Imagine your street. Imagine it strewn with litter and debris. Now imagine that any plastic bag you touch or Coke can you kick could annihilate you and a large proportion of your surroundings. Heavily armed soldiers, exhausted with nervous tension, scan the rooftops for anyone who could end your life in a split second by using only a mobile phone.
As the soldiers decide whether to take or not take the shot, a figure materialises from the shimmering haze. Like a deep-sea diver traversing a desert ocean floor, the figure approaches a burnt-out car or a pile of rubbish with the grace of a ballet dancer. The temperature inside the suit is unbearable, radio chatter buzzes about like trapped hornets, and all the while the figure must disarm multiple IEDs. Who said men can’t multi-task?
Welcome to the world of “The Hurt Locker” – Kathryn Bigelow’s palm-shredding return to form. We follow a three-man Bomb Disposal squad in Iraq during their last 38 days before rotation. The new leader, Sgt. William James, is a wild maverick, brilliant but reckless with his life and the lives of his protection team, Sgt. JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge. Sanborn and Eldridge are still mourning the death of their previous boss, the dependable Sgt. Thompson.
Bigelow orchestrates each set piece with multiple camera angles so that every balcony or alley becomes a potential death trap. The abstract soundtrack hisses and cracks, mirroring the unconventional nature of Baghdad’s urban battlefield. James is a cowboy, a gunslinger striding down the street with only eyes for the bombs he must defuse and the men who might detonate them. Sanborn and Eldridge have it the roughest as everyone or everything could be a target and they are not helped by James’ blatant disregard for protocol.
We get the sense that an extended sniper battle is almost a welcome relief for Sanborn as he has a definite enemy to fire at. Bigelow expertly bonds the three men in this sequence as they work to save themselves and a bunch of British mercenaries. She reveals the symbiotic relationship between professional military men as their training kicks in, whilst the mercenaries crumble under fire. In one touching moment James gets a drink for Sanborn, who has just killed the enemy marksman and is still scanning the horizon for other hidden dangers while obviously fatigued.
Sanborn’s state of mind is just one explanation for the ambiguous title. Is it the area that their operations take place in, the rows of clinical white lockers that house the dead soldiers personal artefacts, or, like Sanborn, the way each soldier compartmentalises their personal experience of war? Is it the crestfallen look on the face of an Iraqi boy? Or is it simply the deadly array of defused detonators that James keeps under his bed? As he says, “This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.”
The image of James venturing out into the empty desert from the confines of civilization is as powerful as anything in recent modern American film industry. He is the new breed of Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers,” a warrior only useful in war, too dark and disturbed to be useful in peace.