From the moment the IED exploded, my expectations fled the scene alongside the bomb’s metal and concrete shrapnel. Despite having all of the elements of a true American made war movie, you know, the tough yet scarred soldiers, innocent bystanders, and a desolate depiction of the Middle East, “The Hurt Locker” has a way of rising above the lovable, tired stereotype.
The movie begins by featuring Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce), an easily likable yet conservative bomb technician. Within minutes he is killed. This not only shattered to smithereens what should have been the predictable climax of the movie, but also left me in a state of confusion as I desperately tried to think of an alternative peak.
In comes cocky, self-centered, smart-ass bomb tech Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner). Beginning as a protagonist villain, he is the opposite of the character you’re supposed to love, but are almost forced to in spite of that. From his debut onward, I looked for every conceivable option to give him more respect than a raised eyebrow and displeased scowl. The plot offered no ceasefire in the horridness of the main character’s personality. Yet, it made the movie that much more gripping.
The plot juxtaposes the supporting characters, as what we believe a soldier should be – brother before self, honorable, and so forth – against James’ personality in the face of war. This contradiction is as frustrating as a newly formed scab, but is able to place faces onto the figurative nature of reality. Everyone has a unique style and offers different perspectives, and as hard as it may be to avoid picking at the imperfections, it is a scar of life, and war. James represents that one type of person that we try so hard to understand, but continually fall short of; and maybe that’s the point. It is only amongst the backdrop of James’ easily categorized fellow soldiers Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is this split between idealized and authentic personalities noticed.
In one scene, which is the catalyst for the first time James shows true human emotion – imagine that – the range of ways soldiers deal with the intimacy of war is explored. James keeps a container under his bed comprised of pieces from deactivated IEDs and personal keepsakes, such as his wedding ring, that he describes as a “box full of things that almost killed” him. To this, Sgt. Sanborn replies, “that’s a box of shit from Radio Shack.” The opposing statements portray the ways in which soldiers cope with their lethal addiction to a necessary evil. Some let it define them while others do everything possible to objectify it.
The concept of opposing viewpoints is apparent in more places than just the main characters. The scenes of Iraqi children watching from what seem to be structurally unsound balconies and street corners interspersed between high-impact war scenes points to one of the film’s strengths. This is the ability to focus on the innocence of the situation as much as the violence. The places and faces of the war are given an active heartbeat, making them feel closer than a continent away. At times, the film seems as though the characters are average Americans dressed in military uniforms with Iraq acting as a green screen background. This is not a knock at the special effects, but rather a praise of director Kathryn Bigelow’s ability to make a torn and confusing landscape seem so homegrown.
“The Hurt Locker” is a war movie as much as it is a psychological look into the sides of the human spirit. Many movies try to glorify the stereotype of soldiers as always being tenacious and unwavering, but this complex is not black and white. Instead, Bigelow is able to twist up the black with the white and ring out a grey perspective. This viewpoint reaches back to the juvenile basis of all human emotions, which soldiers are not immune to, but rather more susceptible to because of the primitive nature of war. As much as the film skirts around this cliché, it makes appearances in subdued ways. The most obvious being when James offers Sanborn the last juice box while in a sniper standoff. Aww, it sounds just like something out of a kindergarten playground. But, remember, this is war, not a play date.
Among the abundance of strong points and anxious hair twirling lies the film’s most unique feature. There is no true climax. Rather, there are smaller, equally as powerful, moments within the film that keep your heart rate pumping. Every deactivated bomb, shootout, and near death experience keep true to the genre while redefining it all together.
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