Staff Sergeant William James, a soldier known for his ability to disarm bombs whilst under fire, joins his latest detail in Iraq and finds he is an unwelcome presence: his new teammates, Sergeant JT Sandborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, are mourning the loss of their previous commanding officer, Sergeant Matt Thompson, whose zen-like approach to bomb disposal is immediately contrasted by James who, comparatively, behaves like a bull in the proverbial china shop. The three soldiers gradually bond during the remaining month of their tour, with Sandborn and Eldridge initially infuriated by James’ impulsive actions in dangerous situations, but eventually respecting his bravery and the efficiency with which he makes life-and-death decisions. They dismantle a bomb in a crowded public area, evade sniper fire in the open desert, and become involved with a local boy who makes a living selling pirate DVDs. James attends sessions with the base therapist, but prefers to relieve stress by playing violent video games and knocking back alcohol. Back home in the States, James is unable to fully adjust to family life, and returns for another tour of duty in Iraq.
The post-9/11 era has led to the political engagement of filmmakers working both within the studio system and on its industrial margins, resulting in a series of films that examine the effect of American military presence on foreign soil, both in the field and back in the United States. Studio investment has led to such films as Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007), Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss (2008) and Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008), while the independent sector has delivered David Ayer’s Harsh Times (2005), Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007) and James. C. Strouse’s Grace is Gone (2007). Most of these projects have received critical respect for their worthy intentions but they have all failed commercially, with audiences unwilling to visit the multiplex to see a Hollywood version of the combat footage, or the grief of bereaved families that has become a fixture of the evening news. An Academy-Award-nominated performance by Tommy Lee Jones could not generate interest In the Valley of Elah, while a positive Sundance reception for the John Cusack vehicle Grace is Gone did not lead to wide distribution. Even the cross-generational star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe could not carry the $70 million Body of Lies beyond a disappointing $39 million at the domestic box office.
By comparison with those films, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker arrived ‘under the radar’, much like the insurgent IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that her mismatched team of soldiers must dismantle if they are to make it through their tour of duty largely unscathed. Unlike the aforementioned films, The Hurt Locker does not weigh in on the political arguments surrounding the Iraq conflict, rather it details the activities, both on duty and off duty, of three soldiers, paying particular attention to the character of Staff Sergeant William James, and examines the male psyche in situations of extreme physical and emotion duress. Rather than relying on a traditional three-act structure, and the mentor-student conflict that is characteristic of the American military movie, or the fatalistic relationships that provide the dramatic friction in Bigelow’s own work – such as the fetishistic cop thriller Blue Steel (1989) or her cyberpunk excursion Strange Days (1995) – The Hurt Locker opts for an episodic narrative, one that probably stems from screenwriter Paul Boal’s prior experience as a war correspondent. Bigelow’s film follows James, Sandborn and Eldridge from mission to mission, taking in their downtime and interaction with the local community. Almost as if she is working with the virtual-reality technology that was integral to Strange Days (video units which allow users to experience the extreme activities of others, in the first person), Bigelow takes to the mean streets of Iraq (the film was shot in Jordan) and captures much of the action from the perspective of her protagonists. Establishing overhead shots and sweeping pans are not part of the aesthetic; much of the suspense of The Hurt Locker stems from the unknown, the threat of enemy – or friendly – fire, which could be waiting on the next patrol, around the next corner, or beyond the next road block.
The title refers to the place deep inside where these men put away their pain, frustration and fear, and Bigelow expertly conveys James’ ability to substitute emotion with adrenaline; an unlikely ‘hero’ and team leader, James (portrayed brilliantly by Jeremy Renner) is not a typical ‘action man’ and Renner’s somewhat pudgy features and short stature would usually find him lost amidst an ensemble in a Hollywood war epic rather than taking centre stage. Bigelow has, of course, made two earlier films about groups with charismatic leaders: the vampire thriller Near Dark (1987) with Lance Henriksen as the head of a makeshift family of bloodsuckers is an enduring cult item; and Point Break (1991), with Patrick Swayze as the sky-diving mastermind of a gang of bank robbers who mix crime with extreme sports, has become something of a pop-culture classic. However, while those films were undeniably exciting and technically proficient, they were firmly rooted within Hollywood genre and the folklore of the American outlaw, their moments of psychological insight occasionally at odds with the mythic sensibility applied to main protagonists. The Hurt Locker strips away such iconography to capture ordinary people undertaking day-to-day duties in a morally-questionable international conflict. The action sequences are excellent, but it is the small, telling, explorations of character that linger: a heavy after-hours drinking session which lurches uncomfortably from joking to a dark night of the soul; James opening a juice box for his fellow soldier whilst pinned down by sniper fire in the desert; Sandborn breaking down in the final days of the tour and demanding that James explain how he keeps his sanity amidst the chaos.
The character of James is something of an enigma throughout, as perpetually in motion as Bigelow’s hand-held camera, but the final ten minutes find him back with his family in the United States and bring his seemingly-contradictory nature (careless yet caring, impetuous yet informed) into focus: in a suburban supermarket, James stares at an entire isle of cereal, defeated by having to make a decision about whether to go with the Cheerios or the Captain Crunch. Eventually selecting one of the varieties on offer, he meets up with his wife (Evangeline Lilly), who has already loaded up her trolley. James can only function amidst chaos, and can only make a decision when it is a life-or-death choice that has a definitive outcome. His love for his son is evident in the tender manner in which he cradles the child, but as he talks to his family about h