The Hurt Locker (2008)

2010 #100
Kathryn Bigelow | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

With 2011 underway we’re immediately heading deep into Awards Season, the time of year when everyone in the film world goes a bit mental and all the movies likely to win anything reach UK cinemas. The American Academy may nominate from throughout the year more readily now the Oscars have ten Best Picture slots, but it’s still not going to be a summer movie, is it. Not before The Dark Knight Rises anyway.

Unless it’s Inception.

(I’m not predicting The Dark Knight Rises is definitely going to win Best Picture, by-the-by, just that the fuss over The Dark Knight’s lack of a nod was half (or all?) the reason they doubled the nominees. Look, we’re getting distracted.)

What better time, then, to (finally) post a review of the last Best Picture winner — and 2010’s #100 to boot…

If you’ve ever seen the miniseries Generation Kill — the makers of The Wire do the invasion of Iraq, based on a book by one of the embedded journalists — then it might mean something if I say The Hurt Locker plays like Generation Kill: The Movie. Or perhaps another episode of that fine series, because it’s relatively low-key and everyday… as much as one can be about a bomb disposal unit in a warzone, that is.

I don’t mean this comparison as a bad thing — Generation Kill was an excellent series, and The Hurt Locker matches up to it. I also don’t mean to make a comparison in terms of content — the series follows troops at the front of the initial invasion (Band of Brothers: Iraq, if you can stand another HBO-based comparison), while the film is specifically about explosives experts during the occupation. The similarities are more stylistic — hot, dry locations and washed-out, hand-held cinematography (hardly innovative of either series or film, to be honest) — and thematic — the bonds between men in this particular war. I say “men”, I mean “soldiers”, but they are all men (in both series and film). The “gender in depiction of modern military” debate is for another time (and place) though.

Also like Generation Kill, The Hurt Locker is episodic, moving from one bomb-based set-piece to the next. But this is surely a realistic depiction of the environment and this job: these guys are going to go from one unrelated bomb to the next; they’re not going to end up on the tail of some master bombmaker, or single-handedly end the war in Iraq, or anything else one might construct as a coherent throughline for a film. What it has instead are subplots, largely based around the characters and their relationships to each other, which initially seem to crop up as slice-of-life asides before suddenly coming to the fore, usually to pack some kind of emotional punch — and, in at least one case, an equally affecting kick later on, too.

Bigelow & co construct each ‘action’ sequence with care and attention. They’re not action sequences in the truest sense — suggestions from some that she’d be a great director for, say, Bond 23 on the strength of this film are unwarranted (not that she wouldn’t be good, but this film’s action does nothing in particular to demonstrate appropriate skills). Instead of the fast-paced bullets-flying adrenaline-pumping sequences you get from An Action Movie, The Hurt Locker offers up more realistic (at least, realistic-feeling) sequences of tension as characters approach bombs, watch increasingly suspicious crowds, try to defuse the situation before the timer runs out… It could be clichéd — we’ve all seen plenty of bomb defusing scenes in movies before now — but, again, there’s a sense of “this is how it is”, rather than “this is how movies portray it for dramatic effect”. Is it how it is? I don’t know. But it certainly still packs dramatic effect.

Films sometimes struggle to create tension in sequences like these, but Bigelow achieves it by killing off any star that turns up. “OK,” you might say, “if they’re famous they die, if I don’t recognise them they’ll be fine.” Well, it’s not that simple. I was exactly that cynical going in, but still found myself agonising over who would or wouldn’t make it through, especially as we’re offered frequent reminders of how many days are left of their rotation — and, as we know from horrendous news stories, having “just one day left” is no guarantee you’re going home safely.

Repetition is avoided by mixing up the specifics of a sequence. Yes, many are variations on a theme, but so are most action movie shoot-outs or car chases — or rom-com love stories, or slasher horror movies, or any other genre you care to mention. What this film shows us, aside from the tension, is how different characters behave and react: James’ recklessness, for instance, which is contrasted with the more considered approach of Guy Pearce’s ill-fated character. Completely different is the sniper battle, not only because of the complete change of circumstance, but also because it’s drawn-out — Bigelow makes us feel some of the surrounded soldiers’ pain, lying still for hours in the baking sun, running out of fluids, just staring through a sniper scope at a heat-hazy vision of a far-off potential enemy.

The opening quote and closing scenes make explicit the main theme — war is a drug, one James (Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner) is addicted to — but I’m not sure how present this is in the body of the story. Rather, the majority feels like an attempt to convey the experience of living as an explosives expert in a warzone, with James’ ‘addiction’ just a side effect of that. Perhaps, then, it’s making its point more subtly than by battering you round the head with cinematic cries of, “He’s addicted to war! It’s just a drug!”

It doesn’t matter if it has a point to make about addiction or not. The Hurt Locker is still a tense, insightful evocation of what it feels like to be a bomb disposal expert in an active conflict; a dangerous job where each day really could be your last. The action sequences may not be Action Sequences in the way we’ve become accustomed too, and the narrative may be more episodic than a well-unified whole, and it may be readily reminiscent of other war films or series, and there are surely various other little factors people might pick on to criticise… but regardless of these, I thought The Hurt Locker was, from first to last, exceptional.

5 out of 5

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