Rotating The Hurt Locker

I burned my pelts with grace, relieved that they still squeal; a lotus with these grains, the only drink that heals.

— Lime Pinched Rails


I saw The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) yesterday after work.   I loved it.  Accuracy and authenticity (of the combat/bomb-disarming world) aside, it shows male vulnerability and sensitivity in ways that I had previously believed only competitive team sports could express.  It’s not even the willingness and desire to be affectionate.  I don’t think wartime scenarios encourage or facilitate gestures of affection.  It’s not even that the main characters exhibit nervousness and contextual fear.  Nope, it’s that they are capable of feeling regret and succumbing to a loss of stoic composure.


Amy Taubin’s article on the film in the May/June 2009 issue of Film Comment is a wonderful read.  Actually, the only reason why I even know it exists is because of her article.  What’s more, the reason I purchased this particular issue was for Oliver Sacks’s piece on Michael Powell’s film A Matter of Life and Death (1945).  After a brief exposition on Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, Taubin kicks off the analysis.  She describes The Hurt Locker as “a totally immersive, off-the-charts high-anxiety experience from beginning to end” (32).   A plot synopsis follows: “In the opening sequence, the squad’s leader (Guy Pearce) is killed. His replacement, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), operates in a manner that immediately seems more reckless than his predecessor, and which his teammates, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who are in the final 38 days of their rotation, fear will get them all killed” (32, 34).


Jeremy Renner.


Anthony Mackie.


Brian Geraghty.


There isn’t a whole lot more I can add to the discussion.  Taubin touches on nearly everything that Bigelow’s film is and might be.   For instance, she notes that The Hurt Lockersuppress[es] backstory and plot in the interest of the existential present,” the film “is structured entirely as a procedural.  Each of the team’s seven missions has its own dramatic arc…There are no character arcs; these three guys are the same at the end of film as they are at the beginning” (35).  Bigelow’s film is low on the info regarding who the bomb techs are; we learn relationship status and domesticity details in one scene, but nothing about why the men enlisted…only a couple of facts about their military career (Sanborn spent seven years gathering intelligence; James is a ranger).

As for Taubin’s assertion about the lack of character arcs… The men do adjust their attitudes throughout the film–onscreen.  These changes are reactionary and likely temporary.  Taubin might be suggesting that the characters’ experiences in combat don’t affect them any more than the film’s depiction of them would allow the viewer to believe.  And sure enough, Taubin’s elaboration substantiates my hunch:  “The arc of the movie is in us: as we accumulate knowledge—intellectual and experiential—about the characters and their situation, our attitudes and feelings change. In the end it’s all about James. He acts; Sanborn and Eldridge react to his actions, yo-yoing between hatred and something approaching adoration” (35).

She also does a great job illustrating the film’s aesthetics with respect to cinematography and editing: Breathtakingly kinetic and spatially coherent (a rare combination), The Hurt Locker puts us in the middle of a fully three-dimensional theater of war with mines underfoot and snipers everywhere. Working with DP Barry Ackroyd, Bigelow devised a brilliant choreography for camera and actors. The film was shot handheld: four operators armed with Super-16 cameras simultaneously covered the action vérité-style—glued to the actors’ bodies and eyes, responding with zip pans and zooms and off-balance tilts to sudden movements that spell danger to the left, the right, in front and behind. Bob Murawski and Chris Innis’s editing is similarly quick and nervous; the rapid changes in POV as they cut from one camera’s coverage to another’s make you feel as if you, like the characters, are under threat from all sides” (32).

I’m usually not that keen on facial close-ups and handheld camerawork if there isn’t a sufficient amount of balancing tripod/steadycam and long shot (ahem, Public Enemies).  In the case of  The Hurt Locker, though, I lapped up every CU and rocky image.  I didn’t even think about how many long shots there were (of which there were enough).

The only other Kathryn Bigelow films I’ve watched in their entirety so far are Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), and The Weight of Water (2000).   I’ve seen Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1989) in pieces but not yet in full.  I don’t think that The Hurt Locker is as “garish” as Strange Days or as stylized as Blue Steel, but it incorporates some of the reverie-like qualities of Point Break and The Weight of the Water.   There are a few moments of “ballistic balletics“…not so much during as after the firing of guns.

My only criticism is the use of non-diegetic music.  It doesn’t happen often, perhaps only three times, but it didn’t seem necessary.


D’accord, to be honest, I do have three points to add to Taubin’s discussion:

1.  Despite the subject matter, there were times when I fell into a fit of hysterical laughter; the man sitting in front of me heartily chuckled too.  There’s one line that James says on his second (I think) bomb-deactivation mission that had me in stitches.  It went something like: “There’s enough here to take/bring us all up to see Jesus…if I’m going to die, I want to die comfortable.”   It was the way he said it that just did it.

2. The storyline concerning Eldridge’s “therapy” sessions with Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo).   If memory serves, there are two scenes where Cambridge visits Eldridge just to talk about whatever might be on Eldridge’s mind.  The purpose seems to be to acknowledge how mentally taxing it is on the soldiers not only to stay alive but also to make sense of what they’re doing and why.   Minor spoilage ahead; highlight relevant words at your own discretion.  In what could be argued an example of gratuitous spectacle and drama, Cambridge joins Eldridge, Sanborn, and James on a job–to see what it is like for Eldridge.   Cambridge is friendly with the Iraqis on the street.  He is reluctant to display aggression or hostility until the last possible moment and then pays for his diplomatic behavior by stepping on an IED.  His helmet survives the blast.  Eldridge runs over visibly distraught and in disbelief.  What was the reason for this scene?   To reiterate the reality of urban warfare?  Cliched or not, these things happen?

3.  The scene with James as a civilian and picking up a box of cereal.  He’s faced with a plethora of choices: Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, all kinds of General Mills products in the foreground screen-left (and a wee bit out of focus).  James is in the middle of the frame, filmed in low-angle long shot.  When the camera cuts to a close-up of his face, he appears overwhelmed and perplexed at the same time.  The juxtaposition between his expression and the ostensibly endless cereal aisle is comical in an absurd sort of way, but it conveys a significant message.  James has just spent approximately a month in an environment where his choices were limited to kill or be killed.  Even if one broadened that decision to more nuanced circumstances (wait for backup/go now; go now/go later; shoot to scare/shoot to kill), they’re temporally based and would yield potentially fatal consequences.  But cereal?

There are too many options.  More importantly, however, is that James probably doesn’t even know what kinds of cereal his “wife” buys.  The last scene in the film indicates that James would rather be in a situation where probability of anything is 50/50.  Live/die.  Now/later.  Move/stop.

Product Placement & Branding: Pepsi, Washington Redskins (a wall pennant), the aforementioned cereals; Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes (cameo appearances).

Click here for more pictures.   Click here for audiovisual treats.

7 thoughts on “Rotating The Hurt Locker

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