Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

In the entire film, one woman appears–and she’s a wife and mother. She doesn’t have any conversations with other women about things other than men. The film is a Bechdel fail.

Bombs explode. Men work together. They play together. They bond. Action! Explosions! Male soldiers! Men! Triumph! Failure! What seems, on the surface, a movie that I wouldn’t seek out is the one I’m pulling for to win Best Picture.

Okay, I’ve only seen one of the other nominees, but I’m pretty sure about this: Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is the film of the year. She is the director of the year.

Anyone reading this post is probably familiar with the movie, at the very least for the narrative of its director’s sex and, unfortunately, her relationship with another nominee in the same category. I want a woman to win the award for directing; in the history of the Academy Awards, only three women before Bigelow have ever been nominated (Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation). While I don’t want to lose focus on the how good the movie actually is by focusing exclusively on Bigelow’s sex, a few things need to be said.

War is a subject typically dominated by male voices. The Hurt Locker was written by a man. Its protagonists are men. But to make the mistake that war is a male subject is to make a classic sexist assumption. War is a universal subject. One need not be a man to create art about war, or to study texts of war (movies, books, paintings, etc.). In her Salon review, Stephanie Zacharek may put Bigelow’s accomplishment best:

She’s sympathetic toward her characters without coddling them or infantilizing them. Bigelow is an outsider looking in and she knows it, but that status also allows her some freedom. The guys in “The Hurt Locker” are human beings first and men second. The point, maybe, is that you don’t have to have a dick to understand what they’re going through.

We are all implicated in war. If women seem less likely to focus on war, our silence is implicated.

Do I want to see a female director lauded for a woman-centered film? Without question. But Kathryn Bigelow shouldn’t be blamed for making the kinds of movies she’s made for two decades. I didn’t see a woman-centered movie this year that was as powerful and well-made as this movie. And that is a problem.
In The Hurt Locker we have a close and careful character study of three men and their approaches to dealing with combat and their jobs on an elite IED diffusing team at the height of the war in Iraq. Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie) is a rules man, relying on procedure to maintain his cool. William James (in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jeremy Renner) is the risk-taker, the cowboy figure we want to be the all-powerful hero, but who we quickly come to see is more than a little bit undone. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) seems to be the youngest and least experienced member of the team; he’s terrified, skeptical, and, ultimately, the most likely to survive post-combat. At times the filmmaking is claustrophobic; we see the world as they see it–as they’ve been trained to see it. Every Iraqi is a potential enemy; even a child.

The Hurt Locker is a powerful anti-war film, which can almost get lost in the breathless action sequences. Its message is subtle but unmistakable: war utterly breaks you. The final scene of the film, which has been criticized for its ambiguity (we see James voluntarily back in action after a brief return home and a too-familiar scene representing shallow American excess), is actually a haunting, almost terrifying reminder of our implication in war. If you see James as a hero at the end of the movie, you haven’t understood a frame of the film you just watched. Yet the film teases us with a traditional genre representation of the hero. We want him to be a hero, only finding joy in the adrenaline rush of war, but he isn’t. He’s an empty shell of a person, nothing more than an animated suit heading toward…nothing. He’s walking off into the abyss. War has ripped out his humanity. This is what we do to our soldiers: we ask them to do the impossible in combat, and it destroys them.

  • BB

    I agree, this is a fine film. And I believe the depiction of the easy excess of the supermarket allows this reading: the bounty of late capitalism is not harmed, but abetted by what the protagonist is made to do as a soldier. This scene alone allows an “outside” to the war-world and shows not its opposite but its complement.

  • kb

    The Hurt Locker raises, once again, the famous question “Is there such a thing as an anti-war film?” (for treatment of this question see historian Marilyn Young’s “In the Combat Zone,” among others). Can The Hurt Locker be grouped with All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Strangelove, and The Thin Red Line – films considered as close to anti-war as it gets – or is the film Saving Private Ryan propaganda fare? As Tara McKelvey argues:

    “The film draws a sharp contrast between the tedium of American life, with its grocery-shopping, home repairs, and vapid consumerism, and the heart-pounding drama of the combat zone in Iraq. The fact that the war itself seems to have little point fades into the background. For all the graphic violence, bloody explosions and, literally, human butchery that is shown in the film, The Hurt Locker is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen.”

    Martha P. Nochimson adds a further twist to this critique by arguing that Bigelow directs in drag, that she is the “Transvestite of Directors” who is:

    “masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.”

    Based on these two reviews, The Hurt Locker is not only not an anti-war film, it’s a masculinist romp in the romantic killing fields of high-testosterone warfare. I think this critique is a form of “vulgar feminism.” In The Hurt Locker, I see a nuanced genre film, an action war film that subtly critiques both action and war. Perhaps we should ask a different question with regards to a film that begins with the statement “war is a drug”: Is there such a thing as an anti-drug film? If you think it’s okay to keep sniffing blow until your heart explodes, then I assume that you will cheer James’ return to battle at the end of the film. If you think that the military-industrial complex pushes its pawns to addiction, then you – like me – will find James’ walk into the sunset devastating. Like a coke fiend, he’s been stripped of his humanity, and for what? So that we can have the anti-choice of endless cereal choices?

  • kb

    An addendum to my mention of NYU history professor Marilyn Young (a scholar I’ve met and respect):

    Her review of the film is scathing!

    Nevertheless, the historicist stance adopted by Young and others (where a film is judged on whether it adequately represents the socio-historical background of its plot) seems to completely disregard the literary strategy of allegory. Again, although I understand this critique of the film, I find it reductive.