To say that the HURT LOCKER is not engaging would be to dismiss its great qualities as a war boiler, steaming away two hours of your life. It’s exciting entertainment, no doubt. But the movie has some interesting under-currents, that for some reason, have been given a free pass by audiences and critics. The film moves fast and hard – its simplicity has been misconstrued as “apolitical,” its pumped-up action quietly dismissed, and its stereotypical characterizations inexplicably touted as war realism. The film is a bold statement, made all the more effective because it breezes and dodges from completing a single, comprehensive thought.
Playing on the, now, clichéd Hitchcockian trick of killing off an above the title star in the first few minutes of the film (see PSYCHO, SCREAM, et. al.), THE HURT LOCKER begins by blowing Guy Pierce into the dirt. The opening sequence establishes the tension of the movie – but it has nothing to do with the dangers of defusing unstable ordinance. In fact, the potentiality of the bombs supplies none of the film’s tension, anxiety, nor power. Instead, as shown in the opening scene, the film relies upon more cynical tricks to fool the audience.
The tension is, first, built by the unreliability of military technology. The film blinks open through the lens of a grab-and-stab robot peeling along the side of a bustling dusty road, next to the shoes and burka hems of the locals. The tension mounts as the metal claw pokes at a laundry bag, I found myself cringing in anticipation, “How loud is this movie going to be?” But the booming sound effect is delayed. Next the improvised cart, a joke of ingenuity among the team, breaks down which means the bomb suit must be equipped. The first of a litany of action movie clichés follows, as the impressive suit is loudly snapped, tightened, and slapped into place, recalling scenes from COMMANDO to ALIENS to EVIL DEAD II, where the hero readies for battle strapping on a personal arsenal that borders on the absurd. The fact that the suit fails, too, in the end, should surprise no one.
Second, the workaday aspect of the opening scene is set up to contrast the cowboy recklessness of the “wild man” to step on stage. The routine grind of mission, the deployment of the tools (i.e. robot and suit) and the good natured complaining/teasing, each remind us of the mundane banality that sets in to any situation when it becomes employment. This setup establishes an internal tension between the team and their new cavalier leader. While the team excels at risk aversion, their new leader thrives on risk enhancement. It is a tension of macho opposites. Manly responses at odds with each other. Neither any less than the other, for both are potentially deadly, but inherently different in their embrace of the masculine as identity (war as hard work v. war as extreme sport). These roles play out most obviously during the barracks bonding night. The three team members share alcohol, confessions, and belly punches. The antagonism grows until the wild man takes the rough housing too far and mounts his more cautious opponent, riding his shoulders in an obscene bucking bronco simulation of oral sex and alpha dog dominance. And that is to say nothing of the more odious racial implications of the same scene.
The third, and most disturbing aspect of the film’s tension, is established in the opening scene. In the chaos of the moment, a butcher slips through the fingers of the military to rush back into his store hung with carcasses. There he detonates the bomb that kills Guy Pierce. This is extremely important for a couple of reasons.
The Iraqis are portrayed as crowds, as an omnipresent and dangerous audience. The intractable other whose singularity presents the greatest threat. In other words, in a crowd of suspicious looking characters, the one who is up to no good blends right in. This is a familiar trope of all colonial art, the casting of the colonized as babbling outsider intent upon obstruction, if not outright confrontation. The differences in cultural standards of personal space, duration of gaze, religious customs, style of dress, are all singed by hostility.
Language is the biggest stumbling block. The DVD selling kid with his broken English slang, cribbed from hip hop and action films, provides the lighter side of the language divide (the fact that he is engaged in commerce must be mentioned, for capitalism is the great mission of Iraq, the prime mover for assimilation to the ruling culture). While the sudden approach of friendly banter, “Where are you from?” provides a dangerous distraction during two scenes – one ending with a predictable explosion. Even by the last mission, where a translator is present, the blubbering incoherence of the suicide bomber, adds fatigue to the tension.
The depiction of the Iraqis as a crowd, or peeping audience, is the source of all of the movie’s tension. Again, touted as a realistic portrayal of the situation on the ground as experienced by American forces, the real purpose is more manipulative. Without defining any rules of engagement, the movie implicates its viewer by setting up scenes so the viewer expects a level of violence that never materializes. In other words, the viewer, tricked into thinking they are watching a standard cartoony action blockbuster, expecting that when guns are pointed they will be fired with deadly accuracy. When this fury of bullets does not rain down in a pyrotechnic orgy, the viewer’s level of anxiety is elevated by the fact that the bloodthirsty expectations are left unfulfilled. What remains are the staring faces of the Iraqi extras. Their every move, gesture, and prop made suspicious, since as we learn from the opening scene, even the corner butcher might have the cell phone detonator that will set off the bomb. Again, we are informed of the colonial project. The crowds of onlookers are all suspect, all targets, all hostile – a point driven home by the slow motion scene where a group of boys throw rocks at the passing humvee. The viewer becomes frustrated by the inaction of the characters on the screen, as they hesitate and obey rules of engagement that are never clearly defined by the film. The viewer’s impatience, anxiety and frustration implicates the viewer in the tension – a slick manipulation that displaces by jacking up the levels of suspicion and inaction by the characters. The best example of this is the UN car bomb scene, where the video camera guy might be receiving messages from a threatening group on a minaret. The audience fidgets impatiently, almost shouting at the screen “Shoot him! Shoot him!”
There are so many clichés packed into the rest of the movie it is hard to not want to list them all. THE HURT LOCKER almost mirrors, or at least mocks, with its structure, John Wayne’s GREEN BERETS – right down to the night firefight chaos, the secret missions, and the scruffy haired kid that hangs around the base. There are the four major war film archetypes – the shell shocked fatalist who makes good at war by killing the enemy; the rogue risk-taking cowboy; the pragmatic stoic; the Ivy League trained officer who should have just worn the dead meat t-shirt.
Had the movie been braver, then the critical accolades it received might be justified. But I can’t help thinking that, much like the war it is fictionalizing, we were tricked into supporting it. And maybe, that is its brilliant statement.