Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Sunday, December 20, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

A tough war picture in the tabloid journalist tradition of Samuel Fuller, The Hurt Locker avoids most of the sentimentalizing and editorializing of other recent films about Iraq. It focuses instead on the human drama of a trio of characters living under the sword of Damocles. Members of a bomb disposal unit, these men live moment to moment counting the days before their tour is up. Well, at least two of them. Their new Team Leader, Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is a guy with that thousand yard stare. He's the "man in the suit", the one who is sent into harm's way to actually diffuse the IEDs. While Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) sweat the days out, James seems like he's right in his element. If war is a drug, then William James is an addict.

While most films about war either glorify it or more often than not attempt to make a statement as banal as "war is hell", The Hurt Locker avoids that by just getting on with it. It simply takes place in a hellish, harsh environment full of paranoia and where the action is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. This isn't a film with designer violence but it doesn't avoid the ugly beauty of that violence either.

What really makes the film work is that Kathryn Bigelow directs it as a nail biting suspense picture rather than a war film. Like Clouzot's The Wages of Fear we watch breathlessly as James looks through wires as tangled as a plate of spaghetti. Bigelow cuts to random locals watching or walking by who may be the enemy waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. No one can be trusted and the environment is just as threatening-landmines could be anywhere but the sand and heat do their best to make man extinct by itself.

William James is the film's central mystery. What exactly makes this man tick? Smartly, screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow do not answer this or even allow James to explain himself at all. We can see it in his face when he goes home for a short break. The way he looks at his wife and the dislocation he feels standing in the frozen foods section of the local supermarket. He's going cold turkey and needs a fix.


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