No Reason Why
War and precarious life
by Molly Templeton
THE HURT LOCKER: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Cinematography, Barry Ackroyd. Music, Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. Summit Entertainment, 2009.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is difficult to watch. It’s not that I wanted to look away from the screen; Bigelow’s carefully filmed action sequences don’t have the stomach-churning, incomprehensible bluster of so many other films. Blood doesn’t spurt needlessly. Death comes quickly in the form of a single shot or a deafening explosion. What’s hard to watch, what I kept trying to shift my mind around, is the sheer level of tension, the constant possibility that any minute is a character’s last. The Hurt Locker begins with little fanfare, just a Chris Hedges quote that posits that war is a drug. And then we’re in Baghdad (Jordan stands in for Iraq), in the thick of a day’s work for a three-man bomb squad.
The squad is coming to the end of its rotation; the days tick away in fits and leaps over the course of the episodic film. Early on, Will James (Jeremy Renner) takes over the squad’s leadership, and his brash, cocky, tough-guy personality is immediately at odds with the other two members: Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who’s trying to follow all the rules in order to keep his team as safe as those rules can make them, and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who’s deeply rattled by a shot he failed to take. They’re just three guys going to work. They’re just three guys whose job, every day, is potentially deadly.
The Hurt Locker is shot largely with multiple handheld cameras, their unsettling, jittery visions giving you the bomb squad members’ perspectives — the swooping search over rooftops, looking for anyone who might pose a threat; the closeup perspective on the mechanisms of an explosive device. Things feel less safe when you’re not seeing the situation from where they stand. When the first bomb detonates, Bigelow isn’t with her characters, but finding the details of the shock: The gravel surface of a road seems shaken loose from gravity’s grip. Rust shimmies off a burned-out car. A man takes a few steps between the first flare of the explosion and the massive plume that is its end. The moment passes in an instant. It’s the only time the film looks, in astonishing detail, at what happens when a bomb goes off. It’s not something you’ll likely forget.
Bigelow’s film — and Boal’s screenplay — aren’t without their flaws. The disparate personalities of the bomb squad seem lined up for maximum conflict, and one particular explosion is so inevitable it intrudes into the otherwise crisply maintained sense of precariousness, of disaster narrowly and repeatedly averted. But the tension of the movie is so great, the omnipresence of death so overwhelming, that searching out cracks in its composition felt like a welcome diversion. My mind was distracting itself by looking for ways the film was less convincing, or finding, in a limping cat crossing a Baghdad street, a more familiar, containable fear, a thing one ordinary person could fix or control. The work the bomb squad does is so large, so destructive, so specialized that only a very particular person can do it.
James can do little else. Either he is made for this work, or it is made for him, and it’s not because he’s a cartoon soldier or a violent man, even when he makes irrational decisions that get people hurt. It’s not really because of anything. “You know why I’m that way?” James asks Sanborn. There’s no answer to his question, and there’s also no one asking why they’re there, why they’re doing what they’re doing. The only answer for the bomb squad is: because it has to be done. Because more people will die if they don’t. Their focus is absolute; Bigelow’s film mimics this, sticking tightly to the experience of these three men, making the audience another character whose life is on the line. It’s only afterward that the realities of the war, of its ongoing presence, rush back in. The world — the war — is still out there. And not even Will James can defuse all the bombs.
The Hurt Locker is now playing at the Bijou.