“…war is a drug”
Most people look at those words, from the opening titles of The Hurt Locker and think addiction, By the end of the movie they may also think about the other effect most drugs have: derangement of the senses. The main character, bomb-squad specialist or “EOD tech” James (Jeremy Renner), has let war go to his head in more ways than one. His tragedy is not that he has lost his humanity in the exhilaration of battle, but that he still has enough humanity left to gnaw at him even after all he throws himself into.
Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2009, and it shows. It is further evidence that a “war movie” is not just about people shooting at each other, but about a facet of an experience not duplicated anywhere else in life. It doesn’t argue for or against James and it doesn’t bog down in arguments about the validity of the war in Iraq. It simply says: here is a man who can do remarkable things in the middle of hell, and is it any wonder some people are bothered by that? This is a man who does indeed enjoy his work, who gets something out of it he gets nowhere else, and does not care if the thought of him enjoying his work horrifies us.
The movie eschews an overall plot structure for raw experience, where one incident after another rushes out and ambushes the characters. Right in the opening scene, we’re not even sure who the main character is: maybe it’s Thompson (Guy Pearce), the lead bomb man; or Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the robot operator and secondary tech; or Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the support guy who keeps an eye peeled for people in the vicinity with a cellphone (read: detonator). Then Thompson’s killed when the bomb they’re defusing goes off—not because of any mistake he made, but simply because it is all too easy to die in war, and any war movie knows this. In one of the movie’s few visual indulgences, the explosion that kills Thompson is is slowed down until it turns into a tidal wave of concussion, heaving up gravel and blowing the rust off the frame of a ruined car. It’s not climax, but coda, one of the many signs that the movie aims to creatively break common war-movie rules.
James is rotated in to replace Thompson, and within a day Sanborn and Eldredge realized they’re dealing with a lone gun who thinks nothing of, say, setting off a smoke grenade to obscure his movements near a bomb—never mind that it also keeps his own partners from seeing him. One scene in particular cements his psychology for us: James is sent to disarm a car with a load of bombs in the trunks, parked in front of a UN building. The building’s evacuated; James and the rest of the crew can leave any time. But he doesn’t leave. He rips the car to shreds inside out, sweat hanging from his nose and eyelashes, trying to find out where the bastards hid the trigger. He’s not about to walk away from a challenge like this, one which he would find nothing comparable to in civilian life. Later, Sanborn toys with setting off a test explosive while James is near it and writing it off as an accident. Self-preservation: this crazy-ass cowboy is going to get them all killed at this rate.
They can work well together. It’s just that they’re not always given the chance to, and in war (as in life) you get what you’re given and not what you deserve. We see them functioning as a unit most completely when they find themselves pinned down by snipers when helping an Aussie mercenary crew (with “extraordinary renditions” in tow) repair a tire. This scene’s one of the best examples of the movie breaking rules well: it starts with a burst of violence, slows down to an excruciating game of long-distance tag-and-you’re-dead, and tapers off instead of climaxing with a gory headshot. This is at it should be: the movie is patient as a whole, and doesn’t try to swap cheap thrills for its real mission of making us feel what they feel.
That scene also shows James trying, as best he can, to be a leader—to form some kind of human connection that he simply isn’t very good at. Early in the film he takes a shine to a local kid, a peddler of bootleg DVDs who calls himself “Beckham” and whose speech seems to have been taped together from Western pop-culture clichés. (He sees James’s bomb-squad patch and says it’s “gangsta”.) James likes him, maybe because he’s thinking of what his own, infant son might one day grow up to be like. Then Beckham turns up dead, in a way that I should not spoil here, because the manner of his death and the way James deals with it—or, rather, discovers he cannot deal with it—both tie right into the movie’s themes.
The movie isn’t afraid to paint Iraq as dangerous and unfriendly; most striking is how the movie unrepentantly forces us to see the local population from the point of view of perennial outsiders. There is almost never a shot of a “hajji” (as the soldiers call them) that is not at a distance, through a window, out of focus, half-seen. It’s not xenophobia on the part of the movie; it’s the filmmakers attempting to make us share the mind-set of the soldiers. This isn’t home, they’re not welcome here, and they always entertain the suspicion that someone watching is preparing to kill them. This forced perspective changes (if only briefly) when James attempts to take revenge for Beckham’s death, and finds himself face to face not with ciphers but people, and has no idea how to respond. Bombs are what he knows. They’re far more predictable.
Kathryn Bigelow has directed at least two other movies I would gladly take with me to a desert island—Near Dark, which is a “vampire movie” the way Hurt Locker is a “war movie”, and the underrated future-noir thriller Strange Days, penned by none other than James Cameron. People seem to fixate on and snicker up their sleeves at Point Break, as if it were a character defect to have directed an entertaining action picture that actually isn’t as dumb as it might seem, but some of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at Hurt Locker are inexplicable. The movie has been attacked as both pro- and anti-war propaganda—which tells me that if people are capable of seeing both extremes in the film, that says more about them than anything else. What I saw in it was a fascinating portrait of a man painfully discovering there are some things he is good at and some things he is simply no good at, and we worry that he will not realize which is which before it costs him his life. Or a great many other people theirs.