Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is successful in depicting the unease and tension of war. Amy Taubin describes the movie as “a totally immersive, off-the-charts high-anxiety experience from beginning to end.” The majority of the movie is shot on a shaky cam to depict the restlessness of soldiers at war, and the quick editing mirrors the agitation of the situations they are placed in. The movie also accurately portrays the soldiers’ perspectives rather than just the events going on around them. The audience is given a glimpse into a soldier’s psyche during a time of war and experience things as they might. Bigelow, along with editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, created a claustrophobic environment that forces the audience to feel the discomfort of battle, which was exceptionally represented during the scene of a sniper duel between Iraqi guerrilla and the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team that we follow throughout the movie. This scene’s editing embodies the disorientation that the characters experience and the disquiet that an ironically quiet situation can cause.
The scene begins when a group of Iraqi guerrilla starts attacking James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, all part of an EOD team, along with a group of military contractors. They are being shot at from a distance and retaliate against the enemy snipers with their own sniper tactics. However, the battle is prolonged over a few hours and the soldiers are restricted to their positions until the threat is over. This scene is one of the most uncomfortable and restless to watch due to the characters’ clear desire to move from their positions and the seemingly endless wait for the battle to end. Throughout the movie, Bigelow effectively uses the technique of elongating and shortening time, making certain things appear as if they are happening faster or slower than they actually are. In this scene, she uses this method to represent the ceaseless wait in-between action. Image 1 shows one of these instances, in which Bigelow zooms into a shell casing from a bullet that was just fired as it falls on the ground and slows down the shot dramatically so that it takes a lot longer to fall than it normally would. As this bullet falls, one of the enemies has just been shot and killed. Bigelow’s decision to place this shot here when someone was just killed, rather than showing the dying man, allows the audience to experience death differently, and perhaps more heavily, than in the movie’s other scenes. It also represents the possibility that the soldiers, who have just killed this man, are also affected by his death more than they may have time to realize.
Additionally, that Bigelow slows down this shot not only represents how long the battle is taking, but also the lengthy time lapses in-between the action. By continuing to zoom into small details, Bigelow is able to accentuate the wait of the battle and highlight the tension. In Image 2, we see a fly land on Sanborn’s eye, but he is unable to swat it away. Placing this shot here, not only shows the passing of time, but also irks the audience. We feel their discomfort, as it is uncomfortable to watch. Bigelow continues to use this method in other shots such as Image 3, where we see what looks like the beginnings of a small tornado, and yet the soldiers are unable to move from their positions. This shot continues to affect our perception of time. These characters have been sitting here so long that the weather is starting to change. It also mirrors the possibility that anything could happen at any moment.
Throughout the movie, there is also never a clear idea of when the soldiers are going to be attacked. Innis said that when editing The Hurt Locker she wanted to make it feel as if it were a horror film where “a bomb could go off at any minute, but you never know just when it’s going to happen, so the ideas of Hitchcock — about making your audience anxious — were influential for us when we did the editing” (Idelson). That is particularly clear in this scene, where the time intervals between the gun being fired are always different, but the audience is constantly on the edge as we wait for what we expect, but can never be fully sure, to be coming. This is also a truthful interpretation of what the soldiers are experiencing, because they never know when they are going to be attacked either. The audience is stringed along on this journey with the soldiers and we are dropped into this world of unease just as they are.
While there is not a lot of movement in this scene by the characters, the shots are all still very shaky, which increases the discomfort that both the audience and the characters are going through. The majority of the shots in the movie are constantly moving, yet they also all have action. However, this scene breaks that rule. The contrast between the camera’s motion and the lack of motion of the characters was successful in heightening the anxiety. It also accentuates the characters’ body language, which is extremely tense and still. They are all in compromising positions, and have lost members of their teams, but must remain prepared for the next attack that might be coming their way. Therefore, they are restrained to their statue-like positions. The camera’s shakiness also adds a realistic element to this scene, along with the rest of the movie. Documentaries often use hand-held cameras, which result in a shaky image. But it also gives a realistic, rather than stylized, perception of an event. Bigelow uses this technique to add to the idea that this is a realistic portrayal of war. Innis and Murawski said that editing this movie was much like editing a documentary, and that they kept the effects to a minimum to make it look natural rather than artificial (Innis). Any shots, such as Image 1, that break away from that still heighten the effects and do not take away from its realism. This is similar to Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia, where she goes from showing diving in one uncut and realistic shot (Image 6) to showing more manipulated shots of the divers (Image 7). This method did not take away from the realism of the sport, but instead added a new perspective.
We also have the opportunity to look at things through the soldiers’ perspective, which is consistent to the shakiness of the camera. In Image 4, we see Sanborn’s point-of-view through the scope on his gun. This view is also very shaky, and the transition between looking at him and looking through his point-of-view is seamless. This shows that Bigelow is successful in showing a real view of war. Aside from this shot, however, most of the scene uses discontinuous editing, which restricts the audience from ever being fully certain of where the characters are. We see multiple shots of the building, seen in Image 5, where the enemy snipers are attacking from, but we never get an idea of how far it really is. We understand through context that it is far enough that they need sniper guns to attack, but there is never an establishing shot that lets us determine the distance. There is also never a perception of just how long the battle takes. It appears to be taking hours, but we are not sure of the time span. It is possible that the altercation doesn’t last as long as it is portrayed, but it is shown this way to depict how the characters experience it.
The sound adds another element of distress to this scene. Throughout the movie, the audio level of the dialogue is a lot lower than the action, such as explosions and gunshots. While this is realistic to what gunshots really sound like, it is not constant with how other movies traditionally portray these loud sounds. While other movies do make sure to show that gunshots are louder than dialogue, they adjust audio levels to make the sound gap smaller. However, the action in this movie is much louder than any other part of the audio, and it becomes almost deafening to the audience as well as the characters. Bigelow also amplifies the sound of the smaller details she focuses on, such as the falling shell and the fly, which just keeps adding to the tension in the scene. There is also an eerie sound in some parts of this scene, and also throughout the movie, which add to the terror element of the movie. It also gives the audience another factor where we can experience this world of war. Caroline Phillips said that the “diegetic sounds in the sequence were the dialogue and the sounds of the environment,” which shows that even without dialogue, or maybe especially without dialogue, we live what these characters live.
Bigelow and her editors take the audience on a ride where we catch a glimpse of war and what soldiers experience. The editing in this scene breaks a bit from the rest of the movie, but still uses techniques that primarily function to show the characters’ experiences and the realities of war. Bigelow is successful in manipulating time in such a way that we are never fully aware of the actual time lapse, but we still feel restless for the long wait to end. Her use of sound increases tension and intensifies anxiety. And the constant movement of the camera makes the audience’s desire for the characters to move almost uncontrollable. Innis said that “editing this war film felt like a war itself.”