When explored by a motivated and conscious filmmaker, the Western genre can successfully promote biting social and political critiques by masking them under the seemingly mainstream facade. It’s what makes Johnny Guitar a fascinating statement about gender, The Searchers a brutal look at racism, and Ulzanna’s Raid a scathing indictment of the Vietnam War. While Kathryn Bigelow’s gut-wrenching new film The Hurt Locker deals directly with the current war in Iraq, using many of that genre’s most dynamic traits, the film is a complex Western at heart. In the Baghdad setting, Bigelow follows a bomb squad unit, a trio of soldiers tasked with locating and disarming a multitude of varying explosive devices. Their leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is often referred to as a “cowboy”, or “wild man”, mainly because he charges into every dangerous situation with a calm but calculated purpose. Trash litters the streets like tumbleweeds and almost every action scene in the film contains a standoff. The tension of who will live or die becomes intrinsic to the landscape – cavernous hideaways, hills of sand, and bloody bullets.
The Hurt Locker takes these Western traits and strips them down, uncovering a decisive commentary that complicates themes of heroism, courage, and arrogance, all while closely analyzing the men’s fluctuating relationship as a unit. Sgt. James is addicted to war, but he’s also excellent at surviving each fluid situation at hand, even when there seem to be too many moving parts to control. Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) represents the cognitive voice of reason, often outweighed by James’ silence or indifference. They are fighting two different wars, because they are two very different soldiers. In one brilliant action set-piece in the open desert, Bigelow stretches what seems like a finished scene out even longer, staying with these characters as the sun eats away at their skin and thirst almost overwhelms their ability to function. She forces us to experience the distance between life and death, a recurring theme throughout the picture. One inch here, and one inch there makes the difference between shrapnel slicing your neck and “bleeding out like a pig” or being able to see your wife and kids when you get home.
But what if home is more dangerous than War? What if a grocery store harbors more danger than a menacing Iraqi street? The Hurt Locker takes these questions and brilliantly uses the adrenaline and power of its action scenes to hypnotize and seduce the viewer into thinking there will be closure, making the downward spiral of the ending all the more horrifying and apt. One last walk down the street becomes a continuation of the addiction, an endless last stand that means little to the outside world but everything to the man in the bomb suit.