The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigalow, 2008)

Sergeant James can’t stop disarming bombs

No one is sane in this portrait of soldiers in the second Gulf War. No one unscarred. But each of the three bomb squad members carries the horror in their own way. Their job is to locate and dismantle explosives in the streets of Iraq. Every day in their lives brings new painful trauma, near-death experiences and seeing innocent people blow up.

Sergeant James is the leader of the group. He has a can-do attitude and neglects procedure if he thinks it stands in the way of getting results. Behind his tough guy façade rests a truly empathic person who is desperate to help people in the best way he can: by marginalizing his own safety. The junior of the bunch is Eldridge, who is emotionally not up to the job. He’s reached his breaking point, freezes in battle. Then there’s Sanborn. He seems the rational one. He keeps his cool and performs his job to a T. He hates James for his way of dealing with things, but quickly turns out to be the most dangerous of the bunch, tempted to use the violence of war as an excuse to deal with his problems murderously. And yet none of them are stereotypes. They’re not fictional, but real people in extreme situations. Often though, life has a way of just going on, one day after the other. This film makes that more than clear.

The Hurt Locker was showered with Oscars early 2010, including Best Director and Best Picture, surpassing its main competitor Avatar. It should never have been much of a contest at all. The latter is an unoriginal fantasy tale saved only by its well-crafted visuals. The former is an important movie that shows in subtle ways the realities of modern warfare. The Hurt Locker begins with a quote about war being a kind of drug. In what follows, it isn’t afraid to show its madness, but also the daily doldrums and blasé attitude towards death it can inspire. It is not a biting satire like Three Kings, nor is it a heroic tale of overcoming hardships like Band of Brothers. Using a confident documentary filming style and a superb oscillation between quiet moments and chaotic violence, it’s an honest, heart-pounding view on what it means to be a soldier at war, and perhaps, addicted to it.

Roderick Leeuwenhart


  1. "The latter is an unoriginal fantasy tale saved only by its well-crafted visuals. The former is an important movie that shows in subtle ways the realities of modern warfare"

    I hate this kind of comparison. It is based on the idea that meaning is more important than image. This attitude is exactly why modern painting and sculpture are so horrible: there are all kinds of deeper meanings, but few modern works are actually beautiful to see. With most modern art the description is more interesting than the work itself.

    Now don't get me wrong, I think The Hurt Locker is a great movie, so I agree with you on that one. But I strongly oppose the idea that a beautifully crafted world is by definition of lesser quality/relevance/importance than a deep story.

    1. An interesting point, let me try to latch onto that.

      Firstly, comparisons between movies are always relatively iffy and easy to get wrong. This is why Filmadeus has no scores: so it's impossible to take an abstract mathematical number to compare two pictures without it making sense. Whenever I do compare films, it's to make a point or draw attention to something. That can also go wrong, but I hope I usually get across what I intend to.

      The comparison between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, two wildly differing films, is predicated only on the context of the Oscars, where they raced against each other. That is its sole validity. The Oscars are divided into a bunch of categories, among which best cinematography, which would take visual quality into accound. The relevant category was, however, Best Film. That is, perhaps unfortunately, a category that doesn't look at visual world building, but searches primarily for meaning and poignancy. The point I tried to make was that Avatar has very little of that and got into the race on hype alone, it would seem.

      Furthermore, my emphasis on the visual quality was an attempt to point out how much the film lacked in other areas. I don't think Avatar is a very good example of the type of film that uses beautifully crafted worlds to any meaningful effect. I agree with you that it can be a powerful, defining factor in a film. Maybe not alone, though. I'm having a hard time thinking of an example where the sheer visual beauty of the world is enough to carry a film to brilliance. Sunshine? Valhalla Rising? The Fall? I'd love to hear your suggestions.

    2. Yeah, Avatar and The Hurt Locker are of course an obvious comparison, besides the Oscars also because they were made by an ex-couple.

      My problem with the topic is that "Best Film" is indeed carried by "meaning and poignancy" as you say. There are many criteria that come together to make a good film (acting, music, story, editing, visuals, meaning, etc.) and in the end there are hardly any films that are the very top of their year in _all_ of these categories. So they somehow need to be compared, and I think visuals is not considered important enough in this regard.

      No film is ever carried by only one criterium, though, so I doubt you'll find a movie where everything sucks but the visuals are so good that it is still a fantastic movie. Just like The Hurt Locker is not an ugly movie at all. For examples of movies where the visuals are very good, but other elements not always as much, I'd look at animation, I think. A Ghibli movie like Totoro for example is caried mostly by incredible visuals and atmosphere and doesn't have all that much story.

    3. Yes, Ghibli is a good example. I think Wes Anderson also has a strong visual identity that define his films, the way he lays out scenes in layers and often goes ultra-flat or even shoots in schematics. It's fantastic.