Seven years after exploring how a small group of men work together under the pressure of death in 2002’s K19: The Widowmaker, director Kathryn Bigelow returns to explore that same theme in The Hurt Locker. But where K19‘s threat – a melting nuclear reactor onboard a Russian submarine – was clear and recognisable. It isn’t so simple for the members of a U.S. Army Bomb Squad deployed in Iraq.
Brian Geraghty’s rookie Eldridge jokes that the tanks parked idly at their base are useless. And he’s right. Because for them, defusing bombs on the streets of Baghdad, their enemies aren’t wearing uniforms. They’re dressed as a civilian carrying a mobile phone that triggers a device. Or they could be a man with a video camera. Or a local driving a car.
Shot by Ken Loach’s regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker is a war film that puts you right there with them: Eldridge, Jeremy Renner’s cocky disposal expert William James, and Anthony Mackie’s rational point man J.T. Sanborn.
It’s an environment of chaos and paranoia. Shot on handheld cameras, the film barely settles, dragging you in and letting you feel the tension and nervousness that permeates every scene. No-one is safe. One minute, the base’s Colonel is asking a group of locals to move along. The next, all that remains is a cloud of smoke. An empty helmet. Not even the film’s big name stars make it out.
Bigelow has always been a filmmaker who knows how to direct an action scene. For all the whip pans and quick cuts that depict the alien and unpredictable streets of Baghdad, The Hurt Locker‘s set pieces have a slow, calculating horror to them. Drawn out to sometimes unbearable extremes, they’re filled with a gnawing sense of dread. Renner’s heavy breaths punctuate the desolate soundtrack, leaving you wondering if they’ll be his last.
The Hurt Locker has been called one of the best war movies of recent times, and it certainly deserves that accolade. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (a journalist who spent time embedded with soldiers out in Iraq) aren’t concerned with the war itself, rather the effect it has on the men caught up in it. What does it take to do what they do everyday? How do they survive not just the physical danger they put themselves in, but the psychological challenge of not knowing who to trust? What does it do to them?
Renner’s James takes centre stage. Walking brazenly into harm’s way, he’s the renegade to Sanborn’s by-the-book veteran, the two of them providing an intriguing focal point for the young Eldridge. In between the set pieces, Bigelow shows them trying to relax and bond. It starts out playful, James and Sanborn throwing punches to test their strength like boys in a school playground. Yet it explodes in the blink of an eye. What seemed harmless suddenly turns nasty, just like the horrors outside.
Inserts crop up that count down the days to go until the company’s rotation in Baghdad draws to a close. For Sanborn and Eldridge, it becomes a countdown to their release. For James, you feel it’s the opposite, taking him back to a world he can no longer live in. As the days near zero, he embarks on almost suicidal missions, attempts to replicate the adrenaline that’s become his way of life.
Towards the end, he asks Sanborn, “Why do you think I am the way I am?” Sanborn doesn’t know, and the film doesn’t push for an answer. Bigelow and Boal don’t try to over-explain. They leave us with a fragment of the opening quote – “war is a drug” – ringing in our ears.
It’s a bold, brave film, one that confirms Bigelow’s status as one of the smartest, most exciting filmmakers of her generation. It suffers a little in the transition to DVD, robbed of the atmosphere at the cinema where you felt there was no escape from the world in front of you. But this is still thrilling in a way few films are these days. If there’s any justice, The Hurt Locker will see Bigelow take a much-deserved place amongst the nominees come Oscar night.
A behind the scenes featurette is a little short at only 11 minutes, but it’s all meat. A series of talking heads with Bigelow, Boal and all the principal cast on location get to the heart of what drew everyone to the project.
After that, the additional Interviews are fairly disappointing, repeating much of what’s covered by the featurette, leaving only a few minutes of new words from cast and crew. The disc’s sorely missing a commentary track from the always fascinating Bigelow, but is still a great purchase.
The Hurt Locker is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.