The Hurt Locker (2008; dir. Katheryn Bigelowe) was difficult to like even though I admired it. It’s well made, and imaginatively detailed. About a team of American military technicians whose assignment in the Iraqi war is to defuse IEDs (improvised explosive devices), it should be fraught with tension. In a way, it is. But after a while the tension becomes so much an element of what the film is about that you don’t feel it as much. And when you realize that the real issue is how that tension affects the main character, that he isn’t going to die in an early scene, the suspense diminishes further. Instead you pay attention to how tension affects members of the unit. Each member is different. Sanborn, the black sergeant who is a long-term veteran of the war, is cautious to a fault. He follows procedure scrupulously and wants to survive his assignment to return home to his family. Specialist Eldridge is traumatized by the death of a former member of the unit. He doubts his own courage. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), called in to replace the team member who dies, relishes in the danger and pressure of defusing bombs. These moments bring him to life. He sees each bomb as a different challenge. He saves fragments from the devices he disassembles to remind him of his close encounters with death.
The Hurt Locker is about the breaking moment between one’s conscious life and the possibility of sudden annihilating death. It is about how familiarity with that possibility brings about its own normalcy.
The film’s central character is Sgt. James, the senior member of the unit. The highly episodic film is mostly fashioned around scenes in which the team undertakes to defuse various roadside devices. One would expect that the film therefore constantly generates tension over whether the IED is going to explode, whether one of the team members is going to die. In the opening scene a character who is not one of the primary figures works to defuse a bomb. Because in this early scene we do not know what to expect, because of how the scene is constructed (especially how it is edited), tension builds to an intense level and is then resolved. Midway through the film, the team drives out into the desert and stumbles into an ambush, with bullets whizzing back and forth from an indeterminate source, and American soldiers suddenly falling dead. This scene generates much tension. In another scene James tries to defuse an intricately rigged bomb in a military vehicle. He removes his helmet and protective gear in order to see better. He smokes a cigarette as he works. He knows that if he fails and the device explodes, the protective gear won’t help him. From nearby buildings, and in a more distant minaret, men watch him with binoculars and cameras. We do not know how they are, but the implication is that they had a role in setting up the bomb and want to see whether it explodes, whether James succeeds in defusing it.
The scene with the greatest tension occurs after Sergeant James return home from a tour of duty. He has survived hair-raising encounters with hostile soldiers, bombs rigged to explode in the most ingenious of ways. He has rescued Specialist Eldridge from kidnappers. He’s risked death on a daily basis. This scene shows him in his home with his wife and small child. He wanders down the aisle of a grocery store, picking out items. It’s a most domestic and banal moment. You expect something to happen, some crazed lunatic to enter the store and begin firing, whereupon James will try to intervene and be killed. The irony would be great (and hackneyed)—survive the horrors of the warfront, killed on the home front. But nothing happens. Nothing at all, which is why it is so tense.
War is supposed to be long stretches of boredom interrupted by brief and intense moments of violent terror. The Hurt Locker is built on this principle.
The final scene in this film reminded me of the concluding image in Runaway Train (1985; dir. Andrey Konchalovskiy), with the escaped and doomed convict played by Jon Voight standing on the top of a locomotive careening at breakneck speed down the track towards a dead-end. This is his willing apprehension of his own impending annihilation. It’s a moment of terrific glory, of existential self-assertion. In The Hurt Locker Sergeant James heads alone down a deserted street towards an IED that he must defuse. He doesn’t know if he is going to die, but’s it’s clear that the uncertainty, the tension, makes him alive. It makes him who he is. It’s the essential scene in the film.