Film: The Hurt Locker
Director: Fred Cavaye
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner
Runtime: 131 mins
Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, K-19: The Widowmaker, was concerned, like her newest effort, with military conflict. A critical and commercial dud, much of its $100 million budget probably went towards teaching Harrison Ford to speak in a (bad) Russian accent. Interestingly enough, like The Hurt Locker, it was independently financed. At a tenth of the cost (but you wouldn’t know it), the film is modest in several other respects: the plot is uncomplicated, and the biggest actors make the briefest of appearances. That aside, the often unbearable intensity of the experience is unlike any other you’ll find this year.
The focus is on an American roadside bomb disposal team in 2004 Iraq, lead by danger-seeking adrenaline junkie William James (Jeremy Renner). Facing an often unknown time limit whilst defusing, the core combat episodes see James’ two lackeys (Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty) covering his back – frustrated at his skill, and terrified that his reckless approach might get them killed. The other scenes follow group dynamics and the convincingly tortured selves that each member is left with at Camp Victory. The psychologies of these characters aren’t complex,
and yet Mackie and Renner are compelling and believable. The film has been labelled as the best to be made so far about the ongoing conflict, and that’s probably true in terms of U.S. releases. But it’s important to remember that Bigelow brought us surfer-bank-robbery flick Point Break: story is subservient to set-pieces, and Mark Boal’s script suffers as a result. One encounter with Brits, and another with an Iraqi couple are thrown in to have some non-Americans involved, but come across as frustratingly half-hearted. James’ relationship with a local boy who calls himself Beckham is stretched beyond its limits.
Granted, she’s an absolute master when it comes to action, and here the adrenaline is counterbalanced by a more taught approach. It might be tactless to call the film realistic, or to assume that such cinema can ever replicate ‘the real,’ but the situations and emotions ring true. There’s a motif in which we’re referred to a countdown of how many days of duty remain. It’s not cheesy, but an insight into what might be going through your head when you risk your life day after day and you’re miles from home.
This is pure humanism, exemplified in the powerful finale, when the last ticking bomb is attached to a person. Staunch critical stances on the war are avoided, and engagement with its politics emerges only from existential dilemmas. Given the lack of popular female directors today, it would certainly be nice if the likes of Michael Bay stepped aside in favour of Bigelow. Sadly, the production doesn’t entirely avoid Team America clichés, but what’s vital about The Hurt Locker is its comment on the mad stimulation of the idea of war, channelled in one extreme through becoming a soldier, but tantalisingly reproduced elsewhere. War films surely epitomise this area, and The Hurt Locker holds a challenging place among them.