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Film Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2008; Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning thumbscrewer doesn’t necessarily have any radically new or fascinating insights into the physical and psychological toll of warfare, but her masterful control of tension and visual space makes The Hurt Locker a notable entry into the burgeoning Iraq War genre.

This is not good.

Focusing on a three-man Army bomb squad in the final month-and-a-half of their tour, Bigelow’s film (from Mark Boal’s taut script) is prefaced with a heavy-handed pronouncement: war is a drug. We are not for one moment allowed to lose sight of the clear adrenaline rush that Sergeant William James (more on this character’s conspicuous name in a moment) gets from his high-risk work investigating and defusing bombs. Jeremy Renner’s Will James oozes cocky machismo and sucks on quasi-post-coital cigarettes after each mission, but even this embodiment of American masculine swagger can’t shake the demons of war for long. The soldier’s inability to adjust to civilian family life has been a war movie cliche since the post-WWII The Best Years of Our Lives, if not longer, and Boal and Bigelow trot out the well-worn trope with little concern for its expiry date.

But The Hurt Locker is not about reinventing the brain of the war movie; it’s about giving it a lean, muscular, well-proportioned form. Bigelow indulges in flashy but undoubtedly poetic slo-mo shots of dust rising and settling after a blast, brief, zen-like snapshots of environments shattered by man. The various extended combat sequences are the true directorly tours-de-force, however, though they might more properly be called anticipation of combat. Bigelow keenly establishes the geography of her settings with initial sweeps and cuts (Jordan poses for war-torn Iraq, helped along by the casting of actual Iraqi refugees), so that when action begins to ratchet into motion, the audience knows precisely how close to deadly peril everyone stands. The superlative adjectives have been overstrained already on this film, but one still holds true: riveting.

Although a bit more displayed awareness for the film’s place in the war movie canon might have been preferable (an Iraq film with cultural knowing of Jarhead and the action set pieces of The Hurt Locker would be a formidable beast indeed), the lead character’s name hints at a veiled resonance embedded in Bigelow and Boal’s work. William James was, of course, one of the great minds of early psychology, and the founder and leading proponent of functional psychology.

Red wire or blue wire?

This school of psychology emphasizes the human mind’s active, ongoing adaptation to external environmental stimuli, precisely the sort of stimuli that cannot be replicated in controlled experiments. In a like mind to his famed namesake, Sergeant James has little patience for official attempts to tame the rabid monster that is war, and believes it needs to be confronted on its own terms, in its putrid, bone-strewn lair. He is repeatedly called a “wild man” by his more professional peers, but James feels instinctively that war itself is wild, and that any attempt to approach it as anything else is counter-intuitive. What he is, he only really is in the theater of war; his behaviour is his identity, and his identity is tied to war. Civilian life cannot engage him, for its adaptations are too proscribed, not active or extreme enough. Inscribed in Boal’s naming of the character, then, is a fixed psychological standpoint, in the academic sense, a clever nod to the film’s deeper possibilities.

Still, as entertainingly-staged as The Hurt Locker is, it has its weaknesses. It loses its momentum as the second hour winds on, and the various big-name actors in minor roles prove more distracting than anything else. Furthermore, those not of a mind to agree with my William James-functional psychology leap might find it lacking in intellectual heft and too invested in narratives of masculinity. But when Bigelow tightens the vice on us (and she does so often), such concerns are moot, and the edges of our seats bear our weight.

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