That was a good movie. Let’s go fight each other with some bottle rockets.
This might be the best way to describe The Hurt Locker if it was your standard summer action movie. But it’s not.
Probably more a function of the times and not the industry, action films seem to have lost their zest over the past decade or so. The lavish 1990s were a time for just blowing stuff up. We had enough stuff. Lets just blow some of it up. Got a boat? Blow it up. Eiffel Tower? Blow it up. What happens when two jet skis collide? A massive explosion, obviously.
In the 90s, Hollywood reminded us why we love destroying things and summer movies became a testament to the idea that the best way to fulfill our urge for power is by blasting something all to hell.
There’s a famous story of a well-known Hollywood studio exec who would not greenlight a script unless there was an explosion every four pages. In a two-hour film, that’s about thirty explosions. Hollywood spoon-fed us destruction because they knew we craved it.
For whatever reason, it seems that things have changed.
Today, we have replaced the Destruction summer flick with the Superhero summer flick, as movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man employ the most cutting-edge special effects, exchanging explosions for reality-bending graphics. Movie studios have added otherworldly heroics to the menu while keeping destruction as the classic go-to. Yet these films are hardly ever laced with substantive qualities of intelligent acumen.
July and August have always been the months to flaunt your big budget special effects. But summer has never been the season that Hollywood has said, “Oh man, watch how awesome this explosion is,” and asked us to use our brains at the same time. That’s why The Hurt Locker is one of the most original films of the year.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with the imaginative tension of an evil jack-in-the-box wielding a grenade, The Hurt Locker tells the story of Bravo Company, an elite Army unit in Iraq whose job it is to detonate I.E.D.s.
The movie starts abruptly, with no opening credits, only a quote from former New York Times Iraq expert Christopher Hedges: “War is a drug.”
If that holds true, then the film’s lead junkie is Staff Sergeant William James, the cocky, wild, and courageous team leader, played with powerful precision by Jeremy Renner. Sergeant James treats his job of detonating and defusing bombs like a cowboy – or, rather, a rodeo clown that’s ten times smarter than the cowboy. His recklessness is comical, yet strangely reassuring, and his company learns to trust him as it becomes obvious that his gunslinger approach is a product of experience and selflessness.
But James’ passion for the task at hand eventually turns into a sort of paranoia, and we realize that the reality of this urban warfare-that no one can be trusted-has taken its toll on James and created an inconsolable, and arguably noble, addiction to danger. (The ease with which Renner portrays James’ anguish underneath the suave and irreverent leader is enthralling, and deserves award-circuit recognition.)
At this point, director Bigelow rummages through the heavy-metal conditioned psyches of Bravo Company and gets you thinking quickly, amidst the ticking time bombs surrounding her characters. She explores the brutality that each man has adopted in order to keep themselves sane at war, and toys with the tender breaking point that is boldly soothed by James as the leader. In a gut-wrenching scene, in which two soldiers engage in a punching contest that elevates to a level bordering on the erotic, it is clear that there is either denial or a thick haze surrounding the pain that lies within.
The cinematography uses the ever-popular handheld camera technique that pulls you into the death-defying tasks of Bravo Company, first-person style. Rarely has this technique felt so appropriate, well-suited for a film whose aim is to make you sympathize with its characters through the sheer proximity of an explosive.
But where The Hurt Locker really hits its stride is when Bigelow lets the film breathe and withholds from her audience the comforts of cinematic fulfillment. There are times in the film where the audience is left hanging with the soldiers for far longer than Hollywood comfort standards. If a bomb doesn’t explode when we are used to seeing bombs explode, then what on earth is going to happen? Tantalizing paranoia ensues, and Bigelow stretches the parameters of suspense like an older brother telling you not to flinch.
This torment is what sets the movie’s tone apart from typical summer fare. Flannery O’Connor once said that violence has a strange way of returning her characters to reality and preparing them for their moment of grace. The same rings true for the characters in The Hurt Locker, which dances on a trip-wire between the contemplative psychosis of war and the rabid devices of destruction that fascinate and return us to a stark reality of chaos.
The up-close nature of the film drags you not only into the high anxiety precision of defusing explosives, but also into the psychological realm of a group of guys quietly attempting to push away the insanity of their jobs. They are brave, to say the least, and this is the first Iraq war movie that achieves a “non-political agenda” status. It is clear that the filmmaker believes that, no matter your opinion of the ethicality of the Iraq War, we must hold a deep respect for the daring sacrifice of our troops and executes such a sentiment with artistic grace.
There’s no need to go on about the film’s strengths. There are plenty of them. A myriad of critics have praised this unlikely summer hit (it scores a 93 on Metacritic.com, higher than Schindler’s List and Star Wars). And although the movie doesn’t seem to warrant as much acclaim as the aforementioned films, its universal praise is most likely because there is substance beneath what’s being blown to bits on screen.
Save for a few scenes of canned dialogue involving the supporting characters, The Hurt Locker holds you with the suspense of a dangerously rickety amusement park ride, all the while making you question the fear and anxiety that each character is dealing with.
This is far from the political statement movie. Above the devices of money, fame, Hollywood, or politics, The Hurt Locker is an intelligent expression of the beauty behind the destruction, and the harsh reality in the rubble.