The Hurt Locker (2009)

There is a lot of chatter about The Hurt Locker and whether director Kathryn Bigelow will serve up a feast of schadenfreude by besting ex-husband and douche James Cameron at the Oscars this year. Despite not having seen Avatar just yet, I did sit down to watch The Hurt Locker last night and was blown away (no pun intended).

Bigelow has a rather short resume as far as movie-making goes, though she did direct two notables in the 1990s: Strange Days, a cautionary tale of the merging of technology and fantasy that headlined the always fabulous Angela Bassett, and Point Break, the awesomely bad, infinitely quotable action flick about an undercover cop who solves a bank robbery and learns the power of surfing. Nevertheless, Bigelow has a winner on her hands with The Hurt Locker, a story revolving around three bomb-squad specialists in Iraq and their long, slow descent to psychological breakdown.

The primary characters are a team who disarm IEDs protected by little more than their own swagger, and who learn to embrace the unease of the constant adrenaline rush they need to power through crisis. What makes this movie much different than most war movies is that its storytelling lies in the quiet moments. Despite the subject matter there aren’t a lot of explosions, action sequences, or gunfire. Instead there is the shot of the injured cat limping across the street, or the endless strings of wires leaking from piles of rubble, or the long shots of a vast desert where gunfire appears to come from nowhere. The tension and despair are palpable, especially in the relationships between the soldiers and the Iraqis — some of whom may be going about their daily business and some who may be responsible for the bombs in the first place — and their mutual inability to trust one another’s decency.

The movie is weak in places, the end in particular, but it seems this is because Bigelow didn’t want to wax political or offer too many easy solutions. It does not glorify war, and in fact posits that war makes it harder for one to make and maintain functional human connection. One of the most compelling issues raised in the story is the need to cope with sorrow, illustrated in that the soldier whose experience of war is expressed in the most rational, healthy way is considered a liability to the team.

I’ll be disappointed if this one gets shut out of the Oscars like it did the Golden Globes because Bigelow has a real chance of snagging an Academy Award for Best Director, which would be the first win in this category ever for a woman. It also holds the distinction of humanizing traditionally stereotypical, macho subject matter, and being a war movie that is good without glorifying violence.

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28 Responses to The Hurt Locker (2009)

  1. Natalia says:

    It was really hard for me to finally sit down and watch this movie, because it was filmed in Jordan, and I ran away from Jordan in the summer, and am still fucked-up about it. But goddamn. It is a beautiful movie about horrifying things.

    Kathryn Bigelow is badass, and as for Jeremy Renner – I’d love for him to ruin my life.

  2. Lauren says:

    Jeremy Renner was a pleasant surprise. I appreciate that all of the big names in the movie were put into very small roles to allow the “real person” aspect of the primary characters to shine. One of the things I hate most about watching big movies is how an actor’s name and paparazzi persona overshadows their acting roles and takes me right out of the story, like every time I see Brad Pitt on screen, I think, “Oh, that’s Brad Pitt.”

    Kudos to the character actors.

  3. Xanthippas says:

    Good review. I’d already reserved some time tonight to sit down and watch this, but now I’m even more pumped about it.

  4. Bitter Scribe says:

    I’d always thought of Bigelow as a talented director who could never quite find the right story to tell. With The Hurt Locker, she found it. Great flick, and I second the hope that it wins as many awards as possible.

  5. snobographer says:

    All female film directors have short resumes. They have a harder time rounding up support and funding to make films. Check out the IMDB pages for Patty Jenkins (Monster), Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry), Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho), even Oscar-nominated Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke). They make great movies, but then they fall off the face of the earth to direct episodes of The L Word. Even the relatively popular Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) has never seen a big string and hype-fest like her inferior Judd Apatow. Hollywood is all about white dudes helping white dudes.

  6. Marc W. says:

    How does a film that revolves around the reckless antics of a cowboy not glorify war? Or where that very same cowboy discovers he is dissatisfied with normal, peaceful life back home and decides to rush into battle yet again for another fix?

    No one outside of the American troops are given much voice, except for a little Iraqi boy who serves the same function for the story that little children in Spielberg’s movies do: tug heartstrings and create tension when they are put in danger. This is very much a militaristic film that treats war as action entertainment.

  7. Natalia says:

    All female film directors have short resumes.

    I would amend that to “most.” ‘Cause there are stand-outs such as Mira Nair and Kira Muratova, for example. Both of them not American, actually. Hmmm. Curious.

    I’ve had a thing for Jeremy Renner since, like, “S.W.A.T.” It’s pathetic, I know. You’re right that they did a wonderful thing with the cameos in “The Hurt Locker,” Lauren. It changes the pace, when you see a very familiar face, such as Ralph Fiennes, but then it doesn’t overwhelm the picture.

  8. I’m all for subverting gender roles and the idea that a woman should take on a genre usually reserved for men and a primarily male audience. But I wonder in the end if the difference so many people point to are wiped away by the humanizing, non-gender specific experience of watching it…and if perhaps that is the greater point to be made.

  9. Ben says:

    Her “Near Dark” is a great horror movie.

  10. Lauren says:

    How does a film that revolves around the reckless antics of a cowboy not glorify war? Or where that very same cowboy discovers he is dissatisfied with normal, peaceful life back home and decides to rush into battle yet again for another fix? …This is very much a militaristic film that treats war as action entertainment.

    Its focus is functional. The one major takeaway of the movie is that the primary characters, including the reckless cowboy, are deadened by the stress and uncertainty of what they have to do to get through the day. They must shut down emotionally (see the title) to cope with unrelenting life and death risk — and this is treated as a loss, not a victory.

  11. Natalia says:

    How does a film that revolves around the reckless antics of a cowboy not glorify war? Or where that very same cowboy discovers he is dissatisfied with normal, peaceful life back home and decides to rush into battle yet again for another fix?

    You didn’t see how tough it was for him to be in that situation? Personally, I know some people who are just like this guy. Their stories can be just as interesting as any other stories. These are the people who leave a warzone, but never leave it in their heads. What are they supposed to do with that? How do they cope? What’s “normal” to you is no longer “normal” to them, after all.

    No one outside of the American troops are given much voice, except for a little Iraqi boy who serves the same function for the story that little children in Spielberg’s movies do: tug heartstrings and create tension when they are put in danger. This is very much a militaristic film that treats war as action entertainment.

    It’s an American movie about American troops. It has every right to its subject matter and its particular focus. Though the way that it portrays the people on the periphery of the story is actually pretty skillful, I think. They are vivid flashes, filtered through the eyes of the main character. The angry woman with the tray, the old dude who sells DVD’s. He can’t get close to them, he doesn’t understand them, and they don’t understand him, and the horrible banality of this disconnect could be an entire metaphor for the occupying force itself.

    And hey, armed conflict has its share of adrenaline. I think the movie treated that aspect of it with great honesty, actually.

  12. Thomas says:

    Kathryn Bigelow has given us at least two serious cult classics — Point Break and Near Dark — and I really liked Strange Days, though nobody else seems to have. I have not seen Hurt Locker yet, but I’m really hoping she gets Best Director.

  13. atlasien says:

    Near Dark is pretty much the best American vampire movie ever made.

  14. wiggles says:

    @Natalia – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female director’s IMDB page that was as long as or longer than the IMDB page of a male director who’s been working for the same length of time. And it’s obviously not because they aren’t as good at directing films. I’d take a Mira Nair movie over a Danny Boyle movie any day.

  15. wiggles says:

    ^Not that I felt you were saying otherwise.

  16. norbizness says:

    Did the IED-sweeper vehicles transform into farting, chest-bumping robots? No? Then NO THANK YOU.

  17. macon d says:

    Um, no, can’t agree. This movie has all sorts of egregious problems, especially its inattention to geopolitical context, and its cartoonish depictions of Iraqis.

    This especially good review offers an alternative perspective.

    The Iraqi population serves merely as a human landscape in the tense conditions in which the bomb defusers operate. It is the enemy, the bearded Other to the clean-cut US soldier. The local people are portrayed in the film as either faceless, darkly clad terrorists or recognizable types, like the neighborhood merchant…who are also terrorists. . . .

    An estimated 1 million or more Iraqis are dead, millions more have been displaced, entire cities have been razed to the ground, the country has been divided along communal lines, which may at any point lead to a new, fratricidal civil war. For the vast majority of the world’s population, and certainly its Middle Eastern and Muslim component, the US occupation of Iraq is associated with Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah—torture and abuse, atrocities, mass destruction. None of this seems to concern Bigelow or Boal, or the complacent American middle class “intelligentsia,” in general. It is outrageous that they are not outraged.

  18. Lauren says:

    @macon: I feel like this is one of those discussions that is worth having, but it essentially two separate discussions, in that one is arguing the worth of the story and the other is arguing for the strength of the story-telling. I think Bigelow deserves kudos for the strength of the story she was telling, the character development, and the artistic achievements in telling the story in the way she did. The other side is questioning why some stories get told and others do not, which is a worthy question, but not what was being discussed here until now. I admit being a bit hypocritical about this (see: every feminist that has endorsed Polanski’s work vs. me), but that’s my stance on this movie.

    I read the full review that you posted and wondered whether the reviewer saw the same movie I did, and whether she took the quote at the beginning of the movie (“war is a drug”) out of context. When I did a little research, I think she did. The following sentences after the pull quote are: “And so it takes little in wartime to turn ordinary men into killers. Most give themselves willingly to the seduction of unlimited power to destroy, and all feel the peer pressure. Few, once in bottle, can find the strength to resist.” This is not a celebratory statement. It’s at the beginning of the movie for a reason — this is not a movie that celebrates war.

    Same, this movie is not a celebration of war, of violence, of killing Iraqis, of American conquest, colonialism, or of unquestioning followers and inhumane masculinity — it gives the side-eye to all of this. It doesn’t make any overt political proclamations — “War is bad!” or “Americans suck!” — because it doesn’t have to. The entire point is that the individual’s loss of humanity is humanity’s loss. I submit that it’s subtle enough that it can function as a Rorschach test for the viewer, and I’m sure that some warhawk left the theater thanking Jesus for the soldier’s willingness to submit their humanity to kill Iraqis for our freedom, but if they did they didn’t get it. And that’s what flummoxed me about the linked review, that the reviewer saw exactly the opposite, and while I don’t want to say that this was confirmation bias for the reviewer, I do think that she used the general subject of the movie as a starting point for a political point that ignored the general theme of the film.

    In Sady’s post about Avatar vs. Hurt Locker I mentioned that I’d just watched a movie called “Towelhead” that was near-panned by the criticis, but that also offered an interesting perspective on teen sexuality, and that also featured sexual abuse as one of the major themes of the story. As I alluded to above, I’m deeply skeptical about Polanski, or the use of rape as a storytelling tool, but this movie, I believe, used it in a sensitive and artful way. Similarly, while I am vehemently against the American occupation in the Middle East, I do think The Hurt Locker was a story worth telling, especially because it emphasizes what is lost when a person is put onto a battlefield. I also think the Iraqi POV is a story worth telling, but that wasn’t this movie this time. I’d love to see that one too.

  19. macon d says:

    Thank you for the response, Lauren. I see what you’re saying, and I do agree that the film does not end up celebrating war nor those who are addicted to it — Laurier seems to misread the film on that point.

    Still, the points the film itself makes about war seem rather obvious to me. But more to my point, and the linked reviewer’s (Laurier), they needn’t come at the expense of a broader, more contextualized, and more sophisticated understanding of the entire conflict. (As Laurier writes, “The film’s greatest fallacy is that its makers apparently believe it possible to accurately portray the psychological and moral state of US troops without addressing the character of the Iraq enterprise as a whole, as though the latter does not affect how soldiers act and think.”) They needn’t trivialize and dehumanize Iraqi resisters to imperial U.S. occupation either. (As Laurier writes, “The Iraqi characters, such as they are, function largely as prop devices.”)

    I think that Hurt Locker basically does what most white American movies do when it comes to darker Others — it centers on a supposed individual, and uses Others in the service of characterizing that individual and getting his (usually a guy’s) story told, at the expense of attention to explanatory context, and of the full-fledged humanity of the Otherized characters. I think the character of his wife is used in the same way. I suppose it functions well within those confining, cliched parameters, but I’m really tired of that kind of movie. Especially when it treats a subject like the Iraq war, and basically refuses in the process to properly treat, or even really address, that subject.

  20. Lauren says:

    uses Others in the service of characterizing that individual and getting his (usually a guy’s) story told, at the expense of attention to explanatory context, and of the full-fledged humanity of the Otherized characters. I think the character of his wife is used in the same way. I suppose it functions well within those confining, cliched parameters, but I’m really tired of that kind of movie.

    Totally a fair point, and I’m inclined to agree.

  21. macon d says:

    Sorry for the html mess-up.

    Btw, I’ve seen Towelhead too — hated it! I’m surprised a self-declared feminist wouldn’t find it voyeuristically, pruriently abusive of teenaged femininity, as I (and many others) did. And then there’s the obstinately sensationalistic and racist title of the movie. Would a movie entitled “Ni**ger” (without the asterisks) be okay too? (I love it — not — when white people tell people of color that they’re being too sensitive when they declare something racist — when they declare themselves the proper judges of that. Not that I think you’re doing that, but that movie’s makers did do that.)

    • Lauren says:

      Yeah, it had some issues, and the title is only one of them. What it got right was the adolescent learning of The Gaze, and how harmful and alluring it is, and how tied up it gets with your self-worth. And how others will abuse it if they see an opening. It’s really clunky in parts, but I did appreciate how the movie (probably the novel it’s based off of, really, I don’t want to give anyone too much credit here) recognizes the tangle of consent and disgust involved with the kind of sexual relationships the main character experiences, in part because it’s what I experienced as a teenager, and because I’ve never seen it represented in a narrative form in quite this way.

  22. macon d says:

    That makes sense to me, and yes, the effects and power of things like that can depend so much on who’s viewing it, of course. I’ve heard the book is somewhat better, even tho it has the same f’d-up title.

  23. Natalia says:

    …it centers on a supposed individual, and uses Others in the service of characterizing that individual and getting his (usually a guy’s) story told, at the expense of attention to explanatory context, and of the full-fledged humanity of the Otherized characters.

    I’m kinda tired of the whole “white dude amongst the natives” thing, it IS old, but I would have hated “The Hurt Locker” had it decided to do the whole “and then James developed profound relationships with Iraqis and they taught him that war is bad” thing. Guy like that can’t have profound relationships with most people.

    It also kind of sucks when directors try to earnestly portray characters they can’t really get inside of. “The Battle of Haditha” could have been been a much better movie had it not tried to do that.

    Bigelow didn’t try to make a movie that was especially political, and I think that’s a good thing. Most good movies aren’t especially political. Most good movie get under your skin in weird ways, and this was one of them.

  24. macon d says:

    I agree that having James get all cozy with a native would’ve been out of character, but that’s not the only way to grant humanity to characters who otherwise get cartoonishly Otherized.

    Bigelow didn’t try to make a movie that was especially political, and I think that’s a good thing. Most good movies aren’t especially political.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a movie that’s not political. A decision to not make a “political” movie — in this case, to favor an individualized focus and ignore explanatory context — is still a political decision. Hurt Locker perpetuates and supports a Eurocentric mode of cultural production, and it fails to provide explanatory context regarding U.S. imperialism and the motivations of those who resist it. However consciously or overtly “political,” those are still entirely political decisions, which resulted in a political movie. This is what hegemony looks like; the politicized norm passes as just the norm, instead of as political.

  25. Natalia says:

    but that’s not the only way to grant humanity to characters who otherwise get cartoonishly Otherized.

    That’s where you and I would have to disagree, because I think it was a very humanist portrayal, the way that James’ interactions are set up, the way that scene with the shooting in the desert is shot (beautiful and ghostly, and it’s incredibly jarring, the way it shows how a life has just ended in this really offhand fashion; there’s no pathos to it, and that’s what really brings the horror of the situation they’re in home). As I said upthread, I believe this really banal disconnect that James has with the outside world to be one of the movie’s strengths, because it shows, very simply and without much fanfare, how people fundamentally cannot relate to one another when they’re in this situation of Occupier and Occupied, and it’s a relationship that goes both ways.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a movie that’s not political. A decision to not make a “political” movie — in this case, to favor an individualized focus and ignore explanatory context — is still a political decision. Hurt Locker perpetuates and supports a Eurocentric mode of cultural production, and it fails to provide explanatory context regarding U.S. imperialism and the motivations of those who resist it. However consciously or overtly “political,” those are still entirely political decisions, which resulted in a political movie. This is what hegemony looks like; the politicized norm passes as just the norm, instead of as political.

    You know, I get hives from discussions like this, so maybe I shouldn’t pursue it. But I think that if you’re going to beat the audience over the head with “and this is why they are resisting us, kids!”, in any context, it just looks stupid. I think “The Hurt Locker” manages to tell a very beautiful, and horrifying story, and you can take all sorts of messages from it: political, not political, sexual, whatever. Its relative ambiguity is what makes it strong, I think. It suits the story. And some kid who’s 14 will take one thing from it at an early age, and then maybe re-watch it at 25, and discover something new. You can have a dynamic relationship with material like that.

    And sure, I get it, it’s easier to get funding for an American film and get distribution, even if its an independent picture and you struggle tremendously – it’s all relative. There’s a reason why, say, people in the Middle East have heard about all sorts of American movies, but I bet that most people in this thread haven’t heard about “Captain Abu Raed.” It’s not an equal exchange to begin with. But I wouldn’t trash Bigelow’s picture because of it either. I don’t think you can promote one sort of cinema by tearing down another.

  26. Lauren says:

    I’ve got to say, too, that part of what I find fascinating about this movie is the back story. It’s not only about whose story gets told, but also about who gets to tell the stories — and in this case, from a feminist perspective, it’s notable that an art film about the traditionally masculine armed forces is told by a female director instead of her being relegated to the rom-com genre.

    @macon: I get what you’re saying but I also lean toward what Natalia is getting at — if I were looking for art that confirmed my politics I wouldn’t get to enjoy a piece at all, ever. But that’s part of what makes art criticism fun, too. The debate.

  27. HFeld says:

    Just thought I’d say that it’ll probably come down to The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Up in the Air for Best Picture. Avatar didn’t get nods for either Screenplay or Acting, so that’s not a good sign. If I was going to put down money, I’d say Up in the Air.

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