A few weeks ago, the Harvard Film Archive hosted an advance screening and director’s Q&A of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, the Hurt Locker. Bigelow is a conceptual artist as much as she is a filmmaker. When asked why she made this film, she described how she wanted the Hurt Locker to be an enveloping experience which forces us to become the characters we watch as they stay true to their flaws, and as they constantly brace for attack. I almost never like it when an artist describes his or her ambitions for a piece, but here, I believe Bigelow, because she has completely succeeded in translating her sophisticated concepts onto the screen, where they are accessible to everyone alike.
In a way, the audience was indeed constantly under attack, in that Bigelow maintains suspense by keeping the characters in both physical and moral danger. This prevailing tension even survived a projector malfunction between the film’s fourth and fifth reels. In this unintentional intermission, it came to mind how, despite being aware of the devices Bigelow uses, I still could not escape the film’s empathetic and corporeal engagement.
This film is nearly flawless, and that is why the reviews of the Hurt Locker are almost unanimous in offering unabashed praise. The camera constructs a lucid, three dimensional geography of suspense and danger with a style similar to what we saw in 2008’s Gomorrah. In addition to stellar writing and performances, Hurt Locker completely disarms any shadow of disbelief.
When asked how she made this experience so real while departing from many of the war-movie conventions from the past, Bigelow talked about how loyal her directing had been to descriptions of Iraq in 2004. Sergeants on site told her time and again how well her crew had done in recreating the scenarios on which the script is based. This observance of reality has made the piece much stronger in its fictions. As we crane our necks up toward the screen, we feel shards of broken glass beneath our cautious footsteps, and count anxiously with our soldiers the days we have left to go. We don’t need a yellow ribbon to follow them along. Under constant threat from civilians lining the streets, we join the two supporting characters to feel we have no choice but to follow our team leader into the desert heat. There, he leaves us hanging, casting off his headset and armor to untangle death’s wiry pelvis for the 873rd time.
This film is not withholding of prickly scenes. A sniper stand-off in the desolate hills condenses the world to a two-dimensional plane anchored between two gun barrels, and strings with it tensile validation for each of our three teammates. One reaches around a gun to feed another Capri Sun. One receives said Capri Sun graciously. One licks blood from bullets and gets his first kill. Another scene, similar in after-image to The Wrestler, uses a cereal aisle in a grocery store to show how irrelevant and powerless our main character feels outside the battlefield. A vigilante excursion into civilian Baghdad questions this very relevance, and ends in humiliation under the unleavened hostility of a brandished rolling pin. These scenes and many others make us wince with vinegary heebie-jeebies as they show us how fate can trap a character between an alien war and an even more alienating home.
Hurt Locker’s ending troubled me for a while. It is stupid in a sense, because it draws us needlessly back to the desert with a cliché walk into the afternoon sun. But even though the character makes his choice not to abandon the tension and the staggering waves of heat, his reasoning makes sense, and the world he brings the film back into is the only world he can exist in. In this feeling, Bigelow has successfully echoed the ending to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. She has crafted a character’s duty with which to lead him, and his audience trailing behind, passively across a psychological sea from the life he’s come to shed.