With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment is being published for the first time.
The Film: The Hurt Locker
The Year: 2008
The Plot: After the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal of Camp Victory loses their commanding officer, he is replaced by Sergeant First Class Will James (Jeremy Renner) who is far more improvisational and arguably reckless in his approach to dealing with explosives. As the unit spends their last month together, each begins to crack a little under the pressure of their tour and guilt and grief.
The Issues: What does it mean to be a man?- Yes, once again Bigelow returns to this theme here and does it in ways loud—the drunken punch contest between James, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Eldrige (Brian Geraghty) after a “successful” experience in the field—and quiet—the discussion that same night about relationships, have a child, and being a father and partner. As usual, Bigelow affirms that to be a modern man is a pretty dicey—and while the movie would never cop to it, toxic—proposition.
The purpose of war- By never addressing why we are in Iraq in 2004, the movie essentially addresses it. None of the soldiers express any sense of duty, patriotism, or higher calling. They are there because they have been told to be there and no one is talking about any larger kind of mission be it freedom, democracy, or ending terrorism.
Adrenaline as a drug and a prison- The twin shots of James gently smirking in full bomb suit regalia that we see moments after first meeting him and the conclusion of the film convey how comfortable he feels there. His unraveling show us his rock bottom and his return shows us his relapse.
However it is the most famous shot of the film that really nails the theme. In a supermarket James is filmed from below, in a hero shot, in the cereal aisle. However in filming him this way, the camera also emphasizes how the brightly colored boxes tower over him and wash him out. He may be a hero but his opponent still looms larger. In frustration, he eventually tosses a random box in his cart, too overwhelmed to evaluate all the choices. Like a prisoner released after years behind bars, the Sergeant is simply too used to life at war to live a life free of it, even as he knows the life without it is a better one.
The unreliableness of your own point of view- I’ll discuss it more below in the Opinion section, but the film countless times reveals its characters to not know what is going on around them definitively, be it James’ comments about thinking he is divorced but still having his ex-wife living in his home waiting for him to come back or the implication that the dead child who the Sergeant believes is the one from the market he bonded with might have just been some other kid entirely making the series of events outside the Green Zone James triggers one night without permission an even more useless and reckless gesture.
The Opinion: I once heard one of the women critics of the dearly departed Dissolve—Tasha Robinson I believe but I apologize in advance for the misattribution if I am wrong—make the point that Kathryn Bigelow’s films changed significantly in execution after September 11, 2001. K-19, which she largely shot before 9/11, is very reflective of the stylistic flairs she uses in other movies like POINT BREAK and STRANGE DAYS. This movie and subsequent films—DETROIT and ZERO DARK THIRTY—conceived of and filmed after 9/11 break from her established signatures.
She is right but in retrospect the movie is not as stark a departure as I remembered it being. Instead HURT LOCKER is more like a transition film. Watch the first 15 minutes again and you can see plenty of pre-9/11 Bigelow: the whip pans, the quick cuts, the establishing of setting in a kind of dizzying series of shots that conveys geography and adrenaline simultaneously. However, you also get the style that has come to define Bigelow’s films since- tight close-ups, a kind of journalistic camera eye, a near documentary feel at times.
As a fan of music, I have long championed what I call transition albums. Neither as assured as the era they are departing from nor the era they are introducing, transition albums tend to be a bit messier, a little less clear in borders. For me, I think of albums like the Beatles’ Revolver or R.EM.’s Green. Both are an amalgam of the style that has been and the style that is to come and as a result do not do either with as much clear eyed assurance as what comes before or after. And yet both are my favorite—in the case of the Beatles—or nearly my favorite—in the case of R.E.M.—albums from those artists.
And so it is with Bigelow’s HURT LOCKER. I find it a more interesting and rewarding film than the two movies that come after it and certainly than K-19 even as I recognize that it is not as assured in its results as any of those other examples.
What often gets lost in discussions about Bigelow’s style and tone choices is how strong an actor’s director she is and HURT LOCKER definitely showcases this. I have liked Renner in other things—the AVENGERS films and the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies come to mind—but I don’t think you’ll find a stronger performance from him on a dramatic level until, arguably, this year’s WIND RIVER. Anthony Mackie is similarly great, dimming his megawatt charisma a bit to inhabit the one member of the unit who seems to be honest about the stress of the job and largely dealing with it appropriately.
The way Bigelow balances stillness and chaos in this movie is also just incredible in this movie. In particular, I have to call attention to a scene that has nothing to do with bombs where the EOD unit and a few Blackwater types are pinned down the desert. The way she transitions from chaos to paralysis and highlights how scary both are is just awesome work.
HURT LOCKER is not my favorite Bigelow movie—that honor goes to next week’s movie—but is easily top 3 and probably #2. Even things that I thought did not work when I first watched in theatres—specifically James’ unraveling and trip into the areas outside the Green Zone, alone, in the middle of the night—came together much better for me on this review and I saw how he—and we—got to that moment much more clearly.
I also appreciated with the way Bigelow messes with the viewer’s perspective in LOCKER. I’m not sure I even noticed it the first time around but she makes us uneasy not just in obvious ways—the encounters with Iraqis where we and the soldiers never know if they are friend or foe until it is too late—but also in subtle blink if you miss it moments. There are several occasions where the leads state something as fact and we assume it to be as well only for the film, often without calling attention to it, to reveal something that suggests the soldiers may be wrong. Even if you don’t clock it consciously it increases the building dread the movie instills as it unfurls.
The Conclusion: One of the masterpieces of Bigelow’s filmography.