Kathryn Bigelow seems to have made a career of films about addiction, Near Dark being a bizarre drug drama (with blood) as well as a western, Point Break all about adrenalin addiction driving everyone forward and Strange Days commenting on the way we become addicted to more and more violent entertainment the more we are exposed to it. The Hurt Locker follows these themes but tackles a much more serious subject – what if we became addicted to war? That it does this without delving into the politics behind conflict is nothing short of a miracle.
The Hurt Locker dispenses with a traditional plot, instead presenting a series of tense set pieces around the role of bomb-disposal experts following the liberation of Iraq (the one sly joke about the liberation is about as close to a political statement that this film makes) and the effect of this constant exposure to danger has upon them. One becomes obsessed with the fact that he will die, another refuses to commit to anything because of the possibility that he will not be able to see it through, the last has become addicted to the high of constantly evading it. It is the actions of the last and his effect on the psychology of the other two that becomes the focus of the film. William has become like a weird form of Yossarian, damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He wants to get home, but when he’s there he knows he’ll miss the rush that his job gives him.
This appears to be the point of the film, are we through training and conflict creating a generation of men who become addicted to risk or war itself? Bigelow comments neither way, but does allow for the fact that this may be a coping mechanism for some. It is clear that she admires them for what they are willing to do, even if her political leanings are less clear (although the lack of political leaning possibly accounts for the reason the film succeeds).
Away from the central idea of the film, Bigelow succeeds in creating a series of set pieces that continually ratchet up the tension to near unbearable levels. Not only are the bombs themselves a threat, the environment and the people are potential threats as well. Everything is viewed through the suspicious eyes of the men on the ground, something as casual in the west as a mobile phone takes on another, more sinister motive in this environment. Bigelow remains an oddity in Hollywood, who pursues more action orientated films than many of her peers are given chance to, but once again she shows that she is a far better director than many other so-called action directors – Hollywood would do well to give her a chance at a summer spectacular.
Ultimately, The Hurt Locker could be the first great film about the Iraq war, not because it’s about the war itself but about the experience of war as seen through the eyes of those involved in it. It’s not without its problems (a sub-plot involving an attempt to bond with a child seems a little forced) but it is a genuinely thrilling and intelligent action film.