Saturday, 31 May 2014

War Is a Drug: Analyzing Themes in The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning film, The Hurt Locker, is a story about a man, Sgt. William James, who loses himself in war. War is compared to a drug, something so compelling that once one is caught in it they cannot stop. It is addictive. From the start, James is shown to be aggressive, headstrong and reckless unlike the more cautious Sgt. Thomson. In James’ first scene, there is a loud heavy metal soundtrack playing, presumably non-diegetic, before James suddenly turns off a radio, showing off his aggressive character.
He then begins to remove the plywood from the windows despite Sanborn pointing out that they were put there to block mortar shells.

This serves to foreshadow many of the reckless choices James makes later in the film: approaching a bomb without first investigating with the robot, removing his bomb suit and headset while defusing a car bomb, forcing a merchant at gunpoint to take him to the home of a kid he believes was murdered, and leading his squad to locate a possible bomber rather than wait for backup (which results in Eldridge getting shot). He is extremely confident in himself, almost considering himself to be invincible, and that the war cannot touch him. He is also ignorant of the consequences for his actions, which includes the near death of one of his own men and nearly being killed himself.

The camera is set up as such to invoke feelings of unease on the audience. Throughout the film, the camera shakes slightly as if it were handheld in order to create a sense of authenticity. When the action starts, the camera gets up close to the protagonists, the shots cut together more quickly, and the shaking becomes more intense in order to unsettle the viewer, who realizes that the bombs can go off rather easily, and James is often taking extensive risks without thinking.

This intensity also serves to help build up not only suspense, but also a feeling of adrenaline- allowing the viewer to get a glimpse into the thrill James feels while disarming bombs. This sort of feeling is first set up in the opening scene, when Thomson is unable to escape from an explosive in time and is subsequently killed, showing how this line of work can easily go wrong. The explosion itself happens in slow motion, emphasizing the destruction that ensues.

The first ten minutes of the film set up the danger that James endures every time he goes to defuse a bomb. It is worth noting that Guy Pearce, who plays James’ predecessor Sgt. Thomson, is a fairly well-established actor in contrast to the then-unknown Jeremy Renner, and at first the story is set up to look as though he is the main character. This creates a shocking reveal when Thomson is suddenly killed in the opening scene making way for the real protagonist.

The fact that a well-known actor is killed off so early in the film helps to emphasize the fact that in war, anyone can die by creating a false expectation (that Thomson is the main character) which is suddenly shattered. It is also interesting that Thomson is killed as early as he is despite following protocol, while James works against regulations and survives, but nearly kills one of his own men.

The moment in the opening scene where Thomson is caught in a blast also parallels a later moment in the film when James is unable to remove the vest of a man forced to wear a suicide bomb. In both cases, the characters realize too late the danger they are in and attempt to make a run for it, only to be caught in the blast. However, while Thomson continues to run in an attempt to survive and is killed, James turns and faces the blast head on expecting to die, but survives.

The explosives themselves are a major motif in the film. With a few exceptions, the majority of the explosives which appear on screen are of very similar, familiar shape- large grey cylinders. In actuality, improvised explosives are likely to come in many different shapes and sizes. The reason Kathryn Bigelow may have opted for this approach was to create a sense of familiarity in the bombs- that both the audience and James will immediately recognize. Eventually, the constant finding of bombs becomes an everyday occurrence for James, to the point where both he and the audience give it very little thought.

The antagonists of the film are for the most part unseen and unidentified. On some level this makes them even scarier. In the scene with the British contractors, the three protagonists, along with five other people, get ambushed by snipers, but neither they nor the audience knows for sure where the shots are coming from. In fact, when one of the contractors jumps into the Humvee, he seems to be firing at nothing, as he is unable to see the target, and is quickly dispatched by the snipers. This is further affected by the fact that visible heat waves are present when the characters look through the scope of the sniper rifle, blurring the image greatly and making it harder to see the enemy targets.

This element is also established in the opening scene, when the bomb that kills Thompson is detonated by a man with a cell phone who is entirely unseen before Eldridge spots him. The fact that the enemy is never truly identified also makes them seem less human, meaning that neither the characters nor the audience feels much sympathy for them. This eliminates the ethical implications of killing another man, causing the characters’ casual attitude towards their everyday routine to make more sense.

In the end, when James gets home he finds his life to be very plain and empty – something as simple as choosing cereal seems unbelievably overwhelming and meaningless to him. The only thing he can do is go back to Iraq and continue fighting.

Through a combination of editing and cinematography, the audience is able to get a feel for the adrenaline rush James starts to become addicted to during his experiences in the face of danger, drawing their attention toward his constantly taking greater risks in order to keep the adrenaline going. The sense of paranoia created by the fact that the antagonists are never truly identified adds to the suspense as well as making them less human. This allows the viewer to experience the same thrill as James does throughout. All these elements combine together to carry the message that war is a highly addictive drug.

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