Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2008)

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The Hurt Locker is one of the few perfect pieces of cinema to come out of America in the first decade of the new millennium.  It's a sum of Bigelow's career to-date, hitting the perfect zeitgeist of contemporary style and commentary, simultaneously looking like everything and feeling like nothing else out at the time.  The Hurt Locker's merits aren't in question but now, with more than six years passed, is it destined to linger or has its moment come and gone?  Andrew and Kyle both say it will be with us forever, but for very different reasons.

In some shit nowAndrewCommentaryBannerA funny thing happened to me when I got done watching The Hurt Locker again.  It's the same nerve-wracking "Dear God let me stop grinding my teeth" experience that I had the first time through.  But I had built myself up somewhat as this being the revelatory moment, the film that Bigelow made that finally freed her from comparisons to anyone else and separated her from the pack.

That was a bad thought.  Her appeal, so far, has been ingraining her films so completely in a sort of hyper-realized style of the moment.  We had Near Dark with its harsh lighting and grotesque special effects recalling the worlds of Michael Mann and John Carpenter.  Then Strange Days mixing the '90s tech crazed economic boom with other genre mixers like Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.  Now The Hurt Locker, which on this watch through, has more than a passing resemblance to the "torture porn" era of films post-9/11 with an emphasis on an unseen foreign evil torturing our American characters through shaky cameras and inhospitable surroundings.

There's a lot I want to work through here, but how did you get through Camp Victory this time?

Kyle Commentary BannerI was hit a little less hard by the suspense and more impressed with her way of handling the personas and attitudes the war is cultivating in the characters—personas and attitudes that are often unpleasant and damaging at best, emerging in people who are still presented as generally "good." The "war is a drug" quote at the beginning of the movie pervaded every scene in a much stronger way for me this time around, perhaps  partly because the movie is slightly (very slightly) less culturally immediate now a couple of years down the road, but also because I felt a little more able to step back from the raw suspense this time around.

The great strength here for me isn't so much related to the movie as a breakthrough in Bigelow's career—though we should talk about why this was the case commercially—but as one of the first big mainstream movies of the current generation that managed to tackle an ongoing war with a complex, nuanced attitude toward our own troops' involvement in it. This isn't Redacted, trying to shock viewers into accepting American atrocities, and it's not Lone Survivor or Act of Valor pushing audiences to feel as if they're honoring troops by being witness to overblown action movie spectacle. It is, however, using many of the same slick, exciting film-making maneuvers of those sorts of movies and inserting really disturbing, often casual-seeming observations about how the war rewires people's attitudes and values.

In some sense I feel almost like the more important aspects of the movie get lost because they aren't hammered a little harder, but I credit Bigelow for using genre conventions—and we should definitely talk more about the gritty, shaky torture-porn elements you brought up—to make the movie seem less critical on the surface than it ends up being. That brings up the question again of why this was such a mainstream breakthrough for Bigelow—why do you think that was?Surgical precisionNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe structure of the conflict has a lot to do with it.  On the broadest surface of the story we have our guys versus their guys.  If you're an audience member who wants to look at it through that lens alone, you can see how the hero comes out of Iraq more focused and still heads back in.

Bigelow cloaking the film in action tropes and increasing the escalation of Will's bomb disposal help that perception go down.  But if you want to go slightly more nuanced, and pay attention to that quote from the beginning, the way that Bigelow shows the war machine not as a dehumanizing force but something painfully universal is very unique.  That gets the more "intellectual" crowd in.

Finally, how the film was released helped its reputation in advance and now in hindsight.  If you look at the raw box office gross, it barely made its money back domestically and at its peak it was in just a shade over 500 theaters.  But with those details so engrained in the film those who got to see it walked away with a visceral experience that shakes everyone.  The Hurt Locker gets a mythic aura around it, so that when awards season comes along and the foreign markets get a taste, they were able to go bigger and it exploded on the promise from the word of mouth from its careful release.  The method of production and release follows the story outline of the film itself and Bigelow's direction.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the most interesting things to me is the point you made first—that it's possible to see the arc of the film in such a way that Renner's character is a hero. You get that last scene positioning him almost as a 90s action movie icon, walking at the camera, center in the frame, heavy guitar music blaring, and the text onscreen resetting the "Days Left In Tour" counter that's been ticking down. On a formal level, it's absolutely a sequence that says, "Look at this badass charging bravely off into danger"—a gut-level version of the scene where David Morse's colonel beams stupidly about how Renner is "a cowboy."

And yet this immediately follows scenes showing him back in the U.S., numbly slogging through civilian life with a wife and child—who he leaves to go back to Iraq. We don't get to know the wife character really, but we do get enough to make it clear that A) she wants him home for the sake of their relationship and the family, and B) he doesn't have to go back, or at least as soon as he does. There aren't any scenes showing this conflict worked out, so that last shot is essentially urging us through the form to root for and admire a character who has made an extremely selfish decision to feed his own ego. You could argue that his decision isn't selfish because he's saving lives by diffusing bombs, but the movie usually only shows us the damage and death said bombs can cause when it's punctuating the suspense. The Guy Pearce character dies at the beginning primarily to put the audience permanently on edge, so it's really only the Iraqi civilian who Renner's character can't save that serves as an actual illustration of the potential tragedy to be averted.The piecesNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI'm not sure it's fair to say that the Colonel stupidly calls Will a "cowboy".  He is the closest equivalent to an American frontiersman that we have until space travel is back on the menu.  Renner's casting on optics alone is a masterstroke here with his fresh-faced handsomeness and piercing eyes recalling Shane and Lawrence of Arabia all at once.  Bigelow doesn't shy away from the cowboy comparisons at all, having Will enter and exit the movie by beating the dusty trail.  Even his wife at home, who we don't really get enough information about to feel anything for, is a standard trope for cowboys as she represents the threat of domesticity - a threat that he obviously responds to and conquers at the end.

Keep in mind also that this isn't Bigelow's first trek around the cowboy ring either.  Near Dark has characters walking around in spurs and livestock wrangling.  What makes it so complicated here is that this charged American image of the cowboy is put into a situation where there is no moral distinction between who is good and who is bad.  We identify with our protagonists because the camera is with them the whole time and they survive.  But that one late-film detour into the professor's home shows how it could have been different and each side relies on actively misidentifying the other to get a grip on their current surroundings.

That's part of why this film hit global audiences so well too.  Yes, we're still cheering on a mostly white cast of soldiers, but there's no context for the war.  All the conflict is from the way Will approaches the bombs, which is built almost entirely from the character of Alexei from K-19: The Widowmaker.  The scene where he pulls out the scraps of unexploded bombs and discusses the personalities of the people who create them is the key to the film.  Alexei found faith in his soldiers through what they built.  Will gets the strength to go on by playing an evolving game of chess with an enemy he can only feel through their attempts to kill him.  Both are a growing response to a world where material consumption is a stand in for conflict - a feeling of alienation that The Hurt Locker brutally embraces.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYou honed in on a very different aspect of "the cowboy scene" than I did, and I like the idea that he's presented as a lone wolf on an undeveloped "frontier" and not one of many soldiers in an unjustified war—stripping the real-world context from the events, as you said, and replacing it with a more romantic narrative.

The impact of that scene for me though is that we're seeing a higher-up's reaction to Will as one of amused admiration. He's a wild man, a "cowboy," he's diffused 830-something bombs—it's a childish, alpha-male response to a sequence of events in which the character has acted recklessly and irresponsibly yet again. He happened to "win" again this time, but not because he's an effective leader or a careful soldier. That his total disregard for anyone and anything but his own obsession with proving his individual prowess ends up being rewarded says a lot about the culture in which these characters are operating.

I especially like the comparison you're making to the American Wild West when applied to the scene where Will's team encounters the "contractors"/mercenaries in the desert. The utter lawlessness of that scene—Fiennes' character running out into the open under enemy fire to shoot two escaping, unarmed bounties in the back—and the sleazy joy with which he quips "I forgot, they're worth five-thousand dead or alive" would be right at home in a western.No vacancyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat lawlessness is what forces The Hurt Locker into an interesting dialogue with other war films.  Will is so perfect a soldier because he completely embraces the material realities of his existence.  "If this car goes, I go" so his philosophy seems to be.  Which is why the scene when the squad exposes themselves to each other after the sniper battle it is something of a false start when in other films it would be the moment the team "comes together".

His teammates form their bonds still with each other and even then distrust what they can or cannot do, going so far as to suggesting that they are immediately removable.  So why are they this way?  This is what brings me to the problem suggested by the lack of any moral grounding in The Hurt Locker.  No one understands what they were doing there and barely able to keep themselves from tearing their bodies and minds apart.  When Will undresses we see that his skin is the same - trying to rip itself from his body.  Though no one addresses it directly, Eldrige has his therapist to try to work out his "Why?" through, Sanborn thinks about the son he may or may not have one day.  Will just accepts and the unspoken national confusion and rage going through America finds its outlet through his skin.

Going back to the quote at the beginning - war is his painkiller now, and the scary thing is that it doesn't dehumanize him, it makes him more relatable and focused.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe fact that all three of them are keenly aware of how badly they need to be removed from the situation—and that Sanborn and Eldridge are counting down the days until they can leave Iraq, while Will just fully immerses himself in the turmoil—makes some of the uglier moments of the movie all the more effective.

Bigelow does a good job showing the effects of their situation on the soldiers themselves—such as the constant casual referring to Iraqis as "Hadjis"—without demonizing them in a simple, black and white way. A great moment early on has soldiers surrounding a car that's driving into a bomb scene: the driver parks his car rather than reversing and driving away as the troops command him to—he may pose a threat, but he also may be a regular civilian trying to drive around his city, and who becomes frustrated when his life is disrupted yet again by an unwanted foreign presence. He's eventually pulled from the car and hauled away, as one of the characters jokes, "Well, if he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now."

Point of view plays an incredibly important role in the movie—imagine how that scene would play if we were watching the driver's story—because part of what Bigelow is doing is showing us the way the constant stress and uncertainty of these people's daily lives changes their behavior. The paranoia of the characters' lives make the scene powerful, all the more so because it explains but doesn't excuse their harsh responses to the civilians around them. The movie contextualizes an emotional response that is ugly as a result of a situation that the characters can't control. Considering that the Iraqi man in the scene is most likely going to be carted off to prison somewhere, where he will stay indefinitely, this scene is way more horrifying than it may initially be received as.The standoffNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat scene serves as a great setup to the counterpoint offered by the professor encounter toward the end of the film.  Bigelow frames both the driver and Will in unclear identities that are nonetheless clouded in menace.  But the American soldier is clearly the more menacing with his blast suit obscuring his face, while we never get a clear look at the driver through the dirty windshield and the way Bigelow blocks our vision of him through the vehicle.  It's a subtle reminder of Will's philosophy, through the material the enemy is on the other side.

But I was struggling with some feelings about this scene that you helped me contextualize.  Both of these people are just trying to do their jobs.  It just so happens that one is a foreign invader, and the other is trying to drive his car.  Pearce's death in the opening scene, made more frightening because we don't see the explosion hit him but the invisible shrapnel takes him down anyway, is what makes all this fear possible.

It's darkly funny in a way.  Because they embrace their roles as the regimented peacekeepers so thoroughly it prevents them from ever living their lives away from the edge as anything can kill them. If they were just a little less stringent on the rules, they might get some measure of stability, even if its evil in a way, like the mercenaries.  But losing that stability and, well, we'd likely have ended up with more Abu Ghraib - a horrific moral outcome.

Which brings up a question I want to end this with.  Do you feel this movie is anti- anything?  War, conflict, domesticity, love, anything at all.  Because I'm not convinced that it really is an anti-war film as Will is destined to lead a broken, traumatic life away from the battlefield.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't think it's anti-war in any kind of neat or straightforward sense, but I do think it makes points that could be leveraged in an anti-war argument. The thing that stays with me the most after this second viewing is ultimately the way the war has essentially ruined Will—not in an ultimate sense, but in a way that prevents him from pursuing happiness in a normal life the way Sanborn and Eldridge do.


Newer Andrew cutout commentaryAnd that lack of any easy out is part of why The Hurt Locker is going to stay with our cinematic consciousness for a long time.  The film radiates heat and grit while refusing to give us any moral compass to get our bearings in, carrying all the hallmarks of then-contemporary American horror with no villain to pin it all on.  That we still haven't decided on a collective decision on the second Iraq War speaks to how spot-on this ambiguity was.  We may never have an answer, but The Hurt Locker has some ideas about why.

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Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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