copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker:
a jack-in-the-box story

by Robert Alpert

Kathryn Bigelow has directed only eight films in 28 years, and most are best described as B-movies, genre movies about bikers (The Loveless), vampires (Near Dark), cops (Blue Steel), surfers (Point Break), submarines (K-19: The Widowmaker) and the like. While they seemingly lack any relation to one another, nevertheless, like the best of the old-school, U.S. directors who preceded her and have also worked in the area of action films — such as Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah — or in disparate genres — such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock — Bigelow’s films strikingly reiterate plots in different settings and thereby engage us in her most personal concerns, both her ideals and her demons. A summary of her earlier films is set out in an appendix to this essay. [open appendix in new window] Bigelow is at heart a cultural critic. Born in 1951 and a child of the 60s, she has consistently explored the divide between the social norm and a group of outsiders who have sought to avoid the entrapment of material comfort as embodied in the traditional family. That her films have repeatedly portrayed characters who are doubles of one another, the one the more extreme version of the other, doppelgangers — Megan and Eugene in Blue Steel, Caleb and Mae in Near Dark or Johnny Utah and Bodhi in Point Break — reflects her emotional schizophrenia, wanting the comfort of the former character but knowing full well its price and hence her sympathies for the latter. The Hurt Locker is a key film for Bigelow. She openly acknowledges her commitment to the character who chooses to stand outside of the norm, notwithstanding the admitted lunacy and self-destructiveness of that choice.

The Hurt Locker begins on the streets of Baghdad where a U.S. bomb squad is in the process of trying to defuse or safely blow up an IED. The opening shot immediately disorients us, since it shows a street from the viewpoint of the squad’s video robot. The scene ends in an equally disorienting way when squad leader Sergeant Thompson, played by A-actor Guy Pearce, is unexpectedly killed. Bigelow’s viewpoint is made clear from the outset. She shows how the United States fights its wars from a distance through the bomb squad’s failed use of the “bot” and underscores the U.S. army’s employment of the stereotypical male sexual swagger through the “hello mama” and “pretend it’s your dick” dialogue. Moreover, it is hard not to view the “bot” and think of other such instruments which have distanced Bigelow’s characters from what is around them, such as the FBI computers in Point Break, which prove to be a poor substitute for FBI agent Pappas’ instincts, and the “clips” in Strange Days, which isolate Lenny Nero from those around him and become his customers’ addictive and fatal substitute for living. It is not surprising, therefore, that Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), later seen playing a video war game, is unable in this opening scene to shoot the Iraqi combatant with the cell phone and thereby causes, albeit indirectly, the death of his squad leader. War is never personal for these soldiers but only experienced from afar.

In that context the difference represented by (and the dislike for) Thompson’s replacement, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a name both appropriate and not without irony, is foreshadowed by James’ removal of the plywood boards from his living quarters, since he both wants the sunlight and refuses to separate himself from the risk of incoming mortars. That he later rejects the “bot” and dons the protective bomb suit, making upfront and personal his defusing of the bombs, condemns him in the eyes of his men. Not surprisingly, when he later disposes of even his protective suit while defusing a car bomb planted next to an U.N. compound, he enrages his second in command, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). That, of course, in turn, results in James’ further removal of his communication headset. James’ stripping away of the mechanical accoutrements of war represents a rebellion against U.S. technology and as such poses a psychological threat to those who literally hide around corners and in alleyways when exposed to the immediacy of the dangers of war. It is entirely appropriate that Sanborn later contemplates killing James from afar, speculating on how the army would later study his death so as to learn how not to repeat such a “mistake.”

That Sanborn does not do so, however, suggests how Sanborn is also attracted to James. The scene in which James and Sanborn pound one another in a nearly drunken stupor does not simply evoke “the link between sexuality and violence among isolated men in groups”[1][open endnotes in new window] but literally represents the love between two men of shared aspirations, if of unequal courage and commitment to those aspirations. It is reminiscent, for example, of a similar scene between Utah and Bodhi on the Australian beach which concludes Point Break. Howsoever they are opposites of one another, James is also Sanborn’s doppelganger. While James tells Sanborn and Eldridge about his son and ex-wife, with the picture of his son and his wedding ring both in the box beneath his bed and mixed in with the plastic bomb devices, Sanborn, a seeming career soldier, in turn, tells how he is not ready for a son. While James prizes those plastic bomb devices, his only possessions being that which has nearly killed him, Sanborn sees them only as “shit from Radio Shack.” James is the “wild man,” the character who has seen civilization and will have none of it, while Sanborn views war as simply civilization’s extension. The movie’s narrative represents how Sanborn is tempted byf James’ viewpoint and rejects it by the movie’s end.

Tellingly, in contrast to Point Break’s Bodhi, an earlier “modern savage,” Bigelow makes James, not Sanborn, her focus, central character and hero. She humorously mocks civilization in the form of the appropriately named Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), a Yale psychologist-soldier who tries to communicate with the Iraqis and for his efforts immediately thereafter disappears in a bomb explosion. Thus, too, Sanborn during the course of the film, while expressing incomprehension at how James continues to “roll the dice,” acknowledges that his own return to stateside represents his conformity to a culture of passivity and stasis. While he asks James in their final scene together how James takes the risks day after day, Sanborn symbolically refers to returning stateside as crossing over to “the other side,” an ironic reference to the death-like existence that James encounters and flees following his return home. Nevertheless, Sanborn decides to father a son, because supposedly otherwise “nobody will give a shit,” a decision that he has acknowledged he is not ready for and one ironically announced while Iraqi children throw stones at the armored vehicle in which Sanborn and James sit. Lacking what it takes to put on the protective suit of war, he will don the suit of civilization.

The source of James’ seeming invincibility, his mythology, is that of the Western hero, the cowboy. “Happy trails” are Sanborn’s words to squad leader Thompson as Thompson lumbers off unsuccessfully in the opening scene. “I’ll tell you when I’m standing over [the bomb], cowboy,” James says to Sanborn during their first mission together. Still later he tells Sanborn and Eldridge that they are pursuing the “bad guys,” those responsible for the oil tanker explosion, who are hiding out in the darkness. Moreover, the Ennio Morricone-like musical score played over many of the key scenes — for example, the scene in which James’ unit is pinned down in the desert by sniper fire and the parting scene in the armed vehicle between James and Sanborn — highlights the connection to this mythology. Westerns are a common theme in Bigelow’s films, her heroes frequently acting their part in that mythology even in contemporary settings. Caleb engages in a series of showdowns in the vampire movie Near Dark, and the final shootout in Blue Steel between Megan and Eugene on Wall Street is akin to a gun fight, with cars and a hot dog cart substituted for wagons and prancing horses. James is the loner professional of the Western, temporarily empowering others around him. For example, in a ritualistic act of teaching, he shows Eldridge how to clean off the blood from bullets — “spit and rub” — so that moments later, in contrast to the film’s opening scene, Eldridge is able to kill the Iraqi sniper. While Colonel Cambridge, the consummate army booster, fails to alleviate Eldridge’s pain for having failed his former squad leader — “Thompson, he’s dead, he’s alive, he’s dead, he’s alive” — James through a caring, physical act takes Eldridge into an emotional terrain which relieves him of that pain.

Nevertheless, Bigelow also makes clear her Western hero’s flaws. As James self-consciously tells Eldridge, “everyone is a coward about something.” In contrast to the classic Western in which the little boy looks up to his hero, in The Hurt Locker James eventually rejects the Iraqi boy Beckham after mistaking a young boy’s body which had been wired with a bomb for that of Beckham. While James’ prowess enables him to disarm a series of bombs, he is not omnipotent. Pursuing those whom he believes have wired Beckham’s body, he finds himself racing through the darkened streets of Baghdad alone and in a near panic, having been pummeled by an unknown Iraqi woman. In a parallel to the film’s opening scene in which a bomb explosion kills James’ predecessor, the last scene shows James helpless in the face of the multiple locks which secure a bomb to a family man crying for help and in which James is himself nearly killed. There is despair in James’ plea to the “fucking dead man” that “I can’t do it! I’m sorry!” Furthermore, the colonel who applies the seemingly heroic term “wild man” to James is responsible for the cold blooded, off-screen killing of an Iraqi soldier. The film’s final shot is of James encased in his protective suit, alone again, facing down the “bad guys” in yet another shootout. That James is Bigelow’s hero is clear; that his choice to return to the Iraqi war is less than cathartic is equally clear.

In that respect Bigelow’s movie is self-consciously about herself and the limits of her moviemaking. It is no coincidence that many of the film’s scenes resemble the making of a movie, with James’ squad sealing off an area while Iraqi citizens watch from the sidelines, often themselves filming those directing the drama and thereby introducing an element of discomfort. For example, during the defusing of the car bomb next to the U.N. compound, Sanborn and Eldridge are clearly unnerved by the videographer, both a voyeur to and a likely participant in the violence. In the factory where the squad finds the young boy’s body wired with a bomb, we see the bombers’ tools left in the open, the unexploded ordinances, the cigarette still smoking, the camera on the tripod, all left behind only moments ago, as though caught mid-shoot. The chase through the darkened streets for the bombers of the nighttime, crater-like blast is filmed with self-conscious voyeurism, Sanborn’s “torch” momentarily lighting up the darkness so that James and Sanborn can kill the Iraqis and rescue the abducted Eldridge.

Like her hero James, Bigelow is engaged in a project in which the reality of others inevitably seeps in through the voyeurism of those outside of her scope, notwithstanding her efforts to contain all she sees. That is the significance of the shot of the Iraqi who rushes down a flight of stairs in a race to set off the bomb, which James in the meantime rushes to defuse, clipping one wire after the next; or of the Iraqi, long-range snipers who calmly try kill James and Sanborn from their window from afar, even as James and Sanborn do likewise from behind their sand dune. Throughout the film Bigelow shows us all perspectives — a shot from behind Iraqi snipers or a videographer taking pictures of Eldridge, a close-up of the eye of the cab driver focusing on James holding a pistol on him, a long shot of James’ squad from behind the bars of a window, a foreshortened close-up of a white building seen through the scope of a rifle, or a helicopter seen high above through the visor to Thompson’s helmet. “There’s lots of eyes on us,” at one point Sanborn says with fear in his voice. As an artist seeking to make meaning out of this war, Bigelow has no final say in its meaning; her understanding is placed in context by the countdown of days remaining which ends and then begins again when James chooses to return to the war, a never ending rotation of 365 days.

Bigelow offers no alternate universe in which she finds solace. James, like all of Bigelow’s flawed heroes, can touch and feel the physical with heightened awareness. These include Mae who can hear the nighttime and see the brilliance and immediacy of the stars a billion light years away, or Bodhi who can revel with his group in a free fall from on high and enjoy alone the adrenalin rush of the 50-year wave. James, too, lives from moment to moment in a physical universe in which he is unafraid of death. That is the source of his courage, but also of his isolation from those around him. Bigelow, as a member of a generation raised to believe that all things material are hers, through her hero comes to reject that comfort. In Blue Steel, it is in the local supermarket that Megan comes face to face with death in the form of a petty robber and unknowingly encounters Eugene, her doppelganger. In a similar way, in The Hurt Locker it is appropriate that James, returning stateside, experiences his epiphany in the over-abundantly stocked, suburban supermarket. Later, cleaning out the clogged gutters of his home and fixing lunch with his wife, he passes the time and time passes him by. He sits blankly next to a television set playing the “snow” of no content.

There is no more poignant scene than that of James with his baby son and the jack-in-the-box so cherished by his son. When we grow up, we love so much, including mommy, daddy, pajamas and the jack-in-the-box, he tells his uncomprehending son, but as we age they no longer seem so special. We come to love less and less, realizing that even the jack-in-the-box is made of pieces of tin — or plastic, like the Radio Shack pieces which James keeps beneath his bed. Thus, James comes to embrace death. And therein lies his social madness. As Eldridge accurately observes, James isn’t very good with people but is a good warrior. While a cowboy, he is also a “rock and roller” associated with heavy metal music that dampens the intensity of the world around him. He rejects the comforts of his social world, the soothing music of the supermarket, a world which insists that death is nowhere to be found and that we are the master of all that we survey, in short, a world that lacks the imagination to see what is beyond our own gaze. In that rejection, though, he finds himself alone and marching inexorably to his own death, a bleak ending for Bigelow’s stated hero.

Kathryn Bigelow co-directed her first film, Loveless, a film about wandering bikers who disrupt the seeming peacefulness of an out of the way town, when she was 31. She directed The Hurt Locker when she was 57. Her films represent a struggle to find value as she ages, turning increasingly to the view that the quixotic and the immediacy of death provide the only certainties and hence values to be sought. In The Hurt Locker she finds no salvation in that view, but the drug-induced state in which she takes pleasure (“war is a drug”), so reminiscent of the 60s, offers her and her characters the only escape from the boredom and constraints of social norms. The sometimes emotional schizophrenia of her films, the psychosis of her characters, such as the self-aware Sergeant William James, display her continued dissatisfaction with those values, even as she acknowledges that no others can be found in her world.


1. Robert Sklar’s review of The Hurt Locker, Cineaste, vol. 35, no. 1, p. 55. [return to text]


Plot summaries of Kathryn Bigelow’s films are set forth below. While beyond the scope of this essay on Hurt Locker, even a brief perusal of Bigelow’s filmography indicates the effect on her thematic concerns by such factors as the screenwriters and when each movie was made. Near Dark and Blue Steel, among her cleanest genre movies, are both early in her career and owe their writing credits to Eric Red. Point Break and Strange Days made a few years later develop more thoroughly the theme of doubles and the consequent sense of schizophrenia about life; James Cameron was the producer on the former and a credited co-screenwriter on the latter. The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker followed the commercial failure of Strange Days, and both are more traditional in their expression of Bigelow’s concerns, with Christopher Kyle a screenwriter on both.

The Loveless (1982)
Directors/Screenwriters: Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery

A motorcycle gang led by Vance (Willem Dafoe) rides into and stays a day in a small, Southern town. The gang hangs around the town diner, fixes one of their bikes at the local garage shop, and occupies time by target practice, drinking alcohol and other such activities. Vance sleeps with a townie. In the process the gang affects in some way nearly everyone in the town. The local waitress strips that evening at the local lounge. The garage owner’s son summons the courage to sit, if briefly, on a motorcycle. And the townie kills her father, the local bully who had molested her, and then commits suicide. Vance and his gang ride out of town.

Near Dark (1987)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red

One night out west young Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is smitten with and later bitten by Mae (Jenny Wright), a member of a group of vampires. While thereby turned into a vampire, Caleb is unable to kill people for the blood he needs to survive, notwithstanding the efforts of both Mae, who is in love with Caleb, and the other members of his new, nighttime family to teach him their ways. He also is unable to let go of the memory of his daytime family, who continue to search for him. Eventually he deserts Mae and the vampire family and becomes, through a blood transfusion from his father, human again. One of the vampires, however, obsessively persists in pursuing Caleb’s sister, whom he wants to turn, so that Caleb must confront his nighttime family. Each member of the vampire family is eventually destroyed, burning up or bursting into flames upon contact with the daylight. Only Mae survives, turned human by a blood transfusion from Caleb and now part of Caleb’s daytime family.

Blue Steel (1990)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriters: Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red

Scarred by the abusive relationship between her parents, Megan (Jamie Lee Curtis) joins the NYPD and on her first day on the force shoots a supermarket robber. Soon thereafter victims are found throughout the city shot to death by bullets etched with Megan’s name. Taking up with and at first entranced by stock trader Eugene (Ron Silver), Megan comes to realize intuitively that he had witnessed her shooting in the supermarket and is now himself the obsessed shooter. No one will believe her, though, except for Detective Nick Mann (Clancy Brown). There follows a series of cat-and-mouse episodes in which Eugene with impunity kills Megan’s best friend, introduces himself to Megan’s parents at their home and in her presence, nearly kills Nick and rapes Megan. In the movie’s final sequence Megan chases down Eugene to the Wall Street area, where she cold bloodedly kills him point blank.

Point Break (1991)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: W. Peter Iliff

At the urging of his FBI partner and mentor, Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), FBI agent Johnny Utah (Kneau Reeves) infiltrates the surfer community in an effort to identify banker robbers who pose as ex-presidents. Taught how to surf by Tyler (Lori Petty) and then becoming romantically involved with her, Utah soon also becomes intrigued by and friends with Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), the guru of a group of surfers who speaks of finding one’s inner calm through the rush of surfing. Utah eventually realizes that Bodhi and his group are the ex-president bank robbers. His effort at arresting Bodhi and his group of surfers results in the killing of the entire group, with the exception of Bodhi, together with Pappas. One year later Utah finds Bodhi in Australia waiting to ride the ultimate, 50-year wave. Granting Bodhi’s wish that he not be arrested and “caged”, Utah allows Bodhi to surf that wave to his death and then tosses away his FBI badge, his own future now uncertain.  

Strange Days (1995)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriters: James Cameron and Jay Cocks

Having been deserted by Faith (Juliette Lewis), the love of his life, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), a former cop, now traffics in clips which allow their wearers to jack into the “forbidden fruit” of other people’s memories. As the year 2000 approaches and with LA in racial turmoil, Lenny finds himself entangled in a convoluted plot involving the murder of a black rap star by two LAPD cops, a murder which has been recorded on a clip, and the cover up murders of those involved in or connected with the making of that clip. Fearing that Faith will be the next victim due to her connection to the dead rap star’s producer and with the help of Mace (Angela Bassett), a security driver who is in love with Lenny, Lenny hunts down and discovers that the killer is his best friend Max (Tom Sizemore). High above the millennium crowds Lenny confronts Max and in their struggle Max falls to his death on the streets below. Mace, in turn, succeeds in killing the two LAPD cops just as the new millennium arrives. As Faith is led off to jail, Lenny and Mace embrace.

The Weight of Water (2000)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriters: Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle

Jean (Catherine McCormack), a photographer married to Thomas (Sean Penn), a poet, seeks to unravel the mystery of a nineteenth century double murder, the two of them spending the weekend on the boat of Rich (Josh Lucas), Thomas’ brother, along with Rich’s then girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), a longtime admirer of Thomas’ poetry and to whom Thomas is attracted. Through intercutting to the past, we learn how in the nineteenth century Maren (Sarah Polley), having as a young girl slept with her brother, was forced to marry an older man and live on an isolated, New Hampshire island. Initially Maren’s sister and later her brother, now married, come to live with Maren and her husband. One night Maren’s sister discovers Maren sleeping with their sister-in-law. Confronted by her sister with this seeming abomination, Maren thereupon kills both sister and sister-in-law, placing blame for the double murder on a former boarder who had made untoward sexual advances to all of the women. Based on Maren’s testimony, the boarder is hanged. The revelation of Maren as the murderer is intercut with the contemporary story in which Adeline is washed overboard during a storm while Jean watches passively, resulting in Thomas’ death while rescuing Adaline.   

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriter: Christopher Kyle

Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a loyal party member, is assigned to take over command of the K-19, the most advanced nuclear submarine of the Soviet fleet, from Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who is viewed as too loyal to his crew. K-19’s first voyage is intended to display the Soviet Union’s nuclear prowess. Instead, the nuclear reactor develops a leak, threatening a meltdown, and the crew becomes dangerously ill due to the radiation, despite the sacrifices of many of the crew to repair the damaged reactor. Notwithstanding the crew’s unease with Captain Vostrikov and their loyalty to Captain Polenin, Captain Polenin remains loyal to Captain Vostrikov. Captain Vostrikov ultimately countermands orders from Moscow and evacuates his crew to a nearby Soviet submarine, rather than allow the K-19 with crew still aboard to be towed back to port. After the fall of the Soviet Union nearly thirty years later, both captains and the surviving crew members pay their respects at a cemetery tribute to the many who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their fellow crew members.

Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's first film with screenwriter Mark Boal, remains a Kathryn Bigelow film. For example, both Boal and Bigelow discuss on the DVD commentary to the film the "beautiful shot" of the kite which follows James' near death from the blast caused by the Iraqi family man. Boal focuses on how kites were used by Iraqi insurgents as signaling devices and hence the ambiguity of the shot. Bigelow, however, like movie viewers who would be unaware of that fact, recounts how she conveyed to Jeremy Renner, who portrayed James, that the first image he would see would be something "childlike" and "symbolic in its significance", thereby drawing the emotional connection to those few scenes of innocence elsewhere in the film, such as the early scenes with the Iraqi boy Beckham and the later scene with James' young son. These scenes, in turn, remind us of moments in earlier Bigelow movies, such as Mae's naive sharing with Caleb of her view of the nighttime sky in Near Dark or Johnny Utah's free-floating skydive in Point Break.

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