My guess is that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker will be henceforth taught in cinema courses as a masterly illustration of how one stages and pieces together an effective action sequence on film. There are several of them to choose from throughout this riveting Iraq War drama, each one demonstrating Bigelow’s shrewd command over the manipulation of space, time, and rhythm. Her battle scenes reap the maximum of suspense and terror in this story about a bomb disposal unit serving amidst the firestorm of the Iraq War in 2004.
One of Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s riskiest gambles is that they essentially have a protagonist — the unit’s leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) — who undergoes little to no change in the course of their story. In fact, James resists any change to his manner and attitude towards war. His men see him as a reckless thrill-seeker, a man obsessed with cheating death if there’s an adrenaline rush to be had. The two in James’s charge, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) spend a great deal of the film clashing with James, questioning his sanity, but, in the end, performing courageously — though resentfully — alongside him. James is really a ball of manic, destructive energy roiling beneath an assured facade. On the other hand, James has a conscience: Bigelow shows us as much when he has a nervous breakdown following the death of a young Iraqi boy whom he’d befriended. Just as quickly, though, James is back on the job, eager for another set of ticking bombs that must be defused, another firefight in which he could narrowly skirt death.
Renner plays James unflinchingly, only rarely giving us a glimpse of the damaged soul lurking beneath the soldier’s bastion of toughness and professionalism. At the risk of alienating his audience, Renner stays true to James’s cool exterior, delivering an unforgettable depiction of how war can warp and distort a man’s spirit. Matching him scene for scene is Anthony Mackie as Sanborn, James’s moral opposite. Baffled, even horrified, by his commanding officer’s matter-of-fact attitude to a high-risk assignment, and his readiness to expose himself and his men to danger, Mackie calls out James time and again; he, along with Geraghty’s Eldridge (another excellent performance), stand in as our moral counterbalance in a crumbling state where life has lost its value.
In an otherwise apolitical film, Bigelow provides a poignant sociopolitical critique with one single cut. Late in the film, we see a traveling shot of Iraqi children, seen through the window of a Humvee, running along the roadside. A cut retains the camera movement but now, instead of children, we’re looking through the glass doors of a supermarket freezer section, staring at an endless row of pizzas of all varieties. We’ve cut from Iraq to America, a place of deprivation to one of plenty. But, more than that, in cutting from children to meaningless products, Bigelow juxtaposes a gross disparity in values: In a single cut, we’ve shunted from a place whose future hangs in the balance, from faces of children who may not live to see it, to one with arguably no future at all, or whose values can be summarized by a vision of a supermarket freezer section.
The Hurt Locker is a top-notch suspense picture in the old-school mold, fashioned after the B-movie masterpieces of Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller. Boal’s script can feel episodic to a fault — it’s essentially a series of battle scenes with time-outs for conversation and for providing the grim details of the soldiers’ off-duty lives in the barracks. But what saves his and Bigelow’s film, ultimately, are the deeply etched characterizations, the sense of evolving relationships between soldiers and between Americans and Iraqis, that make each successive battle not just an action scene but a crucible in which these relationships are tested. Perhaps most startling of all the film’s accomplishments is how it approximates the soldiers’ feeling of utter anxiety as they fight a war on foreign soil: This isn’t Iraq so much as a completely different planet, hostile and hateful of their presence, in which everything and everyone is a potential enemy, and even the ground before you can explode and swallow you whole.
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo