“War is a drug.”
That quote, which is the first thing we see in Kathryne Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker,” establishes the mission statement for the whole movie. In Baghdad, circa 2004, the bomb disposal unit of the Army’s Bravo Company has just lost their by-the-book team leader (Guy Pearce) to a roadside bomb. His replacement is a true wild-card: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who treats each bomb he encounters as another opportunity to receive the hit of adrenaline that comes with defusing it; it makes him feel more alive than any of this fellow soldiers. It’s his own personal kind of combat high.
“The Hurt Locker” is fairly unusual as far as modern war movies go. It doesn’t really have much of a plot, it doesn’t feature grand speeches on the nature of heroism in the face of war and its main characters aren’t exactly the most noble group of guys. I saw first saw this film around the time its Oscar blitz, and I appreciated what it tried to do, but I didn’t fully embrace what the film tried to do. Last night I watched it for the first time since 2010, and after 130 sense-pulverizing minutes, the staggering achievement of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal came into full fruition. “The Hurt Locker” is a war film that deals with the affects war can have on those in it. Some are consumed by it, and some become addicted to it (hence the opening quote).
Sgt. James, played with a haunted swagger by Renner in his career-making role, lives for his job as a bomb-defusing god. While his comrades’ nerves are on a tightrope, he lives for the threat of going up in flames if just one of the tangle of wires is removed improperly. He is a true daredevil; he turns off his radio, refuses to wear the enormous protective suit and treats any and all safety protocols like a nuisance, much to the chagrin of Sgt. Sanborn (another great performance by Anthony Mackie), who just wants the team to make it through the final 38 days of their rotation in one piece. The third volatile piece of this team is Specialist Owen Eldridge (a surprisingly effective Brian Geraghty), who frequently meets with a counselor to discuss his unease over constantly being confronted with life and death; war electrifies James, but it does the opposite to Eldridge. This trio runs the gamut of perspectives when it comes to war.
The film’s structure, and by extension Boal’s Oscar-winning script, appears to be fairly bare-bones. We see this team going on mission after mission, trying to stay above the Iraq war’s deadly grind. But this episodic structure contains multitudes. “The Hurt Locker” works masterfully as both an action movie and as a character study of these three damaged men, with Boal’s journalistic background and Bigelow’s virtuoso filmmaking technique working perfectly in sync.
Boal’s script specifically wisely avoids the quicksand of sanctimony and easy political judgments that claimed so many of the other films about the Iraq war. “The Hurt Locker” is about a job, not a holy mission. That is personified in Sgt. James, who is about as far removed from typical war movie protagonists, like “Saving Private Ryan’s” Captain Miller, as you can get. Both men have families back home, but James isn’t driven by his estranged wife and newborn son. He lives for the rush of defeating death, not for the comforts of family. He keeps the fuses of the bombs he’s defused under his bed, trophies of his conquests over mortality, to go along with the frag scars that cover his chest. He’s not a hero, he’s a sociopath. This man needs the war, but he’s not completely closed off from humanity. He does try to help Eldridge overcome his fears when they stake out a sniper, and he befriends “Beckham,” a teenage boy who sells bootleg DVDs. His humanity is put on the back burner, replaced by his junkie-like need to play chicken with death.
“The Hurt Locker” is a masterpiece of “show don’t tell.” And with how Bigelow presents the ungodly suspense that comes with defusing bombs, this movie really fucking shows. This is one of the last decades’ most explosive displays of filmmaking artistry. Hand-held cameras are everywhere, but in stark contrast to so many other modern action movies, this film is incredibly coherent. The rattles of gunfire, the sweat-soaked dismantling of the roadside bombs, even the eerily quiet showdown with the desert sniper are all wrung dry of all the suspense they can possibly deliver, as scenes from every conceivable direction are piled on top of each other to knock us senseless. You are right along with the team’s internal and external chaos. Bigelow throws a hand-grenade into the boys club of action movie directors and masters the form, reigniting her stagnant career and reminding everyone that the former Mrs. James Cameron is a great film artist in her own right.
James and his team slowly descend further into their own hell, and when a personal tragedy finally rattles James, his resolve goes haywire, and what each of these men thought about their situation changes drastically. The performances by Mackie and Geraghty, two sides of a conscience that Sgt. James has surpressed, and the brilliant work by Renner as a man who becomes so dependent on the risk of combat that he grows numb to his own family, are extraordinary. They complete the achievement of the film’s goal to present the hell of war in as straightforward a fashion as possible. It all culminates with the film’s coda, with James lost in that endless supermarket, the minutia of domestic life more harrowing than anything in Iraq. He’s a slave to the rush, as exemplified by the smile on his face in the film’s final shot. War is a drug, and there is no detox for him.