Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker does indeed hurt. It is a 131minute impeccably orchestrated assault on the senses and sensibilities. This portrait of a small group of U.S. soldiers dismantling bombs in Iraq works simultaneously as abstract avant-garde art and as brutally real documentary-style filmmaking. Exploding with tension, danger, dirt, and bombs, the film delivers a portrait of men employed by the War Machine and shows how they manage this impossibly brutal job. You want to know how war feels, as in the true sensory capacity of the word “feel”? My guess is that watching The Hurt Locker would be a good place to start. Exploiting every fraction of our senses, Bigelow throws us into the middle of the fray, puts us inside the shoes of the soldiers, and makes us dive head-first into a world where risk, danger, and death are an everyday reality — the reality of war, and in particular, the Iraq War.
In generic terms, The Hurt Locker isn’t too far removed from the standard Hollywood war movie. It consists of a small battalion of soldiers who are enduring the hardships of war, and they are reduced to fairly traditional generic character types. Sanborn is the go-by-the-book soldier committed to completing his job with integrity and not deviating from the standard operating procedures; Eldridge is the vulnerable kid getting his head all fucked up by the horrors of war; and James is the rogue anarcho sergeant who tosses the rules aside and takes matters into his own hands. James is the primary focus of the film as he throws the book by the wayside and prefers to get his hands dirty (and his adrenaline rushed) by dismantling bombs with his bare hands rather than relying on the safer and official option of robotic machinery. The character types are so generic that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine John Wayne playing the role of Sergeant Will James. We’ve seen Wayne in this role many times, the guy who says “fuck protocol” and goes about the business of tackling “the enemy” on his own terms.
Speaking of John Wayne, The Hurt Locker doesn’t just follow the tradition of the war movie but also the Western.Bigelow’s movie contains the same kind of anarcho-apolitical tension as movies like The Searchers. Indeed, James’ character seems to be modeled largely after John Wayne’s infamous character Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Set in the rocky dusty desert landscape, The Hurt Locker in many ways looks like a Western. Whereas John Ford’s cinematic battles were fought in the barren landscape of Monument Valley, this battle is fought in the rough and real terrain of the Middle-East. It is this very setting that ultimately allows The Hurt Locker to use generic elements yet break free from the trap of Hollywood genre movies and question their function. Because Hollywood war movies and westerns are traditionally set in the past, they are by virtue of history and the passing of time inherently removed from reality. They take the brutal realities of colonial expansion and project them into a kind of mythic space. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, is set in the here and now. It is set in the actual Middle Eastern desert during the Iraq War, a war which is very much a part of the present, which is happening at the very same moment that we are watching the film. This is not part of some mythic past, and as such Bigelow allows no distance, no mythologizing. Instead she thrusts us into the unflinching reality of war with near microscopic scrutiny.
Bigelow uses standard character types, but the rest of the movie is far from standard. This is not a movie about the audience watching the characters from a distance and observing them in their cinematic environment. This is a movie about thrusting the audience into the shoes of the soldiers and asking us to experience the war from their perspective. Bigelow does this by using cinematography, sound and image editing, and a minimalist screenplay to make the environment of the film crackle with reality. Everything in the movie seems hyper-real as our senses are made exceptionally alert. At times we are strapped into “the suit” with James as he moves toward a bomb. Looking through his eyes we feel the heat and weight of the suit, the eyes and imposing threat of onlookers peering out from rooftops, doorways and windows. At others, the camera hones in on his hands, the primary source of sensory touch. We feel James’s knuckles as they punch Sanborn in the gut. We feel the skin dry and crack as he scrapes through rocks in the desert. We feel the grip of wire cutters as he cuts through a bomb, the wet slosh of blood as he shoves them deep inside a dead boy’s abdomen looking for a bomb, the slime of wet rotten leaves as he scoops out a drain pipe. The focus is intense, the camera showing every crack in the skin, every grain of dirt, every smear of blood. We can’t help but rub our own knuckles as we watch. Then there are the details of the environment which Bigelow brings into sharp focus, making our experience of this place utterly real. Every single detail is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinarily menacing. Bags of garbage, gutted cars, hanging meat – these are all, real seemingly innocuous, things that litter the environment we’re watching, but they are also all potential threats and could contain bombs ready to explode at any moment.
Speaking of explosions, this movie has no shortage of incredibly orchestrated explosions, but even those break free from Hollywood conventions. There is no giant computer-generated fireball. Instead what we see are lots of slow motion eruptions of dirt, rock and debris. As the camera speed is reduced to a fraction of its normal speed, every minute detail of the explosions comes into focus. The ground rolls and pushes open, and dirt and rocks expand into a giant ball of debris that grows then descends in catastrophic wonder. Dirt flies off the roof of a car, and for a moment we see every granule set into action by the impact of the bomb. Even an empty bullet shell hitting the ground makes a beautiful mini-explosion of dirt. The explosions we watch deliver a kind of sublime apocalyptic magnificence that reminded me more of artist Bruce Conner’s experimental film Crossroads than what you find in a standard Hollywood war movie. Conner’s film consists of U.S. government footage of the first underwater atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Conner slows the explosion down so we are asked to look at the details of every fraction of the explosion and see the beauty inside the horror. Bigelow does the same thing with her explosions. The environment is terrifying and dangerous, and certainly bombs are frightful abominable things, yet what beauty they create in their destruction when we can see them in such slow and intense focus.
As the camera hones in on detail after detail of this environment, we feel more like we’re watching a documentary or reality show than a fictional movie. The sense of reality is further heightened by the fact that the movie was largely filmed on location in Jordan and Kuwait. Kathryn Bigelow got as close to Iraq as she was able to get to make the film, so this is the real Middle Eastern desert, not some Hollywood recreation of it. Every moment and every object in this film is laden with tension, and that is largely a result of the fact that everything in the movie is real, including the insufferable dust and heat. The actors were literally were working in the extreme environment of the desert, and their very real tension and endurance makes the tension in the film palpable. When Sanborn and James spend hours and hours baking in the desert with their guns aimed at an abandoned building, the actors themselves are literally out in the heat suffering. The sweat on their foreheads, their chapped and cracked lips, the dirt sticking to their flesh are all very real.
That the film itself depicts actors working under extreme conditions lends itself to the gritty reality of another underlying theme of this movie – work. The Hurt Locker is also a workplace narrative. We aren’t just watching men at war. We are watching men at work. The bottom line is that these men are doing their job, and their job happens to be working as soldiers in the Iraq War and dismantling bombs. In an economic climate that has raped the working class, moved American jobs offshore and offers little opportunity for education or advancement for the lower classes, the military is often seen as the only employment option. What we are watching in the three central characters in this film is how different people respond to the same job. Certainly it’s miserable work. We could be watching miners, factory workers, or meat packers, but those jobs are hard to come by in present day America, so instead we’re watching soldiers. We watch the soldiers with intense focus as they perform the work at hand, dismantling bombs. The way in which the film drills in on the details of the job functions like a forensic procedural. The procedural component of the film is particularly detailed in a scene where James disarms a load of bombs hidden in a car trunk. In this scene, James goes through the car inch by inch with methodical precision. We watch him perform his job in “real time” as he cuts into the seats, disassembles the dashboard, lifts the hood and removes parts until he finds the live wire to the bomb. There is no denying that this is work, and we are watching a man perform his job to the best of his ability.
Many reviews of The Hurt Locker focus on how unstable Will James is. They equate him with a drug addict who is putting everyone at risk. What few (if any) reviews mention is that Will James has found a way to make working a brutal job tolerable. Instead of looking at James and pointing at him, we should look beyond to a culture where frequently brutal jobs are the only option for the working class, and as such the people who occupy them can either embrace their misery or find sources to disguise their abominable circumstances. Some workers use actual drugs to take the edge off. James uses adrenaline as a drug. In one scene when the young vulnerable Eldridge is freaking out and talking to the military psychiatrist (a.k.a. “job counselor”), the doctor tells him, “You don’t have to make this job miserable. It could be fun, you know, if you let it be.” Indeed, that’s what James is doing – making his job “fun” by using the risk and danger which he is subject to as part of his job and getting off on it. There is that old ridiculous homily that says, “If you have lemons, make lemonade.” Well, Will James is making lemonade because lemons were the options he was dealt. The scene where James discovers a whole network of bombs connected to each other and he stands in the middle pulling them from the ground is like the literal representation of the world he occupies, a world where the working man is stuck inside a network of bombs that he has to navigate to survive. We live in an explosive environment, whether in war or anywhere else. The soldiers are bombs. The workers are bombs. The political environment and economy are laden with bombs. The working class is being bombed every day. That image of James standing in the middle of all those bombs connected to each other and to him is pretty much an image of where the working person stands today.
The movie opens with the quote “War is a drug,” but I think it goes beyond that. I think that war is a symptom of a political economy that inspires men to use it like a drug or perceive it as a high. The opening scene depicts the eroticization of war by making disarming a bomb look like sex. The robot parts the folds of the garbage bags like so much labia, and then slowly inserts its probe. The soldiers then literally equate the robot to their dicks, but Bigelow didn’t even have go that far because the equation is quite clear from the imagery from imagery. In another scene, a drunken James rides Sanborn like a bucking bronco, symbolizing the sex act and again underscoring the violent eroticism of war. Indeed, as seen in this movie, James uses war more as an extreme sport than as a drug, getting off on the risk. Drugs tend to be used to mask an environment and hide from the reality of it. James gets high on heightening his experience of reality. He grabs his circumstances by the balls and attempts to take control of himself by looking the demon that wants to destroy him in the eye. Despite what the critics say about James being a kind of villain, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Bigelow shows him as a complex and trapped human trying his best to make it in an impossible world. It should also be noted, in relation to reading the film as a work narrative, that James’ “act of rebellion” is refusing to let a robot do the work that he can perform with his own hands.
I think critics are mistaken in trying to cast judgment on James because what Bigelow seems to be doing more than anything is showing us a picture of how things are without taking a political stand or casting judgment. She gives us an extremely intimate and jarring snapshot of the environment of war. Everything is presented very abstractly but also as very matter of fact. This is how it is out there. One minute someone is alive. The next he’s blown to bits. Time to move onto the next explosive device and the next soldier. Indeed, its apolitical stance and its refusal to proselytize are what make the film so much stronger. It forces the audience to experience the environment and come to terms with it on a personal level, rather than being told what to think. Unfortunately, Bigelow was compelled to tack on an ending which breaks from the film’s apolitical stance. We are suddenly removed from the location of war and find ourselves in James’ hometown with his family where he finds himself strangled by the banality of everyday life represented by an infinite variety of cereal choices, an impossible adjustment after being thrown into the adrenaline rush of war. The final image of James shows him in the suit walking through the Iraq landscape preparing to disarm a bomb. He returns to the only relationship he can thrive on now – the one with war. Sure, this image provides a kind of fatalistic reading and is the closest the film comes to taking a political stance, but I also think the film’s overall impact is compromised by putting this bookend on it. It would have been much more effective it refused to fill in the blank for the audience and instead left us with the image of James ending his rotation, not knowing what was to follow. The abstract presentation and the apolitical point-of-view are what allow the film to operate so viscerally because we as the audience are responsible for our experience of it. We are not given easy answers or political positions, and therefore are compelled to think about what we are experiencing rather than just digesting it passively. But the ending is a very slight flaw in what otherwise is an uncompromising, exceptionally visceral, and amazing piece of cinematic art. You may be asking if one can make art out of war. Judging by this film, the answer is yes.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com.