The Hurt Locker

August 31, 2009


The Hurt Locker has to be one of the best American films that I’ve seen this year. It’s a war movie with a focus on action that deliberately toys with genre clichés, before coming back to confound audience expectations and provide something fresh and engrossing.

Set in Iraq, it follows a small bomb disposal squad made up of three men as they finish off the last 36 days of their tour of duty. The team leader, Sgt. James, has been drafted in to fill a dead man’s shoes, and he immediately raises the hackles of his subordinates by acting with suicidal composure in the field. Luckily he’s some kind of bomb-diffusing wunderkind, and the film basically proceeds through a few action set pieces peppered sparsely with dialogue and interspersed with developmental scenes set on the Army base and also back home in America.

The Spartan script is one of the film’s biggest assets, allowing more meaning to be conveyed by the images and actions of the characters whilst avoiding clumsy expositionary dialogue in the process. The characters are complex and believable because everything occurs so naturally, and the chaotic atmosphere of the warzone allows for narrative leaps and disjointed events to make sense in the context of the film. The three bomb disposal team members fall into familiar categories with the loose-cannon hero, the sensible, settled black guy and the nervous rookie all present and correct, though there is never an excess of stereotypical behaviour or flatness to the characterisation. Modern masculinity becomes quite a central theme of the film, and there is one particular scene of drunken male behaviour which explores the shifts between male love, hate, lust and death in a very intelligent and powerful way. The bomb disposal itself manages to be funny and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously, and though this is an action movie at heart it uses violence and death sparingly which makes it all the more affecting when it does occur. It also features one of the best sniping sequences of any film, and the use of music and audio effects is always spot on and never detrimental to the film’s realist style.

The camerawork is all performed with the kind of post-Bourne shaky docu-style feel to it, but it is far more appropriate here than in most action films as each scene has many witnesses positioned around the blast perimeter or watching from afar, and the audience becomes just another member of the crowd, straining to glimpse the action. This also allows it to establish the setting all the more effectively. There are a couple of standout slow-mo shots, the first of which is unsurprising yet effective, whilst the second is more intriguing in its subject. You’ll have to go and see it to appreciate what I mean, but you should definitely do that anyway.

The Hurt Locker‘s leading roles are filled by little known actors, with only Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and a couple of other familiar faces making cameos, which means you’re never distracted from the diegesis by an established ego. At the start of the film a quote is displayed, with emphasis put on the portion which states ‘war is a drug’. There are subtle allusions to this throughout the film, though it is only in the closing montage that this is re-stated and examined, again in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. This is a movie that knows when to be subtle, how to use action effectively and how to be subversive without being pretentious. Truly a good movie by anyone’s standards. Go and watch it immediately!

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