Bigelow Detonates All the Right Marks
Author: David H. Schleicher
Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the “wild man” team leader who has defused more than eight hundred bombs and has built his reputation on being an adrenaline junkie in order to mask his inability to cope with the emotional connections he feebly tries to make at home and on the job. Sergeant JT Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) approaches his work with a by-the-book stoicism that can’t comprehend the recklessness of James. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is highly trained but still feels overwhelmed by his morbid thoughts on war and his role in it. These are the members of the EOD Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad in 2004, and The Hurt Locker is their story.
After failing to do so with the depressingly somber and obvious In The Valley of Elah, screenwriter Mark Boal wisely places politics and moralizing aside this time to give us an intimate look into one squad with a highly specialized job to do. Hollywood has always loved to play with the grunt’s-eye-view-of-war-as-hell theme, but The Hurt Locker spins that volatile cocktail on its head and blows it up all over the screen by focusing on an elite team and proposes the notion that maybe war is a drug…for some.
Director Kathryn Bigelow hits all the right detonators with her fascinating presentation of modern warfare in the Middle East. Bigelow hasn’t really made anything memorable since her 1987 breakthrough, the cult vampire/western Near Dark, but she has always managed to make interesting failures — just take a look at her attempt to do a literary adaptation with the superficially obtuse The Weight of Water. Often living under the shadow of ex-husband James Cameron or having to share the title of “that female action director” with Mimi Leder — until Mimi murdered her film career with the abominable Pay it Forward — Bigelow, determined to finally leave her mark, displays an astounding technical prowess with The Hurt Locker that can only come from the wisdom of experience. Close-ups, slow-mo’s, quick cuts and inventive plays with the camera’s point-of-view are used sparingly and with pin-point precision to heighten tension. Here she shows the “good ol’ boys” she once emulated but has now trounced that style can be used for dramatic effect but need not be excessive. Her sense of space allows us to be right there with the bomb squad as they are faced with unimaginable danger. We always know where each character is positioned in relation to the bomb, and we always find in turn our stomachs have hit the floor. Her technique is brilliant and delivers a picture that is so taut it might be the most intense experience this side of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear. Now knowing all the moves, however, I wonder how the film will hold up on return viewing.
The Hurt Locker is not for those seeking generic thrills or anyone currently on medication for emotional problems. It gets deep down into the gritty nature of bomb defusing by offering us lessons on suicide bombers, IED’s and body-bombs that will make your gut churn. There are also some fantastically rendered sniper scenarios that are used not just for a visceral jolt, but also as a way to explore character development. Soldiers are not only put in precarious situations during combat but also in their day-to-day life dealing with their own conflicted emotions on top of a moody Iraqi populace that includes people treating them as tourists and looking to make a quick buck, people looking at the carnage as a spectator sport, people suffering as innocent bystanders, and people who wish to kill the soldiers and any one else in any way possible.
While there are a few details one could quibble with — for instance, the title is never explained — The Hurt Locker is impossible to dismiss and sometimes hard to digest. It paints a picture of war that shows there are no politics when it comes to the daily experiences of soldiers in the field. Their everyday heroism is painted in varying shades of moral ambiguity, while their internal struggles are shown to receive no emotional closure. As in real life, the story arcs of the fictional characters seen here are left open-ended, and the possibility of redeployment looms not just as an act of cruel fate but as a conscious and determined choice.