The Hurt Locker stars Jeremy Renner (Dahmer) as William James, an American soldier in Iraq with a special
mission: defusing the ubiquitous IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that litter Baghdad’s ghost-town streets. With his two partners, anxious Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and terrified Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) James readily accepts every assignment his team is given, even when it means placing all three of their lives in serious jeopardy. When removing a dozen bombs from the trunk of an abandoned car early in the film, James removes his protective helmet; is this because he is so foolhardy that he feels invincible, or because he is simply at peace with the fact that his death could be only seconds away? His partners, particularly Mackie’s character, seem equally unnerved by both possibilities. The question is whether James is compelled to seek out life-and-death situations because of some perverse obsession, or whether he is simply in touch with the reality of the war on a level few of us care to imagine.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner is set in Iraq in 2004, only a year after the war’s inception. However, it is this strange, new, disjointed image of the war that translates into what New Yorker critic David Denby calls “the most skillful and emotionally involving picture yet made about the conflict.” Unlike Rendition and other star-studded films ostensibly about the war (the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate comes to mind) The Hurt Locker has no interest in advancing a specific agenda, political or otherwise. Rather, it is that rare war picture that actually maintains its focus onthe strange mixture of the frightful and the quotidian that its subjects, the soldiers, must endure.
Bigelow’s film doesn’t veer into either melodrama or propoganda, which is itself a remarkable achievement considering its subject matter. However, what really keeps the narrative taut to the point of anguish are the prolonged, real-time scenes in which James and his partners are either defusing bombs or being attacked by insurgents. There’s no John Williams score here, no platitudes or hystrionics–indeed, British leading man Ralph Fiennes makes a brief appearance only to be picked off almost instantly by an enemy sniper. In a normal Hollywood film, the big names don’t get killed off in under five minutes–that’s practically an unwritten law.
But that’s exactly what Bigelow wants to accomplish in dispatching first Pearce and then Fiennes with so little pomp and circumstance: she wants the audience to feel as vulnerable and panicked as James and his squad do, and boy, does it work. Even the final scene of the film, in which James is back in the States with his girlfriend and baby son, hums with an unspoken tension. It’s clear to the audience, if not to the unfortunate girlfriend, that James just isn’t wired for civilian life, at least not anymore. The film closes with a shot of James back in the bomb-defusing suit, marching triumphantly towards the next bomb in the sand. We understand, as the credits start to roll, that James has been so changed by his experiences in the war that he simply cannot go back to the way things were. What the film hints at, so delicately you may not even notice, is that the country as a whole may not ever be able to go back, either.
Bigelow was only the fourth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar (in 82 years, no less) and the first to win. That this momentous event was occasioned by a war movie is both a testament to Bigelow’s skill in directing within a completely male-dominated genre, and a strange sort of capitulation from the Hollywood establishment. It’s worth noting that the first woman to break this glass ceiling was not someone like Nancy Meyers (Sleepless in Seattle) or Sally Potter (Orlando) or even Jane Campion, though she was nominated in 1993 for her tour-de-force The Piano. Certainly, the first woman to be let into this ultimate boy’s club couldn’t have directed a chick flick or a gender-bending feminist manifesto–perish the thought. It seems like the Academy had its collective hand forced with Bigelow’s nomination; she pulled off a manly film in a manly genre, and beat Hollywood at its own game.
Jeremy Renner also has been long overlooked for his award-worthy talents. Though his first leading-man role was in the somewhat unfortunate Dahmer (2002) Renner didn’t allow the cartoonishly evil character he was playing to overwhelm him–somehow, he kept his performance human and believable. Renner also has a reassuringly non-airbrushed look to him, physically; he actually looks like a real person. His physicality is a major part of his character in The Hurt Locker, and, just as in Dahmer, he knows how to use his body, affect and appearance to give full life to his character. I’d rather watch him than Sam Worthington (Avatar) any day.