The Hurt Locker


Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

The Hurt Locker
"Bigelow fetishises action and forces us to confront it in the same way Peckinpah did."

There are two moments in Kathryn Bigelow’s cinematic sledgehammer that is Hurt Locker that articulate better than anything else the dehumanising effect of war. The first comes when Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), newly recruited leader of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit, rejects the use of a robot device to monitor a potential bomb threat, electing instead to suit up and face it head on: Saint George to his detonator dragon.

An act of foolish bravado, one might think. To his colleagues Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) it's certainly a serious bone of contention, but it’s not until the final scene in the movie that we realise the truth.

These are not the reckless sociopaths we’ve come to expect from Hollywood nor the braying and brain-dead soldiers indoctrinated by the media into thinking their actions good and just. These are barely men. And certainly not heroes - at least, not self-styled heroes. His superiors might want to paint Sergeant James as one, counting off the bombs he’s disposed of like enemy kills, but he rails against it.

As the insert quote that opens the movie rather pointedly suggests, he is an addict. But not one of flesh and blood. He’s a desensitised machine. Disconnected from family and his past and living solely in the moment, cocooned in armour and wired into rituals that create the rush which allows him to function in the face of terror.

And war is terror. Bigelow turns the streets of Baghdad into adrenalised arteries at the end of which lie true hearts of darkness. Where no sermons are spoken, the ears too deafened by the precision cacophony to hear anyway. It’s a battlefield where James’ Zen Cowboy swagger butts heads with Sanborn’s rigid adherence to military script. So good are the performances of Renner and Mackie that they recall the opposition of Dafoe and Berenger in Platoon. The mysticism jettisoned, but the violent antagonism still evident with Geraghty’s raw recruit, Eldridge, caught in the middle.

While cameos from all-too-familiar faces like Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes threaten to disrupt the carefully orchestrated reality - along with an on-the-nose subplot involving an army doctor counselling Eldridge, unnecessary Hollywood compromises - the main trio are magnetic enough to keep the momentum going.

A good thing, as they appear to be the only signs of existence on what feels like a barren moon patrolled by camo’ed astronauts. Where the only acknowledgement of time and its passage is in the countdown of the unit’s tour of duty and a suicide bomber’s timer. What life there is beyond the shades of people devastated by the liberation, the cackle of children poking out from doorways, is diminished when you realise the horrors we see are their entertainment. The EOD unit moving inch by nail-biting inch past buildings occupied by distant spotters, their features obscured to the point they become little more than slabs of meat attached to detonators.

Bigelow captures the kinetics of war, not the empty, contrived catharsis. Her camera undulates like a desert cobra before striking, seemingly missing its target, only for it to connect moments later when you least suspect. The edit also dupes you, settling at first for the kind of familiar rhythm that seems to tip you to the action, but just as the tension is subsiding it detonates again. It’s such a violent, primal sensation, you realise, with the dearth of quality thrillers, how unprepared people will be for this. And how exhilarating that is.

But to call this simply an action movie is to do Bigelow a huge disservice. She fetishises action and forces us to confront it in the same way Peckinpah did. An explosive bloom radiating outwards as if it were something communicable: an anti-life wave. Pockets of shrapnel rising from the ground in slo-mo, like spores from some terrible seed. The body horror of disarming a child flesh bomb. The gooey slurp of a detonator being pulled from the core of an incendiary. A shell casing impacting on the dirt like a raindrop in a nature program. It’s her ability to translate the inorganic into the organic, whether in the opening tragedy or the agonising tension of the sniper sequence that makes events all the more dreadful and all the more gripping.

Reviewed on: 30 May 2010
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The Hurt Locker packshot
An elite bomb disposal unit struggles to function in the heart of the Iraq war.
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Read more The Hurt Locker reviews:

Trinity ****1/2
Stephen Carty ***1/2

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo, Suhail Aldabbach, Christopher Sayegh, Nabil Koni, Sam Spruell, Sam Redford, Feisal Sadoun, Barrie Rice

Year: 2008

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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