Back to Civilization: The Hurt Locker Supermarket Scene By David Glick
The supermarket scene is a vital part in of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), for it conveys the lifelessness that the main character, James, feels. This scene provides a contrast to the rest of the film by showing the conflict between James' domestic life in America and his life as a soldier in Iraq. This scene highlights one of Bigelow's main points James, showing that he has become an alien in his own country who only feels alive when he is risking his life to dismantle bombs.
The first level of contrast between the two worlds – the world of the soldier in Iraq and the world of the American civilian – is hidden within the mise-en-scene of the setting. In Iraq, James is surrounded by poverty, where nothing is taken for granted. Then, when the film cuts to him in a supermarket, he finds himself in a place stocked with an excessive abundance of food. Through this contrast, Bigelow portrays the two worlds as completely different entities.
Another method Bigelow uses to contrast these two worlds is her use of color. When James is serving in Iraq, his world is defined by the gritty color of sand: The landscape, buildings, and camouflage uniforms of the American soldiers all conform to this limited palette. Conversely, the American supermarket is an immaculate white, which differs harshey to the dirty colors of Iraq. Bigelow uses this color distinction purposefully, intending for her audience to associate the sand color of Iraq with dirtiness, while the white of the American grocery store is associated with cleanliness.
Also, another contrasting element is Bigelow's use of lighting. The previous scene, in which James and Sanborn are riding a Humvee, uses a darker lighting scheme in comparison to the supermarket scene. This controlled use of lighting allows Bigelow to guide the viewers eye to the most important parts of the shot: the characters' faces, their guns and the Humvee's interior, and the children clamoring outside. Conversely, nearly everything is lit in the grocery store, allowing and encouraging the eye to wander erratically, giving a sense of unease and restlessness that conveys the feeling of homelessness that James is experiencing.
Bigelow's use of shallow and deep focus is yet another way that she contrasts Iraq against America. In addition to controlled lighting, she also uses shallow focus to keep the audience's attention on the character's eyes in the Humvee scene. However, she relies mostly on deep focus for the supermarket scene, once again giving the viewer's eye an even greater freedom of movement. The aimlessness given by deep focus allows the audience to empathize with James' puzzlement, and reinforces his loneliness. This emphasizes the irony of James' situation, that while he is overly confident when dismantling highly complicated bombs, he is at a loss when performing the simple tasks of a civilian.
Another element that provides contrast between the two countries is the overall visual differences between the two shots. The ending shot of the Humvee scene – in which Iraqi children throw rocks at the passing vehicle – is visually unambiguous, uses a limited amount of light, a reliance on sandy hues, and offers a snapshot of Iraq's poorness. Conversely, the opening shot for the grocery story scene is visually ambiguous, due to the reflections on the glass doors; it is also is very well-lit, uses primarily white tones, and shows the immense wealth of America in comparison to the poverty of Iraq. All of these elements clash against each other to give us an insight into James' thoughts: that while there was conflict, hatred, and bloodshed in Iraq, he at least had a purpose and an achievable goal. Conversely, even though America, he is in a safe, plentiful land country, he has suffered a loss of identity.
The jarring cut from Iraq to America also emphasizes the surreal nature of leaving the war and returning to home. This editing technique causes the viewer to feel confused, for one moment Sandborn is asking James why he loves dismantling bombs, and in the next James is back home, attempting to settle back into the normal life of an American civilian. This confusion is purposeful, emphasizing the incredible difference between the two countries by skipping over James' transitional period between Iraq and America.
The aforementioned techniques – along with the mise-en-scéne of the scene – show additional complexities in Bigelow's style. As the scene opens, the camera is mobile and James' movements are shaky and unnatural. Yet he seems to find rest when he sees his wife and child, for the both he and the camera become still. Bigelow also uses tight focus as he converses with his wife, conveying the intimacy that James is attempting to return to. Yet this intimacy is short lived as it becomes obvious that his happiness to see them is slightly forced, as if he is trying to deceive himself into being excited to see them.
James' ineptitude becomes apparent through his confusion to complete the simple task of finding a box of cereal. Due to the extreme low-angle shot and wide-angle lens, he becomes small and inconsequential, swallowed by the monstrous isles filled to the brim with food. This is a stark contrast to his adventures in Iraq, where he was incredibly important. It is through this scene that we begin to realize that, if he is so inadequate in completing such a simple, domestic task, than he doesn't find himself fit to be a husband or a father.
As a whole, the supermarket scene sets up the tension between James' domestic life and his life as a soldier. The contrast between these two worlds makes it painfully apparent that he is unable to reenter life as a normal citizen. As the story continues and we see the way he acts around his family, it becomes even more obvious that he is not at home in America. Even though he has fulfilled the American dream by owning a decent house, marrying a beautiful wife, and raising a child, his life has become empty. When the movie ends, we realize that he only feels at home when he is dismantling bombs, for war is his drug and he is addicted to danger.