WARNING: MAJOR “PLOT POINTS” OF THIS FILM ARE DISCUSSED AND ANALYZED
“...[Kathryn] Bigelow is—most fittingly for a female director rightly celebrated for her breathtaking command of action—an expert fabulist of unlikely male bonding.”
So concluded this writer's review of Point Break. As The Hurt Locker opens with an unnecessary, wrongly mollifying quote by Chris Hedges—whose antiwar speech to a graduating class at a university in Rockford, Illinois was booed and heckled in 2003—which emphasizes that “war is a drug,” it became evident that Kathryn Bigelow was not only endeavoring to explore men growing closer to one another through attachment and proximity, but the peculiar hold adrenaline plays on the male psyche. As in her 1991 action thriller, Bigelow's new film finds itself propelled by a man who perhaps does not himself “get off” on the thrill, excitement and adrenaline rush—Patrick Swayze's Bodhi was closer to this mold, though he continually spouted off philosophical and spiritual rationales as reasons for throwing caution to the wind—but is certainly wholly comfortable with the relentless presence of sure death if he fails in his mission. That man is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose task it is to diffuse seemingly countless Iraqi “IEDs”(Improvised Explosive Device just for clarification). James is assigned to a company of men after its “EOD” (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) master of bomb- and trap-disarming Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed. Soon, two of those men—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and a guilt-ridden Specialist Owen Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty (he believes he should have dropped the insurgent responsible for detonating the device that took out Thompson)—will find themselves wondering whether or not Renner's staff sergeant is uncommonly courageous and unorthodox or simply insane.
If James is like Bodhi or Bill Paxton's Severen from Near Dark or in a frightening way, Tom Sizemore's Max Peltier from Strange Days, then Mackie's Sanborn is the reserved, judicious flip side who, like other Bigelow men of reason, sees the wild man (a CO played by David Morse actually calls James a “wild man” in awesome reverence) as something resembling a monster that has to be put down. In one disconcertingly quiet and unsettling scene, Sanborn talks to Eldridge about killing James. Seeing the wild man as a threat to the unit, Sanborn's initial distaste for James is palpable; as he shaves in the mirror one morning he tells James in no uncertain terms exactly what he thinks of him. In perhaps the film's finest sequence, however, as James attacks a wildly complicated booby-trap set in a car, and Sanborn and Eldridge nervously wait for him to finish, finally almost begging him to give up on the apparatus and vacate the scene—young Iraqi men stand about rooftops looking onward at the Americans and any one of them may be an insurgent—the audience may find itself siding with James, who, like an artisan entirely absorbed in his work, loses track of time, space and location as he assiduously applies himself. James grabs his headset, into which Sanborn has been yelling that there is limited time and they should probably leave, and throws it to the ground the way a writer may finally unplug their telephone after they have received one too many disruptive calls for the fourth consecutive time.
Bigelow's direction and mastery of mise-en-scene has never been fiercer or more appropriately utilized. There is an epical integument to her work; it is difficult to consider any of her pictures remotely “small”—her characters are titans representative of philosophies and dispositions, the confrontations between whom are staged as grand battles of demigods dueling with one another over righteous quarrels. Bigelow's men are wounded—figuratively as well as literally, like Ralph Fiennes' unlikely hero of Strange Days who will not allow himself to recover from a broken love affair. The Hurt Locker's James is a man who has blanketed himself in the adrenaline of “not knowing”: what terrifies the average man exhilarates him because his job is the most immediate and unadulterated metaphor for placing oneself in the tempestuous food blender of fate while defying its whims by being so consummately au courant in all things. At a certain undecipherable point, James' acceptance grows into something more—it is here unfortunate that the opening salvo and, in this context, judgmental, quote appears at all, because The Hurt Locker explains away James' obsessiveness and derring-do as addiction. Whenever the film does take a needed breather from the heart-racing suspense, the screenplay—written by journalist Mark Boal, whose real-life experiences with an EOD squad in Iraq inspired The Hurt Locker—carefully sheds layers of James' distancing, protective tissue (visually represented by his specialized suit that he elects to peel off in the aforementioned rigged-car scene due to wanting to “die comfortable”). It is revealed, not surprisingly, that James' home life is bizarre: he believes he and his wife are divorced but his wife will not leave him. He vocally questions what that means.
Bigelow follows her own instincts in many disparate avenues of the film's mostly unpredictable narrative. The Hurt Locker's tension does not “escalate” in a manner befitting the average “action movie,” but rather it does continuously augment the stakes of the mortal game until, finally, James must choose between literally—and crazily—sacrificing his life for another for whom nothing can be done or preserving himself to continue on. What makes this rewardingly unique is the cinematic convection of import as each scene follows the other. Already similar to Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell in its tale of a squad of bomb-disposers, Bigelow's film likewise focuses with greater, intimate and crystalline clarity on the circumference of ethical dilemmas that arise, but does so through the exploration of its own building blocks. The Hurt Locker begins with three men—Thompson, Sanborn and Eldridge—joking around and teasing one another like good chums on guy's night. They might be playing pool or driving to a football game. The casualness underscores the tension and the danger. Bigelow, armed with Boal's screenplay, immediately assaults the testosterone-fueled climate of her war movie, commenting on the masculine domination by overtly addressing the instrument the men are utilizing as a facsimile for their penises. The sudden connection between the men and their phallic symbol voluminously lays a sound foundation for the entire film. This baldly vociferous commentary on the film through characters—and the staging thereof—only continues until The Hurt Locker almost inverts itself wholly as a meta-textual distillation of war film tropes for more seemingly enlightened purposes. By reducing the men as guys playing with their specifically male organs, Bigelow ostentatiously alters the context, and this helps to suggest that if James were not in Iraq defusing and disposing bombs, he would be elsewhere.
Being the first Iraq war film to not bother to question the wisdom or morality of the war itself, Bigelow's picture asserts an environment in which some young men thrive under the sweltering heat and chaos while others simply endure it. By engendering an unblinking, incendiary milieu—never tarnished by the kind of cinematic prolix many of her contemporaries would thrust against the film, nor the whirling, fast-cutting machinations that tend to decrease genuine suspense in favor of the insipid faux suspense that alienates the viewer—Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, frequently utilizing four rolling cameras, leave an indelible impression without resorting to lecturing. Pace Francois Truffaut, who believed war action carnage always glamorized combat, Bigelow's film presents grisly imagery without desensitization. The intensity of vision lent to the defusing of the bombs says all that must be said—in her usually extraordinary cinematic shorthand, Bigelow has stated a great deal about the American invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing responsibility to bring a country back from the brink of immolation without accidentally setting the bomb off. The Hurt Locker's insistence to remain aloofly apolitical takes the Iraq war's existence for granted, leaving the accurate history lessons of the Athenian Empire for Chris Hedges.
Bigelow's mise-en-scene is gut-wrenching; often simply staging action in long, merciless takes, she allows her characters to drift about like balloons caught by gusts of wind. As the three characters unify, dissipate, and unify once more, Bigelow's camera follows them about, nonchalantly noting how they drift apart only to resume as a complete whole. The Jordanian soil serves as a convincing substitute for Iraq. Ackroyd's compositions aid Bigelow in creating conflicting realities: the three men may as well be all alone in the world, and yet their story is in many ways a microcosmic study. Bigelow's suspense-building maneuvers are downright primal. She exploits the harshness of the sound of a knife cutting through a car seat. The distorted eyes of a man looking like wicked pools of hatred caught in a rear-view mirror. The blurry, mirage-like shapes of rifle-wielding insurgents. The terrifyingly endless narrow walkways between buildings at night. Bigelow once again resorts to her famed point-of-view shots, which help to place the viewer in the cuplable, perverse position of finding the adrenaline rush in the action, as with Keanu Reeves in Point Break or the criminals at the beginning of Strange Days. Bigelow does repeatedly succumb to the “shaky cam” approach to action that has dominated action cinema since she largely moved away from the genre. Perhaps emulating YouTube videos from Iraq, this visual tendency does not distract from her work, though it does mark a change in her style.
The Hurt Locker's performances are galvanic, suitable for the titans Bigelow must survey, but never threaten to break the spell of a plausible reality. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are all as well-honed in their roles as they must be; the former two pitted as strong rivals, the latter playing a character only sure that death resides nearby, and the farther down the road they go, the less possible it is to retreat from sliding over the precipice. Renner's performance suggests Chris Pine's Captain Kirk halfway burnt-out, still a daredevil hotshot, maybe no longer convinced he is immortal, nevertheless only more cocksure and stubborn than he once was. Mackie has a difficult part because he is in essence Renner's straight man—fortunately for him, Bigelow and Boal's screenplay are less inclined to cheer on James' fearlessness and appetite for adrenaline than merely observe, so when he goes face-to-face with Renner, the deck is not stacked against him. Geraghty is fine in his damaged, scared role; his Eldridge oscillates—he is not actively hostile towards James but he is fairly sure that James has placed a fifty-pound weight on the accelerator to the car headed to ruin.
The Hurt Locker is many things; perfect is not one of them. The picture's denouement is troubled—a return to the United States feels more inauthentic in one minute than anything in “Iraq”—and the screenplay mistakenly becomes a mouthpiece for soldiers who have failed to reinstate themselves in America since “coming home.” The dialogue says too much, and in the wrong way, but once Bigelow commits to it, there is at least some poetry behind the performance. Seeing a connection between his child's jack-in-the-box toy and the devices he has miraculously survived in disposing, James notes that he is a different person than he once was—a revelation which threatens to be absurdly, crushingly vapid—and Bigelow almost immediately gears up a new, closing montage that could be the only conclusion for a film about a war still ongoing.
Point Break, it was written, was about unlikely male bonding. Bigelow has taken another major step in analyzing this phenomenon. With The Hurt Locker, she once again scrutinizes and essays male bonding, but it no longer seems unlikely. Under these conditions, Bigelow seems to ask with each hair-raising scene following the last: How could they not grow closer, how could they not bond?