A belated movie review: The Hurt Locker

(Note: There are many spoilers. But even if you haven’t seen the film, it only gets better once you understand what it is about. I will explain why.)

The Hurt Locker, the 2009 movie that brought Kathryn Bigelow the first Oscar for a female director, does not allow the audience to feel catharsis. I watched that film on the big screen with a friend and we both came out of the movie theater with a shared but unspoken opinion: What was that about?

The movie worked fine until midpoint. A loner bomb defuser with an attitude (played by Jeremy Renner) keeps clearing up difficult assignments relying on his instinct and ignoring official protocols. Fellow soldiers are constantly annoyed by his go-fuck-yourself attitude but cannot help but admire his skills. It is a modern-day spaghetti Western revived in the desert of the Middle East.

But in the second half, the protagonist starts to drift off the high note. He takes revenge on the wrong person and along the way, shoots his colleague in his thigh by accident. In the climax scene, he fails to defuse a bomb, letting an innocent guy wrapped in explosives waste his life. He leaves the army, starts a peaceful but boring civilian life. Everything is downhill.

I was waiting for a resurrection at the end, thinking: It cannot end like this. The final twist did come, but equally uneventfully: He went back to the battle field and was standing at a corner of an Iraqi street, wearing a protection suit. And that was it. How could a Hollywood film offer such an anti-climatic ending?

I finally got a clue when I was listening to a Japanese movie critic/journalist Tomohiro Machiyama's seminar (in Japanese, sorry) where he explored a common theme that runs through two Oscar-contenders of 2009, Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker: A man’s transition from a big boy to a mature adult by realizing his calling, even though that calling is nothing glamorous. Now I get the reason why the former bomb squad commander went back to his old job, even though he failed miserably at his last mission and became disillusioned: Because he has accepted the fact that defusing a bomb is the only thing he could do well.

The movie does not vindicate his decision by showing what happens later, because that’s not the point. Knowing who he really is and getting down-to-earth by choice, that’s the point.  Had my friend and I known we were watching a mid-life crisis drama in disguise of an anti-Iraq war movie, we wouldn’t have been disappointed. Okay, let’s admit: We wouldn’t have seen the movie in the first place.

Why am I talking about this movie now, almost two years later? Because recently I have also consciously narrowed down my future career path to a few options. It was a scary decision. I used to believe throwing away life’s possibilities was about getting old, or even worse, dead. Some part of me still thinks so. But the rest tells me that knowing myself and walking the too-well-known road consciously has nothing to do with age. It’s that we are so stupid that we don’t realize what we should truly embrace until we hit a crisis.

The movie’s central theme—men’s mid-life crisis—also explains why Kathryn Bigelow, a female director, was able to shoot the film. Male directors are too close to this subject. They go to the extreme and ignores it or glorify it. Think of any movie that includes a 40-year-old hooking up with a girl half his age (which means 50% of Hollywood films—now you are getting the big picture).