“Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself.”
– Frances Meehan
Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant war film, The Hurt Locker, is a study of the insides of soldiers. It is such a good film, in fact, that it should transcend the minor fact that it was directed by a woman. Bigelow has made many films that drill into the souls and hearts of men, though most have had somewhat muddled stories to go along with Bigelow’s breathtaking visuals. With Mark Boal’s script, however, Bigelow soars, holding all things together at once. With a war movie this grand in scope, that couldn’t have been easy.
The Hurt Locker takes place during the Iraq war, the perfect setting for the kind of mediation Boal and Bigelow are aiming for; it could be any time during the quagmire. What is immediately apparent from the beginning is that these men spend their days in a constant state of fear and anxiety, springing from the exhausting impulse to fight or flight every minute of every day.
Once the action stops, and they’re back in their bunker, the insanity of it all begins to seep through; how do you turn off the animal in attack mode during downtime? You talk about kids and wives and you play video games and you watch movies and you bond with your comrades, but then the next day you wake up and the madness begins all over again.
The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq but it not really a film about Iraq; it isn’t a film about the rightness or wrongness of that war. It is more about the mentality of the soldier, what it must feel like to go through that craziness, that violent intensity. Some of them break down. Some of them cope and get on with their lives. But some of them, like the star of the film, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), find themselves almost addicted to it and therefore unable to stop. They will go back to Iraq even when their tour of duty has finished. If they’re not dead yet, they’ll go back.
The film looks at three men who all approach war with different perspectives. William James defuses bombs, or IEDs. He’s so good at it and so into it he’s started collecting pieces of the bombs as sentimental memories. He is the alpha male, the one who will never show fear nor back down. He is the protector, the hero. Renner’s work here is mesmerizing; you can’t take your eyes off of him when he’s on screen, and the complexities of his inner world flicker across his face so unexpectedly.
The two other leads, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie are well matched with Renner and the three deliver some of the best ensemble work in recent memory. Much of this is due to Bigelow’s ability to draw emotion out of her male characters. It isn’t just that she’s a female, but whatever it is, she is patient enough with them to allow a range of feeling to come through.
And that feeling burrows in deep. The sadness here, the rage, the inevitability make The Hurt Locker 2009’s first masterpiece.