A World of Hurt
By Hugh Lilly
One of the best films of 2009—and one of the finest representations of the psychological and physical effects of war ever depicted on screen—is finally being released in New Zealand. The Hurt Locker follows a US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in post-invasion Iraq, and focuses in particular on the interactions between three men on that team and the addictive, adrenaline-heavy, and ultimately futile nature of military conflict.
Staff Sergeant Will James, played by Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) is expert at defusing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)—or roadside bombs, which constitute a hidden, ever-present threat—and someone for whom the film’s epigrammatic opening quote, “war is a drug,” is nothing less than a life philosophy. Renner appears alongside Anthony Mackie (Half Nelson, Million Dollar Baby) and, in a star-making performance, the relatively unknown Brian Geraghty. Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse (Proof of Life, TV’s House) play bit parts, and Evangeline Lilly (TV’s Lost) appears briefly as Sgt. James’ wife. The film details a thirty-day tour of the EOD team, and derives its power not through sheer spectacle or explosive set-pieces—although there are certainly a few of those—but rather from its creation of a wholly immersive, incredibly tense environment, achieved through a deft combination of hair-trigger editing, sound design and precise cinematography. No film about the current quagmire in Iraq—and there were several this past awards season alone—has yet achieved the synthesis of acting, direction and overall immersive cinematic construct on display here.
The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, an action filmmaker who has steadily amassed a solid body of work in the years since her criminally under-seen 1987 début, a vampire film called Near Dark. Perhaps surprisingly, Bigelow comes from an academic background: she studied under Miloš Foreman at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and her thesis film, “The Set-Up,”—according to Manohla Dargis in the New York Times—features Gary Busey and another man fighting “while two semioticians, Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, deconstruct the images in voice-over.” While this may seem an unnecessary tidbit, it goes some way to explaining the director’s approach: she understands the fundamental grammar of film as more than just a random combination of images and sound; everything in a film frame is there on purpose, every shot and angle is calculated to create meaning. An emphasis on generating audience response is evident in all her films, from the cult surfer flick Point Break to the erotically-charged cop thriller Blue Steel, to the otherworldly qualities of the virtual-reality cyberpunk picture Strange Days, and the immersive milieux of K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hurt Locker. By way of illustration, as in the opening scenes of Bigelow’s earlier picture Strange Days, The Hurt Locker begins by diving straight into a perspective mediated by technology—in this case, the camera of a bomb-disposal robot.
The film was shot over 44 days in and around Amman, Jordan—including areas near the border with Iraq—and in Kuwait in the northern summer of 2008, and had a total budget, according to writer Mark Boal, that was roughly equivalent to “a day’s worth of craft services [catering] on Transformers.” It is telling of the level of respect accorded to independent productions, and perhaps also to women filmmakers, that Bigelow was unable to secure any military cooperation—whereas with Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, Michael Bay enjoyed unprecedented access to all manner of military technology and assistance, and was able to fly across the globe and “blow up” the pyramids in Egypt on a whim. Given the conditions faced by its creators, that The Hurt Locker was made at all is astounding, and the fact that it has won some 94 awards and counting—uniquely for a modern film, there is a lengthy Wikipedia article dedicated to tallying all the accolades bestowed upon it—proves that dedication, determination and authorial vision can triumph over big-budget bravado, if only on occasion.
The script was written by Mark Boal, an American journalist whose writings formed the basis of Paul Haggis’ 2007 Iraq War film In The Valley of Elah. The screenplay is based on dispatches written from his experience being embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq in 2004 who, he says, would defuse up to ten or twelve bombs a day. The title is military slang that, along with phrases like “a world of hurt,” dates from the Vietnam War, and can mean both a claustrophobic physical or mental space occupied by a soldier, or, as it is obliquely used in the film, a box of memento mori—a crate of bomb parts Sgt. James stores under his bunk.
Boal’s aim in writing the script, whose three central figures are composites of several individuals, was to make the film feel as naturalistic as possible, to give the audience the experience of being there “on the ground.” Note that although the film certainly is naturalistic, this does not mean that it is necessarily realistic—there are no TVs on in the background tuned to 24-hour news stations, for example. In fact, there is very little outside the soldiers’ immediate surroundings or of the wider world in the film, or even of other military staff—and this is part of its effectiveness. The film doesn’t go out of its way to make a political statement—generally, says Boal, “bomb techs don’t sit around discussing George W. Bush while they’re defusing an IED”—and is, in fact, politically indifferent. The question of whether a film about an ongoing war has a responsibility to make a statement about that war simply because it is ongoing is irrelevant in this case—this is an action film, not a documentary or a slow-burning polemical drama. However, through its apolitical stance, the film tacitly ratifies the war and “the Bush-surge and Obama-post surge versions of the war—if not the Cheneyism that started it all,” as the film critic Steven Shaviro notes. This, in Shaviro’s eyes, is at least preferable to the overt “anti-militarism” of James Cameron’s Avatar—a statement with which most would probably agree.
The Hurt Locker had its world première at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2008, after which it was shown at The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The independent feature was purchased at Toronto for US distribution by Summit Entertainment, the distributors of Twilight—so, in essence, ticket sales from that series of films helped pay for (at least) the initial theatrical run of The Hurt Locker. Following TIFF, the film had its US première at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas on March 17, 2009—over a year ago. When it screens here for the first time in limited release, it will be more than 380 days since it was first shown in the US. (Interestingly, perhaps owing to the atypical distribution pattern to which it has been subjected, and the fact that it would appear to have been distributed in Europe in some sort of digital format in late-2008/early-2009, the film has been available online—in various formats, including 720p high-definition—since at least January 27, 2009.)
As of this writing the film has grossed only US$16.4m domestically, a mere fraction of the US$77m opening weekend box-office take boasted by Avatar, a film it beat in the race for Best Picture. (The Hurt Locker is, in fact, the lowest-grossing film to have ever been awarded that prize.) Among its many other awards-season claims, including five other Oscars—with Bigelow’s Best Director win making her the first woman in the history of the Academy to be given the accolade—The Hurt Locker has the distinction of being the first non-British film since American Beauty to sweep the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards, winning Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and Sound.
The film is the perfect confluence of editing, musical score and sound mixing. It was shot by master cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, an Australian who photographed United 93, Battle in Seattle and Looking for Eric, and another recent Iraq-focussed film, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. The documentary-like aesthetic of all these films is present also in The Hurt Locker, with multiple Super-16mm cameras positioned at almost every conceivable angle around a scene. This logistical decision paid off in spades and meant that the editors, Bob Murwaski and Chris Innis, reportedly had a million feet of film to edit down—incidentally the same amount as Francis Ford Coppola shot on Apocalypse Now. A sequence involving enemy snipers in the desert, where the EOD team encounters a group of private military contractors from Britain—one of whom is played by Ralph Fiennes—contains some of the finest cinematic photography of the past decade, and the film’s opening scene, in which Guy Pearce’s Sergeant Thompson elects to defuse an IED by hand, delivers a palpable tension that remains almost entirely uninterrupted for the following two hours.
Bigelow’s stated intention with the film’s sound track was to deliberately “blur the line between sound effects and score,” and this has certainly been achieved to perfection, with Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ compact score being employed in concert with the narrative to dizzying, engrossing effect—blended, in most cases, so subtly as to make it vanish into the diegesis. Outside of the main melodic theme—a beautifully plaintive, strained motif played first by a single violin and then later repeated on erhu (a Chinese string instrument), on piano and with a string quartet—much of Beltrami and Sanders’ compositions are so economically-crafted and so tightly wound around the rest of the film’s aural landscape that they are almost invisible, which only adds to the feeling of total immersion that the film aims to achieve. The score also borrows deliberately from Jonny Greenwood’s phenomenal, economic score for There Will Be Blood—even going as far as to call one of the cues, which mimics Greenwood’s homage to Krzysztof Penderecki in its use of whining dissonant strings, “There Will Be Bombs.” Another cue, “A Guest In My House,” combines electronically looped cello reminiscent of Zoë Keating’s recent experimental album One Cello x16: Natoma and heartbeat-like sounds to great effect, and is by far the most physically affecting piece in the film. Real sound effects embedded in the score—including the distant wail of prayer-like chants, in cues like “Body Bomb”—blend with helicopter-like synthesisers in much the same way as Walter Murch used his “ghost helicopter” sound against the blank opening seconds of Apocalypse Now. As the film score critic Timothy E. Raw writes, this all helps to make “the fog of war just as aural as it is visual.”
Though it may appear hyperbolic to say so, The Hurt Locker is to the Second Gulf War what Apocalypse Now was to Vietnam. The latter, retroactively labelled “the first TV war,” gave at-home viewers unprecedented access to the war in the form of newsreel footage—and those same viewers marvelled at the outsize representations of that explosive footage in glorious 70mm on a silver screen. On the other hand, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as it is officially named, is taking place in an era of always-on, 24/7 infotainment, an era in which YouTube clips of Humvees being blown up—something Nicholas Sautin, writing recently in Guernica magazine, called “a porn medium made from [the] leftovers of a world filming its own destruction”—are commonplace. A generation that has grown up playing first-person shooter video-games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a generation well-versed in the nuances of social media and inundated daily with visual and aural stimuli like none other before it, needs a film that puts them as viewers “in the moment.” The Hurt Locker is that film.
[This review will run in print on Monday, March 29—the following dates are relative.]
The Hurt Locker has been playing in the World Cinema Showcase since last week,
and opens in a limited run this Thursday.