Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER is a rather impressive feature that re-imagines the Iraq War sub-genre as a Western genre film, with celebrated cowboys dressed as admired soldiers, the Middle East cities used as Old West towns. Bigelow tries to reinvent this modern war film by flirting with the realism of the Iraq War and the Wild West mythologies, blurring the film’s identification between them in the intent to create a picture that contains both veracity and romanticism; the shake-cam filmmaking with the adrenaline situations of a ranger in the middle of the deserted town. No interests in politics, nor a moral righteousness about war. “War is a drug” is the film’s popular quote; it isn’t written as a political argument, but as an observation of a culture that celebrates violence.
The situations of THE HURT LOCKER are cinematic entertainment at its most effective state. After all, it is all about sensations. Like the videogames that the soldiers have fun with when out of the battlefield – and indeed, as the use of the miniature bomb-disarming robots, controlled by hand-sticks – the film thrives to create a pressor that satisfies the appetitive of adrenaline to the viewer, like the citizens who stand to watch the missions from the soldiers; the events are irresistible. Bigelow seems to think of war – especially this one, announced by a President who loves cowboys and mythology, and thrived on emotionality, not in rationality – as a manifestation of a culture that defines itself by feelings, whether it is the soldiers or the viewers. This was further explored by Sam Mendes’ JARHEAD before, and that famous narration about masturbation. Neither film is pro-war or anti-war; they are meta-war movies that are extensions of a culture’s sexualization of violence, with a playfulness about explosions that is descriptive of a time where heroism and escapism is found through the mythology of battle and bloodshed.
But if the film from Mendes made the audience distant to observe such emotionalism, Bigelow makes us share it, with little plot or dialogue, all in the name of the suspense and action. She focuses on the most minutiae details by creating pictures of isolation, like western films in their deserted shootouts, where a word or move can be lethal, where the progress of time becomes painful. The audience is thus made to question movement and identify with the characters in the frame through the tension – in other words, the ever-successful Hitchcockian formulas and rules. Of course, we celebrate such sensations. In each of the sequences in which a bomb is about to be diffused, James (Jeremy Renner) becomes the center of the world, in which possibilities are endless; a show with a crowd and a stage. Like his partners, we can’t help but to live the experience right along with him, as we wonder at the surroundings and the decisions we would make, and then at the decisions he makes – a sense that is heightned by the different POVs from bystanders and then from James; different perspectives, but all in the same place and moment. Mendes’ film looks at war’s mythology; Bigelow’s film lives it.
THE HURT LOCKER is still marred by a shaky-cam that eventually becomes wearisome, and in particular that Iraq bright radiance, invaded with American uniforms, that is now tiresome. Indeed, had this sub-genre not been saturated so much in recent years (through cinema and elsewhere), Bigelow’s film may have provoked a more enthusiastic reaction from me. Even with a narrative that locates exceptional images occasionally – such as the revelation of various hidden bombs in the street, which was used for the poster – the traditional palette and the general aesthetic of American soldiers in Iraq has inundated today’s films so much that Bigelow’s distinctiveness seems trapped in a setting that has been clichéd.
Nevertheless, Bigelow’s film is an admirable Iraq War entry; one that is free of overstatements, like in Brian De Palma’s REDACTED, and of usual Hollywood tropes, like Ridley Scott’s BODY OF LIES. Instead it captures something that is primitive about our contemporary times through its situations, which is quite simply, our masturbatory need of adrenaline and feelings. As James tells his little child about his pastime by the end of the film, how war stimulates and entertains him and his past childish things don’t, we can’t help to identify in a certain degree with him. Not as soldiers, but as viewers in search of escapism. THE HURT LOCKER is, like a video-game, like a brutal sport, or like movies about cowboys in shootouts, a pastime drived from guilty pleasures.