the hurt locker (kathryn bigelow, 2009)

March 29, 2010

Zoom into an action scene close enough, and the fun turns into torture. The Hurt Locker is action film-making in real-time close-up. The camera follows every bead of sweat, catches every panicked flicker of its protagonists’ eyes. We register every distant cry, hear the crunch of sand under every footstep, wince at the roar of jets overhead. At this level of intimacy and immersion, action isn’t exciting, it’s terrifying. It’s somewhere you don’t want to be.

Especially in its standout set-pieces – the opening, the car bomb – there is a sharp, tactile quality to the film. The ruined streets of Baghdad could almost be an alien planet, the suited-up soldiers of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit treading its fraught surface like astronauts. Each scene is enveloped in a dizzyingly vivid sense of place and mapped out in a clear geography – a surprisingly rare skill among action directors. The verite-style camerawork, frame-perfect editing, flawless spatial construction, exceptional sound design and minimal score combine to make every scene tense, visceral: The Hurt Locker is a remarkable technical achievement for Kathryn Bigelow and her crew.

Everything that is inessential to the action is pared away. Politics, or even much of a narrative, are conspicuously absent – we follow a bomb disposal team’s tour of duty, during which they engage in routine operations, where any momentary sense of safety is relative at best. The film never leaves a soldier’s-eye-view. This is about nothing other than the thrill and fear of constant danger, each moment pregnant with the possibility of instant, unforseeable death.

It’s now been overshadowed by its Academy Awards success, Bigelow’s historic win in particular. It’s a more modest film (in intent, not in quality) than this hype might suggest, which has already led to an undeserved backlash. It doesn’t set out to be a Big Statement film, and it’s all the better for it. As a study of men’s responses to death and mortal peril  (and this is a very masculine film), as a riveting, unforgiving piece of action cinema, The Hurt Locker marks itself indeliby in the mind.

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