The Hurt Locker

The Herald: October 2009

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The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christopher Sayegh, Christian Camargo

The ‘hurt locker’, in a soldier’s vernacular, refers to the physical trauma of being in repeated close proximity to explosions. The anxious prelude to the blast and the deafening noise itself is a painful, inescapable trap. The Hurt Locker joins a slew of films dealing with the Iraq war, such as Jarhead, Lions for Lambs or Redacted, and tells the story of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team stationed in Baghdad, Iraq. Independent auteur Kathryn Bigelow has returned to the big screen after a seven-year absence (her last production was the poorly-received K 19: The Widow-Maker in 2002) and this film is definitely worth the wait.

The film is based on journalist Mark Boal’s experiences in Iraq while embedded with a special bomb unit in Iraq. Soldiers J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are counting down the days until they can clock out of their Delta Company (38 days to be exact) and get home in one piece. When Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), known as a ‘wild card’ among his superiors, joins the duo as team leader, they seriously contemplate killing him in order to escape the nail-biting paces he puts them through.

The film opens with a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: ‘The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug’. It is the adrenaline rush and thrill of this ‘potent drug’ that Bigelow captures perfectly in Sgt James, who keeps totems from his 873 successfully defused bombs and is utterly unhappy when safely ensconced in domestic routines at home in America with his wife (Evangeline Lilly) and child.

Bigelow has a weighty subject on her hands. She wastes no time with mealy-mouthed politicians, oil-greedy corporations or soldiers’ grieving families. Her camera stays focused on the soldiers and their experience of the war, or, more specifically, the frenetic and draining work days endured by bomb disposal units who are often called in fifteen to twenty times a day to venture in areas that the average soldier retreats from.

In the cat-and-mouse game between the American soldiers and ‘hajjis’ (soldier-slang for Iraqis) the insurgents are always improving their techniques, creating complicated Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), sending out Houdini-like suicide bombers with ticking time-bombs chained to their bodies with impossibly unbreakable locks and even using a twelve year old boy as a human body-bomb (the child dies as a bomb is inserted into his stomach during an operation). For the bomb-disposal unit, every bystander is a possible insurgent, every gesture a secret signal, every mobile phone a possible link to a remote-controlled IED. There is little respite from the tension and the viewer is drained by the time the film ends. Bigelow’s cinematic style does little to quell this perfectly-pitched tension –  the camera restlessly travels across the landscape while jagged jumpcuts create a sense of paranoia and fear-driven frenzy.

Bigelow’s collaboration with a war correspondent enables her to tell the soldiers stories in sparse, reportorial terms – there are no big-budget special effects, time-consuming and elaborate plot-lines or issues of morality to grapple with and the audience remains consumed in the soldiers experiences. In her unwavering focus on the soldiers and their varied responses to the war, Bigelow chooses not to examine issues of right-and-wrong or the absurdity of war, but the ways in which those who have no choice but to be a part of the fight adapt to their hellish environment.