Watch Michael Joshua Rowin and Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay here.
As played by Jeremy Renner, Staff Sergeant and bomb dismantler William James of The Hurt Locker is the latest macho outsider to be the focus of director Kathryn Bigelow, as well as the latest in a long, complicated legacy of cinematic outlaw anti-heroes.
Why are we drawn to such alpha male leaders, both in the movies and in a world increasingly influenced by the movies? From Jesse Hooker, the patriarch of the vampire clan in Near Dark (1987), to Bodhi, the leader of a gang of bank robbing surfers in Point Break (1991), to the criminals and thrill-seekers who transcribe their exploits via neural recorders in Strange Days (1995), Bigelow's most troubling characters are united by their attraction to risky and dangerous missions, which they experience the same manner as an adrenaline-inducing "drug." Beyond the basic dictates of their work, these men take a perverse pleasure in courting death — and through them, so can we.
That perverse pleasure is an immediate one for William James — a variety of religious experience, perhaps. But for the audience it is most definitely mediated. The film's first shot is from the point of view of a bomb-dismantling robot, and as The Hurt Locker progresses, the soldiers' points of view are increasingly answered by the looks of surrounding enemies and civilians. These acts of putting oneself in another's place, often via technology — acts undertaken by both the audience and the audience's surrogates — reflect on the experience of watching movies. It's the same sort of reflection seen in Bigelow's Strange Days in the metaphor of a virtual reality device that lets its users re-experience the most dramatic events of other people's lives; the device becomes a drug that can offer hits of vicarious sex and violence. In The Hurt Locker, how we see — from what distance, and through what set of eyes-shapes our perception of the enigmatic and troubling character of James.
Since the macho outlaw hero bears an unstable relation to death and destruction, he is often seen as a danger to the very people he's supposed to work alongside and protect. A particular scene in Bigelow's film confronts this dynamic. Setting off test explosives in the middle of the desert, James realizes he left his gloves at the bombsite. While on his way there to pick up his gear, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a member of James' team who does not take well to his hot dog attitude, vocally toys with the idea of detonating the explosives. Soon there's a shot of James in the distance: he's found his gloves and is yelling back at his fellow soldiers like a little kid. Since the shot of James is from the point-of-view of Sanborn and his colleague Eldridge, the effect is comical and sinister. What would otherwise be a harmless wave encapsulates Eldridge's and especially Sanborn's disdain for their leader's jocular recklessness.
James' seeming obliviousness to the possibility of death evokes Captain Willard's assessment of Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now: "He was one of those guys that had a weird light around him. Somehow you knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here." Indeed, James may be an ungodly amalgam of Willard and Kilgore. He is continually drawn back to war, where he can best put his demons to use, and also possessed by the sort of gung-ho attitude that would make one attack an enemy-occupied beach just to ride a wave, an act reminiscent of the surf-or-die bank robbers of Bigelow's masterpiece, Point Break.
James, Willard, Kilgore, and the surfers: from afar these outlaws suggest unusual beasts: fascinating to watch, perhaps, but lethal to encounter up close. Their air of invincibility and their communion with the sur-logic of adrenaline are too much to handle for those lacking the same courage, or madness.