mumbles something to his wife about the need for trained bomb techs back in Iraq, as if it’s the war that needs him, rather than the other way around. The final scene doesn’t come as a surprise, James striding confidently off the helicopter back into the hellish streets of Baghdad, but I was glad that at least I was not going to have to accompany him on another bomb-defusing mission.
Bigelow’s direction is excellent throughout, with some of the images approaching the surreal, especially when James is inside the special armoured suit that is meant to protect him from bomb blasts. He looks like an astronaut on the surface of a very dangerous alien landscape, which is exactly what he is. Where the film isn’t so strong is in its overly expository dialogue. It seems completely unnecessary to tell us something that is obvious from the actions of the characters, which is why the quote that introduces the film, from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is also unneeded. Sergeant James’ character, like many of the memorable characters from war films, seems almost like a caricature, because he so single-mindedly pursues the high that war gives him. Jeremy Renner is well-cast, projecting a square-jawed lumpishness that hides any complicated thoughts he might be having. When Sanborn asks him why he doesn’t seem to be scared, he honestly seems not to know. He’s almost bemused by his lack of knowledge. Perhaps there are people who are just born to fight wars.
Apart from a few short cameos, The Hurt Locker is mercifully free of “movie stars,” and it’s refreshing to see characters first, rather than actors. All three of the lead actors are fine, but I think Renner will be the one we’ll be seeing more of very soon.