Great films are defined by great scenes. Recall any Oscar winning film and your mind should immediately jump to a key sequence that helped ensure it went on to claim Hollywood’s greatest accolade.
From the Russian roulette sequence in 1978’s The Deer Hunter to Lester Burnham’s rose petal fantasies in 1999’s American Beauty, great scenes are what make great films. The Hurt Locker, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, has such a scene. Although, upon first seeing it, you might not consider it great and you would certainly be forgiven for missing it.
Visually, the section in question is pedestrian, some might even say unremarkable, when compared to the rest of the film’s intense war sequences. However, viewed alongside those it defines and explains so crisply who and what the film’s protagonist is, that there is no way it could not be the defining moment of the film.
Confronted by a 30 metre long aisle of breakfast cereal, Iraqi war veteran William James (Jeremy Renner) must choose a particular brand for his wife and young son. The task may seem simple enough but for Will it is anything but that. It’s in this moment that we understand that he is not designed for the ordinary world and that his purpose will, ultimately, forever lie on the battlefield.
The Hurt Locker begins with a quote from the book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (written by war correspondent Chris Hedges), it reads, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” It’s an uncomfortable idea that requires a person to tussle mentally with it’s implications but, when book-ended with the grocery store sequence mentioned above, it frames the The Hurt Locker as something quite different.
Having has just taken command of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (OED) team in Iraq, Sergeant First Class William James is joined by Sergeant J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Together, they are tasked with disarming and destroying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by insurgents in the post-invasion country.
Sanborn and Eldridge are responsible for protecting and providing assistance to Will as he tackles the bomb disposal part of the job. Unfortunately, Will’s maverick approach to his work soon puts him in conflict with his fellow soldiers.
Quite unlike any war movie I have ever seen, The Hurt Locker strips away the rhetoric usually associated with the genre, supporting neither the view of the American left or right, and presents a contained perspective of war from the viewpoint of the men on the ground. I realise most war films are about soldiers in the trenches but this film is possibly the most personal representation I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing – focusing purely on Will, Sanborn and Eldridge.
The fantastic thing about The Hurt Locker is that it provides the pieces and then requires its audience to bring them together to make a whole. We’re given the harsh Iraqi environment; the armed conflict; the soldiers, with their emotional baggage, internal conflict and the tough decisions they have to make daily; but we are never force fed a message or pointed in a specific direction.
Director Kathyrn Bigelow masterfully allows these elements to permeate the frame and then breathe. She is never prescriptive and, while this may sound like a recipe for disaster, it opens The Hurt Locker up to numerous interpretations and readings that will repeatedly reward a viewer with each successive viewing.
Is William truly addicted to battle? The signs are there but is it as simple as that? Why does he get so torn up when he discovers the body of a young Iraqi boy, whom he suspects is a friend from his base? These are some of the questions the film poses but never answers completely.
Bigelow augments this openness with a visual style that can only be described as art. Extreme close-ups of half faces, Soviet montage editing techniques (a slaughtered animal on a man’s back cut together with a running William) and taut action sequences contribute wonderfully to the sense of uncertainty that Will and his fellow soldiers feel in relation to their tour in Iraq.
Bigelow’s direction of the action sequences must be commended. Incredibly tense and brutal, the film’s quieter – more introspective – moments are blown to bloody shreds with her depictions of armed conflict.
The Hurt Locker is truly deserving of the awards (six in total) it garnered at this year’s Academy awards ceremony. It’s a film experience that provides a wallop of a first time viewing before nestling comfortably into your mind, asking you to prod and mull it over a bit more as you try and get to the bottom of what it all means and represents. It epitomizes the best type of cinema because it engages on both an emotional and intellectual level.
Described by some as a relentless film experience, at the conclusion of The Hurt Locker I found myself in awe of Sergeant First Class William James and his “addiction’. I have a feeling that many people will feel the same way after having seen the film.