The Hurt Locker

Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Gerraghty, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Rated MA 15+ (strong themes, violence and coarse language). 131 mins.

This film was winner of the Catholic Jury’s SIGNIS award at the Venice Film Festival in 2008.

It may be another film about Iraq, but it is one of the most critical of these films. Much more so than Redacted, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, The Battle of Haditha and Stop-Loss.

The Hurt Locker is based on articles written by Mark Boas (also the basis for In the Valley of Elah) after he spent time as an embedded journalist with a specialist bomb-diffusing squad. As plots go, the film is generally a succession of missions to defuse, so detailed that the audience will feel that they have almost been embedded as well. The dangers and the risks are palpable. As one of the squad, with obsessive pessimism continually gnawing at him, states: that to be in Iraq is to be dead.

There is a quotation at the opening of the film which tells us that war is a drug. This is illustrated by the central character William James (Jeremy Renner) who is described by an officer as a Wild Man, whose actions are reminiscent of the cowboys (or, rather, the gunslingers). A young boy who sells fake DVDs and plays soccer with James and calls himself 'Beckham', asks him if he is a gangster. He kind of agrees.

The opening of the film shows a fatal incident - and will remind audiences of science-fiction films from 2001 to Star Wars as the leader puts on the protective gear reminiscent of a space walk and uses robots for discovery - until a wheel literally falls off. The tension is always intense, the support officer is on the alert for hostile movement, the crowds look on, the huge bomb is in the middle of a Bagdad street and a bystander detonates the device.

With the cumulative effect of the missions, and the reminder that there are lessening numbers of days for the squad's tour, we realise we would want to be out of there. Yet James is a gunslinger, does not seem to have any fear, takes off his protective gear, removes his earphones and takes all kinds of risks, even when the clean-up squad is ready to move in. We see a car parked at the UN headquarters with a cunningly concealed bomb. We see a cluster of bombs buried in a street. A boy is in a warhouse, a bomb inside his body. An innocent man is set up with explosives bound to him by steel and with a short timer. His assistant (Anthony Mackie) is angry with him and the other member (Brian Gerraghty) fears that James' recklessness will get him killed.

There is an interlude out in the desert but the group are pinned down under fire.
There seems virtually no relief, except some horsing around, drinking or the fake DVDs.

As with most of the Iraq films, the American soldiers are shown as automatically suspicious of every 'Hajji' and very limited in their knowledge of the language, relying on shouting, swearing, gun threats and intimidation.

At the end, we do get some relief as we go back to the US, but James is addicted, overwhelmed by shopping in the supermarket by endless rows of cereal choices (like Oliver Stone's sequence in Heaven and Earth), and pants to return.

The point is being made that for the average soldier and, perhaps for commanders as well, is that they are not fighting for a cause or ideals but just fighting and, for some, that is an addiction.

There are very brief cameos from Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse. The Hurt Locker is surprisingly from a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow, although she has made some strong male bonding and conflicting films like Point Break and K9 - the Widowmaker.

Roadshow  Out February 18

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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