Explosive Structure: Fragmenting the New Modernist War Narrative in the Hurt Locker
Cunningham, Douglas A., CineAction
Fragmentation emerges as a formal theme in art most particularly during times of conflict--a reflection, one assumes, of the ways in which body, mind, and individual/collective consciousness rupture in response to the violence of war. (1) Kathryn Bigelow's 2009 film, The Hurt Locker (written by journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal), stands as a remarkable example of this notion; its successful integration of form with a larger theme of physical, mental, and social fragmentation results, at least in part, from the very structure of the film itself, which refuses at every turn to adopt a traditional narrative arc. The story of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq and its dangerously reckless new leader--an adrenaline-addicted staff sergeant named Will James (Jeremy Renner)--The Hurt Locker builds its narrative around seven key episodes--a prologue, the activities of five disparate days during Bravo Company's tour, and what might be considered a two-part epilogue that follows James after his end-of-tour trip back to the U.S and his eventual (and voluntary) return to the war zone. Throughout the film, we see superimposed titles that announce 38 days remaining in Bravo Company's tour, then 37, 23, 16, and 2. Ostensibly, the film employs the loose structure of its central countdown as a way of marching its three protagonists toward their collective return stateside; this chronicling of time itself, however, seems far less important to the film than the fact that the each of the five days depicted deliberately offers little in the way of active narrative causality. Bombs are discovered and deactivated. Soldiers survive a desert standoff with snipers. A desperate and renegade search for a lost Iraqi boy turns out to have been unnecessary. A nighttime pursuit of Iraqi bombers ends in their capture and an associated friendly fire injury. James returns to the States but then goes back to the war zone of his own volition. These are the primary episodes of the film.
In the June 2009 review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott praised The Hurt Locker's episodic structure: "Ms. Bigelow, practicing a kind of hyperbolic realism, distills the psychological essence and moral complications of modern warfare into a series of brilliant, agonizing set pieces." (2) While each of these set pieces contributes to a kind of minimalist causality that fuels the emotional disintegrations of the film's primary characters, the five central episodes of The Hurt Locker nevertheless eschew the demanding forward thrust of a classic action narrative oriented around events and resultant effects. In truth, the film seems to derive its structure and style in part from the modernist tradition so apparent in the international art-house films of the '50s and '60s. At the same time, however, The Hurt Locker also seems to resemble something of a cinematic collection of serialized war-correspondent dispatches, each of which resolves the most pressing problem at hand while also offering up small details of character development that contribute to a larger--if subtler--vision of psycho-emotional collapse. These two very different influences (which are nevertheless linked by their common ties to modernist aesthetics) come together most effectively in The Hurt Locker's primary generic antecedent (both in terms of form and theme), Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979); like that film, The Hurt Locker moves forward in carefully calculated fits and starts, the deliberately uneven push of its narrative's individual episodes not even superficially marking progress toward a tangible climax, while the true development in the film takes the powerful form of a commentary on the necessarily shattered nature of individual wartime experience. (3)
From its first moments, The Hurt Locker violently shakes its spectator's worldview. After a solemn epigraph by Chris Hedges declaring that "war is a drug," Bigelow cuts harshly to a battered video-cam's "first-person" view as the small, treaded vehicle to which it is attached rumbles over rocks, rubble, and trash on its way to a suspicious, tarp-covered bundle that may, we imagine, conceal an improvised explosive device, or IED. …