The Hurt Locker

Unable to parse what he sees, James finds meaning, at last, in his misreading.

The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce, Brian Geraghty
Rated: R
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-06-26 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-08-28 (General release)
There was no way to know. You had to accept your ignorance; it was the beginning of whatever wisdom you could hope to muster.

-- Dexter Filkins, The Forever War

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) doesn't know much. He's the first to admit it, too, that his horizon has narrowed to a very short range of experiences, that the thing he finds most interesting is his job, that is, defusing bombs in Iraq, circa 2004. He likes his team members okay, and knows he should care for his wife back home. But moment to moment, James is consumed with the details of what he does, details that demand his attention to the exclusion of all else.

This focus doesn't always sit well with his comrades in the Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad. Certainly, it's good to have a desfuser who wont be distracted at key moments. Both Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) know what it feels like to lose a team member. The start of The Hurt Locker shows exactly that. Watching in horror from relative safe spots on a street in Baghdad, they are helpless to save Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce) from an explosion that sends his armored figured flying like a rag doll into hot dusty air.

When James shows up as replacement, both Sanborn and Eldridge are wary. Swaggery and stubborn, he seems reckless even if he is proficient. Pressed by a thrill-seeking colonel (David Morse), James admits he's defused 873 bombs, an astounding number, considering how easy it is to trigger the too-clever-by-half homemade devices favored by the "insurgents." The colonel looks giddy when he hears this ("That's gotta be a record!"), while James glances away, uncomfortable that he's been found out. Not only does he keep count, but he also keeps souvenirs, a collection of components Sanborn discovers under James' cot back at base camp. Following a few moments of drunken respite -- wrestling to the point of pain and fear -- Sanborn demands an explanation of this "hurt locker." James offers, "This box is full of stuff that almost killed me." Sanborn and Eldridge look appalled.

It's not that they don't appreciate James' skills. Like the red-faced colonel, they understand his value. But they're not so sure they like being the tagalongs on his personal adventures. When James removes his communications headset or goes into a potential blast area without his armor (on finding a car loaded with "enough bang to send us all to Jesus," he rips off his helmet and vest, announcing, "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable"), Sanborn is righteously outraged. Such cowboy behavior puts everyone in James' vicinity at risk -- which is not to say that waking up in Baghdad each morning is not a risk in itself. Still, Sanborn worries, James' addiction to the rush is unnerving. Sanborn, for one, wants to go home when his rotation is up -- and he's down to days, following years of waiting.

This manifest tension between James and Sanborn shapes the movie, alongside a dissimilarity between the earnest, needing-to-believe Eldridge and the dreadfully existentialist James. While the kid is troubled by the deaths he witnesses (speaking intermittently with a shrink on base), he also has faith in James' showy arrogance, hoping that if only he can emulate it, he might survive, or at least feel like a man instead of a frightened boy.

It's in these briefly drawn contrasts and collusions that Kathryn Bigelow's film locates its philosophical and moral center. While the context of the war in Iraq helps to clarify these relationships, it is also incidental. For the film is more precisely about the complexities of masculinity, the expectations that weigh on all three team members, but especially on James. If Sanborn and Eldridge are stranded in the desert without a stateside context, James' backstory is sketched when he calls home but can't speak to his wife, and again when he admits to Sanborn that he has a son. But if he ever dreamed of going back, now James can't picture it. When he does so-briefly gaze on his infant as if he's from Mars, James can only barely appreciate that he represents his own former self ("You love everything, don't you?"), before he gives in to his own ongoing sense of loss: "As you get older, you love one or two things. Maybe just one thing."

That one thing for James is at once obvious and, tragically, unknowable. Trained up to be a kind of ultimate man, he can't find his way back. Even when he seeks meaning in his life now -- for instance, in his minutes-long relationship with Beckham (Christopher Sayegh), the young Iraqi soccer fan who sells him pirated DVDs -- James remains caught up in a kind of abject, inevitable ignorance. Finding a child who's been made into a "body bomb," James is convinced it's Beckham. Outraged by the personal affront and moral hurt imposed by this brutal act, he takes another unnecessary risk, determined to treat the corpse with the respect he imagines it deserves rather than blowing it up, as protocol demands.

James' efforts to extract and disarm the bomb inside this kid's chest constitute one more in the series of defusing scenes -- tense, beautifully filmed and edited, a stunning set of images, refracted and fragmented in hanging plastic strips and filthy windows. As he plunges his hands inside this bloody boy, The Hurt Locker makes explicit how hard it is for James to see where he is or even who he is. As visceral and immediate as he believes his experience to be, he has also imagined himself into another dimension. Mirroring viewers who seek, alternately or simultaneously, understanding and excitement in such in nail-bitey screen action, James is unable to parse what he sees. It's in his misreading, at last, that he finds meaning.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.