The Hurt Locker (2008) Director: Kathryn Bigelow
“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug“
The message of The Hurt Locker is laid out at the beginning in a quotation from noted anti-war, anti-imperialist writer for the New York Times Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The Hurt Locker is a sharp, gritty picture that was filmed almost entirely with handheld cameras to give it a documentarian Jason Bourne style. This effect gives the audience a deep sense of presence within war-torn Iraq as a bomb squad is sent into various quiet, yet highly volatile situations in order to defuse bombs.
The central question at stake for me in the film is as follows: Who is Sergeant James? Is he naturally predisposed toward erratic and addictive behavior? Or has the psychologically degrading effect of war warped James into a cavalier adrenaline junkie?
In The Hurt Locker, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is a reckless bomb defuser who is selected as the new leader of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq previously helmed by Staff Sergeant Thomas (Guy Pearce) who was killed. The team includes Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The year is 2004. The film is a textbook example of how to build cinematic tension. Unlike in other war movies where we see young, wide-eyed soldiers dropped into battle and transformed into jaded, ruthless warriors, in The Hurt Locker the battle is a slow-burn path of intensity as the group travels from place to place and James analyzes various bombs, and defuses them fully exposed in broad daylight. We are deeply troubled when James thinks a bomb has been placed within their camp psychiatrist so the trio unenthusiastically goes on a spontaneous revenge mission which leaves one injured, only for the psychiatrist to appear inn a later scene. We are horrified when James cannot free an Iraqi civilian who has been strapped with a timer bomb.
However, there is also tension within the bomb squad. Neither Sanborn nor Eldridge fully trust James and his raucous, chaotic nature. At one point, while providing cover, Eldridge contemplates firing on an active bomb to detonate it and rid them of Sgt. James. The sweat-dripping intensity in the sandy, blistering desert is felt at every moment. Each scene delivers a countdown of sorts until James’s tour of Iraq is complete. In the end, James finally returns home to his ex-wife (played by Evangeline Lilly, who still lives in his house) and his infant son, but like all soldiers returning home in war films, he is restless. This is perhaps best conveyed in a scene where James travels to the grocery store to pick up cereal, only to find himself utterly bored while standing alone in a vast aisle filled with cereal boxes. Commercialism simply does not appeal to James. Instead, he decides to return to the only thing he truly loves: defusing bombs in Iraq. Is this a tragic ending? A hopeful ending? Either way, we (the audience) are horrified at his choice to return to war. There is a certain kind of dopamine hit offered by extremely dangerous scenarios, and men like Sgt. James simply cannot resits its allure.
However, The Hurt Locker has faced criticism by Iraq veterans who have noted various inaccuracies, such as the ways American soldiers actually operate in the field. For a film that purports to be a gritty realistic take on war, these are some glaring oversights. Nevertheless as a Best Picture-winner (the first directed by a woman which beat out her ex-husband James Cameron’s film Avatar) and an excellent screenplay by Mark Boal (who actually imbedded himself with a real bomb squad in Iraq), The Hurt Locker is a worthy film that packs its power in a certain type of character study –examining the character of a man under immense pressure in a series of highly dangerous situations.