#90 The Hurt Locker
(2008, Kathryn Bigelow)
“Every time we head out, it’s life or death”
It was only a matter of time before the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq would end up translated to film. After all, World War II has been a prime source of plot for decades, and the Vietnam War was also rather popular subject matter (it’s cropped up in a previously reviewed film already, with a couple more on the way), so it stands to reason the biggest conflict of the modern age would follow suit. And so, here’s The Hurt Locker.
Following the death of Sergeant Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce) in a failed bomb disposal in Iraq, his squad receives a replacement in the form of Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a rebellious, unruly soldier who seems to enjoy the thrill of bomb disposal so much that he puts the lives of his team in potential danger.
The first thing I noticed about The Hurt Locker was just how much attention seems to have been paid to the visuals. The film adopts a documentary-style aesthetic, albeit one with a slight Hollywood sheen. The camera rarely stays still, and a lot of attention is paid to background details (I made note of at least two occasions where a random cat was put in the camera’s focus) as well as the characters themselves. The battlefield is also as visually stunning as a battlefield in the Iraqi desert possibly can be; it’s clear the set designers and location scouts took their job very seriously at making sure they captured the feel of the conflict.
However, this documentary style of filming also makes things feel very detached. Character development is almost secondary to capturing the grim face of war. While the characters were far from poorly written, I felt they were largely interchangeable and kind of bland. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) had little defining character traits beyond being moody, and the specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) had some interesting traits in his supposed cowardice and nervousness, but not much is made of this beyond a few discussions with the colonel.
Even James’ rebellion is underplayed, despite being a major source of conflict for the movie. I’d have liked a little more insight into why he gets such a thrill from bomb disposal, particularly since this is a big factor in the ending. I also felt that at times his attitude could change at random. The first mission he’s on with the team shows him deploying a smoke grenade and hiding himself from everyone else, while a later mission involving snipers sees him working as a good team member with no rebellious traits whatsoever, but with little development to get him to this point.
It’s also slightly strange how he seems so detached from his wife and child back home but will go to the ends of the earth for an Iraqi boy he met on the street. While I accept his altruism and I really enjoyed how this plot thread painted Iraqis as more than just “the enemy”, it just jarred so badly with how little he seemed to care about his own family. It just didn’t feel right to me.
Plot-wise, there isn’t really much of one, but this feels like the point anyway so I wouldn’t call it a criticism. Based on the documentary style, the movie’s intention is to just follow a fictional band of soldiers through their daily lives, and for this it definitely succeeds. Indeed, much of the film’s success comes from the feeling of watching a persistent news feed of events in Iraq. It’s what kept the movie interesting where the characterisation failed.
Overall, The Hurt Locker is a visually and thematically impressive film that stumbles a little on character development, but ultimately remains watchable. Those interested in the Iraq War would do well to watch this.
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse & Guy Pearce
Written by Mark Boal
Produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier & Greg Shapiro
Music by Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders
Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd
Edited by Chris Innis & Bob Murawski
Favourite Scene: The car bomb sequence is incredibly intense, particularly with civilians standing around filming everything
Scene That Bugged Me: The sniping sequence felt like it went on a little too long. Yes, I got the feeling of it being tense, much like a real sniping situation would be, but it still dragged on a little.
Watch it if: You’re interested in the Iraq War
Avoid it if: You assume the title has something to do with a serial killer (I know I did)