Explosive Beginnings: The Hurt Locker Opening Scene Analysis By Caroline Phillips
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) is an award-winning film that captured the attention of many filmmakers and audiences. It’s a film about an Army bomb squad in Iraq during the war that must find and disarm bombs in order to protect people. It’s a dangerous job that the main character Sgt. William James takes on. The Hurt Locker focuses on their struggles and victories in Iraq and portrays the life of the Army pretty well. The film not only tells a good story, but also uses many techniques of film to make a wonderful and brilliant movie. The very first sequence in the film portrays these elements of film technique and adds to the meaning of the film as a whole.
The Hurt Locker has a very untraditional beginning; there are no credits and begins in medias res. It jumps right into the characters in action. The story is told in linear form with some flashbacks. Sgt. Sanborn, Sgt. Eldridge, and Sgt. Thompson are attempting to disassemble a bomb. St. Thompson is wearing the protective bomb suit and advancing toward the bomb, while Sgt. Sanborn and Eldridge are staying back and keeping a look out. The sequenced I analyzed begins when Eldridge sees suspicious action coming from a butcher shop nearby. Eldridge franticly yells and tries to get an aim on the butcher man, while Sanborn is yelling and protecting the rest of the area and Thompson is running, unaware of what’s going on. The scene ends with the butcher man dialing the cell phone to set off the bomb, which kills Thompson.
As a set-up for the rest of the film, this sequence plays an important role in constructing meaning of the film as a whole. There are many techniques that apply to the deeper meaning of the film. First of all, this film follows a narrative form. As a part of the narrative, this sequence foreshadows the type of jobs that Will has to do when he replaces Thompson. The explosion’s impact represents the reality of the job that they have to do. This sequence serves as an obstacle that Will must overcome later on in the film; he needs to make sure that nothing like this happens again. Also, underlying this sequence is the fact that it was one of the first deaths that Eldridge really experienced and he took it hard. It really narrows down to about how these bombs are deathly and no one is safe. It takes real skill and patience, which we see Will practice later.
The sound in this sequence plays a role in representing the intensity of the situation. The non-diegetic sound in the sequence is the music. The music is instrumental, with an emphasis on long, low, eerie sounds to intensify the situation. It also guides our attention toward Eldridge, Thompson, and Sanborn and the actions that they are performing and foreshadows events that are about to happen. Diegetic sounds in the sequence were the dialogue and the sounds of the environment. There was a lot of dialogue in this sequence between Eldridge and Sanborn, but it soon turned into yelling, which was repeated several times. Eldridge and Sanborn’s desperate demands to each other and the butcher man emphasized the chaos. The sounds were overlapping in this sequence to emphasize the commotion and confusion. They need to be quick on their feet, while many things are happening around them. The sound blends well with the action. There are also diegetic sounds of rocks and the explosion. We can hear Thompson’s heavy breathing during the shots of him running. As a result, we hear his breathing and assume he is struggling and desperately trying to get away. These are very natural sound effects in order to capture the real life of war.
This sequence, and the rest of the film, is shot like a documentary. The camera is acting like it’s reporting a story on the characters rather than filming a scene. To portray the documentary-like movements, the camera moves up and down and is jerky at moments. There is also fast film stock to show grainy picture. For example, when Eldridge is looking through his gun, the picture is grainy to reflect the feeling like the audience is in Eldridge’s position. The speed of motion of the sequence is normal, but there are many moments of slow motion. There are moments of fast-paced shots to lead up to explosions and as the bomb explodes, the speed slows down. The technique of slow motion in this sequence emphasizes the extreme impact of the explosion on Thompson. We see many angles and shots of Thompson falling down from the impact of the bomb in slow motion to capture the force of the explosion and Thompson’s fate. Also, this quick scene of the bomb exploding is spread out in order to see how different things are impacted and to emphasize the size of the bomb. For example, during the slow motion, there are stunning shots of the rocks on the ground rising and the dirt on cars shaking because of the huge impact of the explosion. There are quick reaction shots and shot counter shots to once again emphasize the quick thoughts and intensity.
There are a variety of angles in this sequence to let the viewer experience different perspectives of the scene. Straight-on angles, low angles, and high angles, are used to demonstrate the views on the action. P.O.V shots are frequent. These types of shots are used when Eldridge is looking through his gun to the butcher shop. We are able to step into his shoes and see the action from his perspective. Also, we get P.O.V –like shots from spectators around the scene of trouble. At certain points in the sequence, we see Iraqi men observing the Army men and then when the bomb explodes we have angles from their position. As a result, we see the action from different perspectives.
The film is set in Iraq but some of it was actually shot in Jordan and Kuwait. The setting of the film was realistic and the lighting, space, and acting were reflective. The space of the film and the sequence were at times documentary “snapshot” quality. The documentary style of the film was used to “portray” real life experience and events in a life of a solider. Space was used as a frame, but the camera moved like a documentary camera and allowed the actor and action to not be center and enter in and out of frame. As part of the mise-en-scene and in addition to the setting, the actors and costumes were realistic and professional.
Lighting in this sequence and in the rest of the film was very realistic. It used frontal lighting to make the area seem as natural as possible. There are neutral colors, which was important because they were filming a real situation and they weren’t trying to make a new world. The neutral colors are also reflective of the environment in Iraq. There’s a lot of dust and dirt and the use of colors and the setting reflects this. It contrasts with the land of America.
This sequence has a lot of cuts reflecting the editing. The type of editing in this sequence isn’t very continuous, and it is very quick. It doesn’t follow the typical Hollywood continuity editing style, but it is fast-paced and random. Even though it doesn’t follow this continuity editing style, the sequence’s editing is reflective of the chaos that is happening.
Even though this sequence is at the beginning of the film and doesn’t contain the main character Will, it is an essential part of the film. The emphasis of film techniques and the emotional death at the end serve as a foreshadow and reminder of the seriousness of the war. This film is not just another war story; it is an intense and different perspective of the war. Will is torn between two homes; Iraq and America with his son and girlfriend. This sequence portrays the possible fate that Will could face. He could die from disarming bombs, like Thompson did, and leave his family. As an essential part of the film, the beginning sequence has the elements and style that elevates the meaning of the rest of the Hurt Locker.