Retrospective Film Review: The Hurt Locker

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“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

(The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, 2008, US, 131 min)

To beat an ex-partner at something is a wonderful feeling: a feeling that Kathryn Bigelow surely experienced when her war film The Hurt Locker trumped her ex-husband James Cameron’s multi-million fantasy Avatar to win the 2010 Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite the special effects coupled with the introduction of 3-D movies and the £8m UK cinema-goers spent in the first weekend alone to see the lanky blue hippies, there is no getting away from the fact that The Hurt Locker has an emotional depth and better characters; whilst Avatar barely evolves from the suspiciously familiar plotline of the animated FernGully: the Last Rainforest (1992). Though some may sneer at the idea of a macho, all-male war film being produced and directed by a woman, Bigelow proves that she is worthy to stand with such greats as Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, 1979), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, 1998) and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, 1998) in the war film wall of fame.

As The Hurt Locker was in production, there were always questions over the controversial topic of the current timing of the film, set in the storm of the notoriously much-debated war in the Middle East. Although comparisons may be drawn with films such as David O Russell’s Three Kings (1999), one can see that these other films are often released after the event. As last week – 22nd May 2011 – saw the last UK soldiers leave Iraq, eight years after they arrived, this seems a good time to look back and review this film. Set in Iraq and filmed in the neighbouring country of Jordan, The Hurt Locker portrays the rarely-covered lives of an elite bomb disposal unit in the US Army. The film counts down the days left in the company’s rotation as they struggle to cope with life and death situations every day. The opening scenes show the viewers that the possibility of death is always present, as the passing of Guy Pearce’s Thompson is quickly passed over: the war must go on.

Bigelow interestingly uses her big-name actors – such as Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce – in smaller roles to support some lesser-known actors. Although other critics have often disliked what they might call the implausible actions and attitudes of Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant First Class William James, his rebellious decision-making highlights the idea of war being the ultimate adrenaline rush for some and a very difficult thing to leave behind; like American journalist and war correspondent, Chris Hedges’ quote showed at the beginning of the film, ‘war is a drug.’ Unlike the scarred soldiers of films such as Saving Private Ryan who struggle to return to the quiet life, James can return to his domestic lifestyle in the USA, but he gets bored. Renner plays this brooding and quiet yet talented soldier well, especially as a contrast to the sensible Sergeant JT Sanborn; portrayed by Anthony Mackie. The third soldier in the bomb squad is Brian Geraghty’s Specialist Owen Eldridge, whose guilt-conscious vulnerability allows him to be influenced by both James and Sanborn. He is almost like the son caught between warring parents. Although they are all affected by the deadly and destructive power of war, they don’t tend to sob onto each other’s shoulders in a Hollywood ‘show-your-feminine-side’ way.

Although not set in Iraq, some of the cleverer scenes from The Hurt Locker are near the end of the film when James has returned home to his wife and young child. It is almost humorous in the ridiculousness of a bomb disposal expert who makes risky, quick decisions in the heat of combat not being able to decide what breakfast cereal to pick when faced with a wall of boxes. Compared to the split second, life or death risks of disarming a bomb, James must climb a ladder and remove the leaves from the gutter. His anecdotes that he tells to his wife (Evangeline Lilly) end in death or are out of place in this peaceful environment. It seems that James belongs at war, as the audience sees him walk that long walk in the armoured suit again in the final scene. He is an adrenaline junkie.

The cinematography of Barry Ackroyd paired with the visionary filmmaking of Kathryn Bigelow gives The Hurt Locker the feel of a visually-stunning documentary. The use of a camera that shoots 50,000 frames per second helped capture the super slow-motion of the first explosion; lifting the rust off cars and forcing rubble up into the air, creating a perfect description and understanding of the device and its influence. Leading man Jeremy Renner described how the director ‘paints with a camera’. Although the action and explosions are almost beautiful and the decision-making is so significant, the most real and powerful moments in The Hurt Locker are the slow walks towards the explosive devices. Kathryn Bigelow explained her desire to show the audience ‘what it’s like to walk down on a bomb, how the world begins to recede. It’s an epic walk’ and, for me, that beats blue eco-warriors any day.

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