A Review of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

Kathryn Bigelow creates imagery in THE HURT LOCKER that invokes the iconography of science fiction films as a way to diffuse viewers conflicted emotions over the harsh realities of war.
Kathryn Bigelow creates imagery in THE HURT LOCKER that invokes the iconography of science fiction films as a way to diffuse viewers' conflicted feelings over the harsh realities of war.

 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.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.


  1. David, I found this review insightful, although I’m not particularly on your side. Your comment concerning the suspense factor is right on, “knowing all the moves, however, I wonder how the film will hold up on return viewing.” Personally, I think that the film is too fashionable right now. It’s getting praised as both a realistic action film and the first great Iraq War film. I found the action scenes incredible. The opening scene is mesmerizing and the sniper scene reaches a level of perfection in its switches from fast to slow pacing and in the precise movements of the camera. Considering it as the first great Iraq War film I have to quibble. It’s being over praised in that respect because what has come before has been so terrible. In The Valley of Elah was a good detective procedural, but a poor comment on the war, and other films like De Palma’s Redacted were just terrible. What The Hurt Locker has going for it is that it does not take a political stance, instead focusing on the daily lives of the characters (Although the interactions between the characters when they are not disengaging bombs falls into terrible, trite, war clichés). One day this war in the Middle East will be over. And only after then will a director be able to view the war with the insight of closure, knowing how we got into it and how it played out. Movies like Platoon and The Thin Red Line can only have existed after their respected wars had been over for a considerable period of time. The Hurt Locker won’t last as a relevant film. Any film made during the war is inherently dating itself.

    Jason, we will have to wait and see about its future relevance. Honestly, any war from WWII onward could’ve been used as a back-drop to tell this story…the emotions and the motives of the soldiers are timeless. –DHS

    • And then there’s “The English Patient” which dealt with a bomb squad also. That was during WW2. I think this movie will have relevance for a long time, i.e. as long as humans choose to wage war. What may date it, in the end, will be the weapons used, not the people’s experiences…..

      Cinda, well said! –DHS

  2. I completely disagree with Jason above both on the film’s relevency and on it’s “pospects” for lasting resonance. But it’s ‘relevence’ is really besides the point. The greatest film of its kind ever made is Pontecorco’s BATTLE OF ALGIERS, which isn’t relevent in a sociopolitical sense, despite the fact that what transpired there has found a modern day parallel in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east. No war film holds its relevence in the strictest sense, but it in no way compromises its essence, whether it’s to document the ever present danger that lurks around every corner (as is the case in THE HURT LOCKER) or to present a cogent anti-war message, which is usually present anyway.

    THE HURT LOCKER, which received some of the most deservedly spectacular reviews this year is a fictional film that deals most compellingly with the transience of life on one of the most dangerous stages in the world.

    Exceedingly well-written review with the usual insights.

    Sam, I wholeheartedly agree with your closing thoughts…and the key word in all that is “fictional” — Iraq is merely a back-drop to set the stage. This is also why I do not quibble with the accuracy of some of the combat/bomb defusing situations…Bigelow is warranted in taking a dramatic license as this was not meant to be a documentary, though I do think she wanted a certain level of realism presented — which I think she achieved. –DHS

  3. D.H.,I plan to go check out the film entitled The Hurt Locker.
    But,Below is a poll question that I asked on my friend website about the film The Hurt Locker…because after reading all the positive feedback (reviews) for this film…I was wondering….Do You Think It Is Too Early To Release Films About This Iraq “War?”

    My Response
    Personally, I don’t believe in war, but I know in some instances, war is unpreventable!…Therefore, I voted undecided…No, if people can learn something positive from it…
    if a lesson isn’t learned…in order for people to learn how to settle differences without going to War.
    What do you think?

    …and it’s obvious from my indecisiveness that the “jury” is still out…on where I think this film will fit in the “canon” of war films.

    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee, I never think it is too early for films, books, or any narrative artistic form to address a “current” situation. –DHS

  4. Spoiler Alert!
    [Dont read this question if you haven’t seen the movie]

    Was that Beckham’s dead body or not? Who is the kid who appears again later selling dvds and playing football? Wasn’t that Beckham?

    Dorian, that was not Beckham’s body. James thought it was, but then realized it wasn’t when he saw Beckham again, and in turn that made him realize how rattled he had become and how shoddy his judgment was when he let his emotions take over. As a result, he acted like he didn’t know or care about Beckham any more. Thus at the end of the movie he declares his love “for just one thing” — WAR. At least that was my take on it. –DHS

    • Yes, that was Beckham’s body. The insurgents noticed that he was talking to the bomb defuser. They interrogate him and killed him turning him into a human bomb for James to find later in the future, only he found him at the warehouse instead. The second “replacement” boy was ignored by James because James knew that if he talked to the new boy, his fate would be the same as Beckham’s. Notice how Beckham’s replacement did not have the spunk and mouth that he did, not to mention if it were Beckham he would have said HI to James rather than saying… Sir, would you like to buy my DVD’s?

      Gordon, I plan to watch the film again to be sure, but I still disagree. The “human bomb” boy was not Beckham…he just looked like him. I think the whole “episode” was to show how rattled Jeremy Renner’s character had become and how his character grew increasingly more emotionally detached (by conscious choice) as the film progressed. –DHS

  5. It’s ben an interesting journey through various hyperlinks to these comments, but an enjoyable one. DHS I agree with your feedback, but would question your conclusions. I see the love “for just one thing” as not a love of WAR, but rather a love of singularity and simplicity. An acknowledgment of his desire to seek perfection in one thing rather than something less than perfection in many things. Death, feelings, even fear became inconsequential. Only the perfection of the moment, disarming that one bomb, had any meaning to him. How many of us would rather live a lukewarm life? It’s the dichotomy between our choices and his that was so alluring. At least to me 🙂

    Thanks for your reviews

    Patrick, I’m glad you found this blog, and you make a good point. I think you may be right, and in fact, when I referred to WAR, I meant that in a very open-for-interpretation sense…not just war and fighting…but the “rush of the moment” and so many other internalized complexities like you point out. Well said! –DHS

  6. Hi, David,

    Well-written and insightful review. I agree with just about everything except “diffusing” bombs. When you diffuse bombs, you spread them out all around, so bombs diffuse through the air when they explode. I think you meant “de-fuse” but actually disarm is the best word here. It happens to the best of us, you know? (smile)

    I saw this movie as less about the Iraq war and more as a character study, of one kind of man who, for whatever reasons, relates better to inanimate objects than to people, no matter how hard he tries (although he did help Eldridge through the sniper in the desert sequence quite well). I found that fascinating, how he collected the detonators and saw each bomb as having a personality by the way it was put together. Bigelow did an excellent job. I especially enjoyed — ahem! spoiler alert!– that the famous actors were the ones who bit the dust in rather mundane ways in the context of the movie. I cannot imagine living under those conditions, and I think that is what is so shocking about this movie. How does a viewer relate? I’d recommend this movie, for sure….

    Cinda, holy crap — you’re right about my misuse of “diffuse” — though I think they actually diffused a few bombs in the film that they weren’t able to de-fuse! Consider the corrections made and thanks for pointing that out. I, too, agree with your “character study” spin on the film, and I loved those “shocking” cameos as well. –DHS

    • Oh, you are so right, David! Bombs diffused in astonishing ways. The one that made me cringe was the poor guy wearing the bomb. I really enjoy your reviews…. Cinda

  7. Hi! DHS,
    DHS said, “What did you think of The Hurt Locker?”

    D.H., I will return later…in order to share my thoughts with you and your readers about director Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker.

    Take care!

  8. Hi! DHS,
    Please be mindful of the fact, that this is the first war film that I ever watched…or rather that I ‘am aware of…at least?!?

    When it comes to this film…I ‘am in total agreement with your first commenter. Personally, I was unable to feel or connect with any of the characters in this film.
    Because of my “strong” anti-war sentiment, this is probably the reason that I was unable to relate to any of the situations and the characters in the film.

    On the other hand, if this were a film dealing with how to prevent war…I would probably be more opinioned and express my views in the affirmative.

    By the way, there is a review of this film posted over there on my blog Bookandacupofcoffee and one of the commenter was in the Navy and his opinion about this film almost reflect of my own views or opinion about this film.

    Personally, I do not think that I stand alone (when it comes to not connecting with the characters in this film or some of the situations in this film.) especially, after reading the commenter’s feedback about director Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker over there on my blog and on you tube.


    DeeDee, I think if one is anti-war, then it is even more important to try and understand the mindset of those who wish to go to war. Though, I understand why you might then have trouble relating to the characters here. Thanks for voicing your dissenting opinion. I know you are not alone. –DHS

  9. “Was that Beckham’s dead body or not? Who is the kid who appears again later selling dvds and playing football? Wasn’t that Beckham?

    Dorian, that was not Beckham’s body. James thought it was, but then realized it wasn’t when he saw Beckham again, and in turn that made him realize how rattled he had become and how shoddy his judgment was when he let his emotions take over… –DHS”

    By the way, after viewing the film The Hurt Locker I now completely understand the question that the commenter asked you, and your response to the question.
    I must admit that I was slightly, confused by that scene in the film too!
    Thanks, for the clarification…
    DeeDee 😉

    DeeDee, any time. I’m glad to be of service. –DHS

  10. This film did not disappoint.. What I mean is I was expecting a gun ho American war film and this is what we got. No realism at all. Anyone behaving in the way that the main character did would be severely disciplined. Nothing seemed real. You can’t just play on the tension thing (which there was none) and expect to get away with it.

    This is a poor film. I got bored very quick.

    I should have known at the start when the wheel (literally) came off the wagon. Professionals would have checked, checked again and then for good measure checked again.

    It was comical seeing it happen. I served in the British army in Northern Ireland and oversaw many bomb disposal incidents and none went with the disfuctionality of what we saw in this film.

    Then it goes and wins the Oscars and Baftas. Those of you who think this film shows what bomb disposal is all about need a serious reality check. This film is an insult to the real people who have to do this job. Shameful

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