Review first published by Film4.
Synopsis: Powerful drama probing the internal wiring of soldiers involved in the Iraq War. By the director of Near Dark, Point Break and K-19, Kathryn Bigelow.
Review: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” This quote, lifted from renowned Middle East correspondent Chris Hedges’ book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), is the text that opens Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – itself scripted by journalist Mark Boal and drawn from his experiences embedded with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq in 2004. Viewers would do well, amidst the high-tension chaos that follows, to remember Hedges’ words, as they represent one of the only verbal articulations of the film’s principal theme. Like all the best directors, Bigelow prefers showing to telling, and so she immerses viewers in a physical, moral and psychological landscape that is always compelling to watch, but never so easy to read.
The introductory sequence, reminiscent of the opening of 2007’s Beaufort which dealt with the South Lebanon conflict, barely gives viewers time to register that team leader Sergeant Thompson is played by Guy Pearce before he is killed when the improvised explosive device that he is trying to disarm is remotely detonated. Later Ralph Fiennes will have a similar, and similarly short-lived, cameo – so short, in fact, that his character is not even named. Here, in the guerrilla warfare on the streets of US-occupied Baghdad, life is frail, all men are vulnerable to sudden attack, and death equalises even the big-name actors in the cast.
No sooner have Thompson’s body and belongings been packed away in their white box than his replacement arrives in the form of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose ways in the field are soon unnerving the surviving EOD unit members, by-the-book Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and death-fearing Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).
As the days count down to the end of Bravo Company’s current rotation, these three men face fiery death on every mission as they try to keep fellow soldiers and civilians safe from home-made bombs and roadside traps. It is clear that James is the character to root for. Preternaturally calm under pressure, painstakingly attentive to detail, always determined to see the job through to its end, generous to those around him, brave as hell, and ruggedly individualistic, he embodies all the values of an all-American hero – and, in his refusal to obey orders, follow procedures, maintain communications or wear proper gear, he conforms to all the specs of that most beloved of war film figures, the maverick. One colonel (David Morse), having witnessed James’ courage under fire, can barely contain his admiration: “That’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that?” Sanborn’s reaction to the same incident is to punch James full in the face – and later Sanborn and Eldridge will half-jokingly plot to murder James, hoping to be rid of this ticking bomb in their midst.
One suspects that viewers will be similarly divided in deciding whether James is a “rowdy man” or merely “reckless”, but certainly by the end Bigelow has deftly dismantled James’ brand of death-defying machismo, exposing the explosive danger that he represents both to himself and to others. Eldridge might be the one regularly seeing an army doctor (Christian Camargo) to discuss his mortality anxieties, but we are left to wonder, in keeping with the principles of Catch-22, whether dauntless, risk-loving adrenaline junkie James might be the one who is truly in need of help.
Without question wars, not to mention war movies, need men like James, and can create such men too – but that is precisely what makes Bigelow’s film such an interesting and oblique comment on the nature of war itself. It almost goes without saying that as a husband, as a father, and as a member of peaceful, civilian life, James proves to be an abject failure – and as a corpse, of course, he will have no value whatsoever.
Shot up close and personal and brilliantly edited, The Hurt Locker captures the paranoia, grit and confusion of urban warfare so grippingly that it takes a while for the film’s moral disorientation to catch up – but when it does, the film becomes, not unlike Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005), a war movie concerned less with ‘war is hell’ cliches than with the psychological make-up of those who can thrive in such an infernal environment. As a study of bunkered masculinity in extremis, Bigelow’s film is of a piece with her earlier Point Break (1991), but it is far more understated and adult than the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze face-off, and as such will no doubt be seen by fewer people. More’s the pity, as it is one of the best films to examine the mix of audacity, intransigence and ignorance that fuelled the invasion of Iraq in the first place.
In A Nutshell: Bigelow’s gripping yet subtle study in the psychology of war is set to the urgent rhythms of a ticking bomb, exploding the myth of the maverick hero.