The Hurt Locker

10/07/2024

   Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is fraught with tension and rife with predictability. It manages to engage the viewer in the most suspenseful of situations without surprising us if we give much thought to the narrative developments. One might not be too surprised to find that the bomb disposal expert in the opening scene, Thompson (Guy Pearce), will soon end up dead, nor that the boy that his replacement, Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), befriends will appear to have died as well. We might not be too astonished either when the traumatised Eldridge, who feels he failed to save Thompson’s life, tells his psychiatrist he might understand Eldridge’s situation better if he were closer to the front line, and the psychiatrist gets killed when he enters the fray. Again, we might not be too shocked to see the head of a team of private military contractors the squad comes across in the desert getting promptly killed. 

     Yet if the film from an aloof perspective can appear obvious, from an immediate one it can seem constantly tense. This is partly the difference between a competent script and hyper-efficient directorial control. There are various ways we can look at this but a good place to start is what might seem hardly like direction at all. Speaking of the actors, Bigelow says “I tend to like to direct with a light hand, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I feel like if I’ve cast it correctly, not that my job is done, because obviously you need to contextualize and block and choreograph cameras and actors and background and art direct, but at the same time that’s a lot of the work.” (Slate) By casting Pearce as Thompson, she creates a level of suspense less likely to be present if the actor were unknown. We are more inclined to accept a character’s demise if we presume the actor playing the role is obscure enough within cinema generally for them to be easy to bump off in a film specifically. Pearce in 2009 was a film star, not a minor character actor, and so Bigelow would have well known that by casting him the potential predictability of an opening scene, one that looks like it might all end disastrously, is going to be countered by the expectation that the film is unlikely to kill off a star performer within the first ten minutes. The film does it again less conspicuously later with Ralph Fiennes in charge of some private military contractors, and he gets killed after several minutes of screen time. Fiennes' death will be less shocking for at least two reasons: it doesn’t come at the beginning of the film when we are ripe for immediate character identification and, because we have already seen one star down, we won’t be so surprised to know another will be removed quickly from the film as well. Nevertheless, in such casting, a predictable script can become less so when filmed. As Bigelow says, "I think that an audience approaches a particular actor within his or her relative stature with a degree of expectation, and if that actor is going to come in harm’s way you think, ‘Oh, well, it will be dangerous, it might be tense, but they’re going to survive’. But if you take that out of the equation it definitely amplifies the tension.” (Electric Sheep

          However, more than this is required and if critics make much of Bigelow’s handling of action sequences as if an anomaly, in a condescending assumption that Bigelow usually handles them well despite being a woman, it rests here on a camera that has a nervous system. We might be falling into a suspect piece of anthropomorphism but it is potentially a useful way of distinguishing earlier war films from more recent ones. When we look at films from even the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties like Cross of Iron and The Big Red One, the camera languidly captures the terrors, feeling under no obligation to be part of the mayhem. Saving Private Ryan in the late 90s would have done more than most to change this, with its famous opening of the Normandy Landings but it was part of a general direction of travel, with filmmakers increasingly absorbing the digital revolution as the steadicam became the shakycam. Before, cameras had nerves of steel; now it is as if the shaking hand Tom Hanks’ character displayed in Spielberg’s film had become the one holding the camera. 

    Throughout The Hurt Locker, the camera plays the role of an agitated, fretful onlooker, often darting from figure to figure, abruptly offering microzooms that offer a correlative to the trigger finger the soldiers are unwilling to use and that leads to Eldridge’s crisis when he is reluctant to fire at the man outside the butcher’s shop who has the mobile phone that kills Thompson. The film was shot by Ken Loach’s long-time cameraman Barry Ackroyd, and while in Loach’s work he would offer a style of worried immediacy, with Paul Greengrass in United 93, Ackroyd exaggerated the Loach style into the hyper-ventilative. Ackroyd says: “what Paul introduced with the Bourne movies was the modern style of endless multiple perspectives. Going into the film with Kathryn, I tried to bring that same kind of instant knowledge, which my background in documentary gave me: You just walk into a room and place your camera relative to the light and the camera.” (Filmmaker) The question then becomes one of balancing logistical precision with identificatory emotion. If the film moves too far away from the danger the characters are in, by showing the layout of the situation, feeling loses out to comprehending the variables; if the anxiety becomes too central, the viewer fails to comprehend exactly what is going on. 

      From this perspective, perhaps the strongest of the seven or so action sequences in the film are the first and the last. They manage to convey the anxiety of a given situation, with the viewer understanding the complexities involved, and, interestingly, the question of failure. While accomplishment is all very well that isn’t what makes a film interesting even if many a commercially successful work ends with optimism. The Hurt Locker’s potential problem is it has a central character who is brilliant at what he does and risks moving from the anxious to the curious: from the tension involved in the work to being intrigued by why he does it. We will say a little about Sergeant James’ character but first those two action sequences. In the initial one, the team uses a remote-controlled buggie robot to blow up a bomb placed on the road, but when a wheel comes off the trailer, Thompson suits up and places the charges himself. We are made well aware of the size of the blast as Thompson says it will take up much of the road, but they will be okay if they are far enough away and behind the Humvee. After placing the charges he starts to retreat but there is the butcher with the mobile phone and Eldridge is in two minds over what he should do. Would he be shooting a man in cold blood who just happens to have a phone in his hand, or saving Thompson’s life? He lets the man live, and Thompson dies. 

        Throughout the sequence, Bigelow balances well the risks to the men and the potential desires of the locals. Though not unproblematically, the Iraqis remain anonymous figures, often reaction shots or point of view shots given no counter shot to suggest a broader subjectivity, the film makes clear that those looking on needn’t be overly worried about Thompson, without suggesting they are keen for him to die. These soldiers are strangers in the locals’ midst, tooled up and ordering people about. There isn’t much there to like. But do any of them wish, or have the capacity, to kill Thompson? It turns out the butcher does. Though some might have a problem with the film making the Iraqis vague and anonymous, dramatically in this scene it makes sense. Bigelow needs to show the threat is omnipresent. Creating Iraqi characterisation, or proposing motivational gestures that would indicate the locals are happy the Americans are there or clearly wishing they weren’t, would have undermined the tension the sequence seeks. The purpose of the scene is to suggest that this a dangerous situation partly because any one of the local people could at any moment detonate the bomb. This means the camera needs to be alert to any gesture from the Iraqis and it gives to the scene a paranoiac sense that anybody and everybody is potentially out to get them. The viewer might think that the American shouldn’t be there at all, but that isn’t useful in understanding the specifics of the scene. When Bigelow says “regardless of what you feel about whether they should be there or not be there…I think the humanity was definitely what was most important, to look at the individual and how he copes with an extremely, almost unimaginably risky situation.” (Electric Sheep) Some might see this as Bigelow politically copping out, but we can say specifically why it is a good idea that she doesn’t make political justice central. It would disperse the tension.

         In the final action sequence, we have the inverse of the earlier one. While in the first, we have numerous locals all potentially a threat, here we have an Iraqi man who is unequivocally one and the only one finally in danger: someone (Suhail Dabbac) who is strapped up with explosives and yet proclaiming his innocence. He is a good man we’re told, and it seems he has been forced into becoming a suicide bomber: he has a family and doesn’t want to die. Sergeant James tries to help but sees that the explosives have been strapped on with the aid of padlocks and the sergeant has only a little over two minutes to remove them. The scene moves from the risks the soldiers feel with a suicide bomber amongst them, to trying to extricate the man from the annihilating device. It ends like the opening scene in failure: James, with only a few seconds left and with still several locks to remove, apologises and runs for cover as we witness another massive blast. 

    If the film is at its best in these two scenes it may be for several reasons that include the political without any clear statement of ideological intent manifest. It also reveals an aspect of James’ psychology, even humanity, as he apologises several times to the man he cannot save. The film has thus far presented James as reckless and even nihilistic, with the viewer well aware that he has a wife and child but perhaps more aware of an aside he makes about his childhood after we see his torso covered in numerous fag burns. His mother dropped him when he was little, he says. His response to the man about to die who speaks of having a family is met by James with feeling and not cynicism. Politically, these two action sequences can be viewed as evidence of futility: that the US in Iraq aren't doing anybody any favours and least of all themselves as Thompson fails to save his own life and James fails to save the Iraqis

   We can then potentially read the repetition we find as proof of this futility: Bigelow has made a film that is interested in the pointlessness of the action while simultaneously showing its brilliance as action. She might believe she has no take on the war but nothing in it indicates the men having been fighting a just war; instead, just a war. The film opens with a remark by journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” Before the end of the film, James will return to the States and to his family but cleaning the guttering, buying groceries in the supermarket and playing with his kid cannot match the thrill of battle. The film ends with his return to Iraq and we may be left wondering that, if the US has a serious problem in its war on drugs, it also has a serious war problem (war as a drug), with the two coming together in a foreign policy that might work wonders at alleviating the boredom of men, like Sergeant James's, but plays havoc with the lives of millions who die in wars that America cannot win but can continually fight. The “episodic, bomb-encounter set-piece architecture that secures the narrative's present (and even tilts future-ward) inescapably links each new instance with the prior ones" Alex Vernon says. "...Correspondingly", he adds, "the film's structure enacts the genre function through the repetition of the familiar with a difference” (Modern Fiction Studies). But the film also shows that this repetition with a difference doesn’t make much of a difference. It is as political as the film perhaps needs to get, and while it leaves the Iraqis all but absent, except the little boy who turns out to be alive after James assumes he is dead, we might read the film as one saying that, though it is the Americans who are constantly present in the film; it is they who should be absent in Iraq.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is fraught with tension and rife with predictability. It manages to engage the viewer in the most suspenseful of situations without surprising us if we give much thought to the narrative developments. One might not be too surprised to find that the bomb disposal expert in the opening scene, Thompson (Guy Pearce), will soon end up dead, nor that the boy that his replacement, Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), befriends will appear to have died as well. We might not be too astonished either when the traumatised Eldridge, who feels he failed to save Thompson's life, tells his psychiatrist he might understand Eldridge's situation better if he were closer to the front line, and the psychiatrist gets killed when he enters the fray. Again, we might not be too shocked to see the head of a team of private military contractors the squad comes across in the desert getting promptly killed.

Yet if the film from an aloof perspective can appear obvious, from an immediate one it can seem constantly tense. This is partly the difference between a competent script and hyper-efficient directorial control. There are various ways we can look at this but a good place to start is what might seem hardly like direction at all. Speaking of the actors, Bigelow says "I tend to like to direct with a light hand, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I feel like if I've cast it correctly, not that my job is done, because obviously you need to contextualize and block and choreograph cameras and actors and background and art direct, but at the same time that's a lot of the work." (Slate) By casting Pearce as Thompson, she creates a level of suspense less likely to be present if the actor were unknown. We are more inclined to accept a character's demise if we presume the actor playing the role is obscure enough within cinema generally for them to be easy to bump off in a film specifically. Pearce in 2009 was a film star, not a minor character actor, and so Bigelow would have well known that by casting him the potential predictability of an opening scene, one that looks like it might all end disastrously, is going to be countered by the expectation that the film is unlikely to kill off a star performer within the first ten minutes. The film does it again less conspicuously later with Ralph Fiennes in charge of some private military contractors, and he gets killed after several minutes of screen time. Fiennes' death will be less shocking for at least two reasons: it doesn't come at the beginning of the film when we are ripe for immediate character identification and, because we have already seen one star down, we won't be so surprised to know another will be removed quickly from the film as well. Nevertheless, in such casting, a predictable script can become less so when filmed. As Bigelow says, I think that an audience approaches a particular actor within his or her relative stature with a degree of expectation, and if that actor is going to come in harm's way you think, 'Oh, well, it will be dangerous, it might be tense, but they're going to survive'. But if you take that out of the equation it definitely amplifies the tension." (Electric Sheep)

However, more than this is required and if critics make much of Bigelow's handling of action sequences as if an anomaly, in a condescending assumption that Bigelow usually handles them well despite being a woman, it rests here on a camera that has a nervous system. We might be falling into a suspect piece of anthropomorphism but it is potentially a useful way of distinguishing earlier war films from more recent ones. When we look at films from even the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties like Cross of Iron and The Big Red One, the camera languidly captures the terrors, feeling under no obligation to be part of the mayhem. Saving Private Ryan in the late 90s would have done more than most to change this, with its famous opening of the Normandy Landings but it was part of a general direction of travel, with filmmakers increasingly absorbing the digital revolution as the steadicam became the shakycam. Before, cameras had nerves of steel; now it is as if the shaking hand Tom Hanks' character displayed in Spielberg's film had become the one holding the camera.

Throughout The Hurt Locker, the camera plays the role of an agitated, fretful onlooker, often darting from figure to figure, abruptly offering microzooms that offer a correlative to the trigger finger the soldiers are unwilling to use and that leads to Eldridge's crisis when he is reluctant to fire at the man outside the butcher's shop who has the mobile phone that kills Thompson. The film was shot by Ken Loach's long-time cameraman Barry Ackroyd, and while in Loach's work he would offer a style of worried immediacy, with Paul Greengrass in United 93, Ackroyd exaggerated the Loach style into the hyper-ventilative. Ackroyd says: "what Paul introduced with the Bourne movies was the modern style of endless multiple perspectives. Going into the film with Kathryn, I tried to bring that same kind of instant knowledge, which my background in documentary gave me: You just walk into a room and place your camera relative to the light and the camera." (Filmmaker) The question then becomes one of balancing logistical precision with identificatory emotion. If the film moves too far away from the danger the characters are in, by showing the layout of the situation, feeling loses out to comprehending the variables; if the anxiety becomes too central, the viewer fails to comprehend exactly what is going on.

From this perspective, perhaps the strongest of the seven or so action sequences in the film are the first and the last. They manage to convey the anxiety of a given situation, with the viewer understanding the complexities involved, and, interestingly, the question of failure. While accomplishment is all very well that isn't what makes a film interesting even if many a commercially successful work ends with optimism. The Hurt Locker's potential problem is it has a central character who is brilliant at what he does and risks moving from the anxious to the curious: from the tension involved in the work to being intrigued by why he does it. We will say a little about Sergeant James' character but first those two action sequences. In the initial one, the team uses a remote-controlled buggie robot to blow up a bomb placed on the road, but when a wheel comes off the trailer, Thompson suits up and places the charges himself. We are made well aware of the size of the blast as Thompson says it will take up much of the road, but they will be okay if they are far enough away and behind the Humvee. After placing the charges he starts to retreat but there is the butcher with the mobile phone and Eldridge is in two minds over what he should do. Would he be shooting a man in cold blood who just happens to have a phone in his hand, or saving Thompson's life? He lets the man live, and Thompson dies.

Throughout the sequence, Bigelow balances well the risks to the men and the potential desires of the locals. Though not unproblematically, the Iraqis remain anonymous figures, often reaction shots or point of view shots given no counter shot to suggest a broader subjectivity, the film makes clear that those looking on needn't be overly worried about Thompson, without suggesting they are keen for him to die. These soldiers are strangers in the locals' midst, tooled up and ordering people about. There isn't much there to like. But do any of them wish, or have the capacity, to kill Thompson? It turns out the butcher does. Though some might have a problem with the film making the Iraqis vague and anonymous, dramatically in this scene it makes sense. Bigelow needs to show the threat is omnipresent. Creating Iraqi characterisation, or proposing motivational gestures that would indicate the locals are happy the Americans are there or clearly wishing they weren't, would have undermined the tension the sequence seeks. The purpose of the scene is to suggest that this a dangerous situation partly because any one of the local people could at any moment detonate the bomb. This means the camera needs to be alert to any gesture from the Iraqis and it gives to the scene a paranoiac sense that anybody and everybody is potentially out to get them. The viewer might think that the American shouldn't be there at all, but that isn't useful in understanding the specifics of the scene. When Bigelow says "regardless of what you feel about whether they should be there or not be there...I think the humanity was definitely what was most important, to look at the individual and how he copes with an extremely, almost unimaginably risky situation." (Electric Sheep) Some might see this as Bigelow politically copping out, but we can say specifically why it is a good idea that she doesn't make political justice central. It would disperse the tension.

In the final action sequence, we have the inverse of the earlier one. While in the first, we have numerous locals all potentially a threat, here we have an Iraqi man who is unequivocally one and the only one finally in danger: someone (Suhail Dabbac) who is strapped up with explosives and yet proclaiming his innocence. He is a good man we're told, and it seems he has been forced into becoming a suicide bomber: he has a family and doesn't want to die. Sergeant James tries to help but sees that the explosives have been strapped on with the aid of padlocks and the sergeant has only a little over two minutes to remove them. The scene moves from the risks the soldiers feel with a suicide bomber amongst them, to trying to extricate the man from the annihilating device. It ends like the opening scene in failure: James, with only a few seconds left and with still several locks to remove, apologises and runs for cover as we witness another massive blast.

If the film is at its best in these two scenes it may be for several reasons that include the political without any clear statement of ideological intent manifest. It also reveals an aspect of James' psychology, even humanity, as he apologises several times to the man he cannot save. The film has thus far presented James as reckless and even nihilistic, with the viewer well aware that he has a wife and child but perhaps more aware of an aside he makes about his childhood after we see his torso covered in numerous fag burns. His mother dropped him when he was little, he says. His response to the man about to die who speaks of having a family is met by James with feeling and not cynicism. Politically, these two action sequences can be viewed as evidence of futility: that the US in Iraq aren't doing anybody any favours and least of all themselves as Thompson fails to save his own life and James fails to save the Iraqis.

We can then potentially read the repetition we find as proof of this futility: Bigelow has made a film that is interested in the pointlessness of the action while simultaneously showing its brilliance as action. She might believe she has no take on the war but nothing in it indicates the men having been fighting a just war; instead, just a war. The film opens with a remark by journalist Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Before the end of the film, James will return to the States and to his family but cleaning the guttering, buying groceries in the supermarket and playing with his kid cannot match the thrill of battle. The film ends with his return to Iraq and we may be left wondering that, if the US has a serious problem in its war on drugs, it also has a serious war problem (war as a drug), with the two coming together in a foreign policy that might work wonders at alleviating the boredom of men, like Sergeant James's, but plays havoc with the lives of millions who die in wars that America cannot win but can continually fight. The "episodic, bomb-encounter set-piece architecture that secures the narrative's present (and even tilts future-ward) inescapably links each new instance with the prior ones Alex Vernon says. ...Correspondingly, he adds, the film's structure enacts the genre function through the repetition of the familiar with a difference" (Modern Fiction Studies). But the film also shows that this repetition with a difference doesn't make much of a difference. It is as political as the film perhaps needs to get, and while it leaves the Iraqis all but absent, except the little boy who turns out to be alive after James assumes he is dead, we might read the film as one saying that, though it is the Americans who are constantly present in the film; it is they who should be absent in Iraq.


© Tony McKibbin