A rarity amongst the male-dominated hallways of Hollywood studios, American director Kathryn Bigelow is not just a breath of fresh air in the demographics of mainstream movie-makers – she’s also a brilliant director too. Interestingly, her films are often described as “looking like they were directed by men”, being “manly” or “macho” -and indeed if one was to watch any one of her films (with the exception of a few), you might assume that they were directed by men. Of course this brings in to play all sorts of horrible constructs about what films that are directed by men and women look like, or indeed supposedly should look like – this seems rather odd, it of course being people that direct films, not genders. Regardless, this is an interesting point to begin comparing two of her most critically and commercially successful films to attempt to establish the better of the two. This time we’re taking a look at 2009’s The Hurt Locker and 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Set within the backdrop of the U.S-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, though not explicitly about this/these events, The Hurt Locker follows a group of bomb disposal experts and their nail-biting IED-to-RPG style lives. Bigelow sets up the tone of the film brilliantly in its opening moments, with its perfect blend of jet-black humour and unbelievably tense set pieces, not to mention the guts the film has to kill off what at first appears to be the main character within the first few minutes of the film. Enter Jeremy Renner’s seasoned veteran, whose renegade style at first doesn’t gel with the group – a seemingly basic story bordering on cliché at this point, but it’s executed so well, not least due to the performances of Renner, Mackie and Geraghty. It’s no surprise that since its release these actors have gone from strength to strength, with Jeremy Renner in particular standing out. The logical part of you hates the character, but it’s carried off with such charm, charisma and wit from Renner that the emotional part of you can’t help but love him, and therefore, crucially, you care about him enough to be on the edge of your seat during the film’s many tense moments, even if it’s just his life at stake.
Moments of humour don’t dampen the atmosphere either, and seem more like things that people who do such a job day-in-day-out would say to lighten the mood.
Add to this things like the brilliant Ralph Fiennes cameo, in which he almost seemed to be rehearsing for The Grand Budapest Hotel “Well, we have spares, but we used up our wrench.” “How do you use up a wrench?” “Well, the uh, guy over there with the red thing on his head…he threw it at someone”, and the end result simply gets better. These moments of humour don’t dampen the atmosphere either, and seem more like things that people who do such a job day-in-day-out would say to lighten the mood. The deadpan delivery and harshness of the context not only makes the humour funnier and the film’s exploration of the idea of being addicted to the thrill and exhilarating nature of war, even more profound.
Whilst The Hurt Locker was about an uncontrollable urge in the form of addiction, Zero Dark Thirty deals with obsession. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is relentless, uncompromising and tenacious in her efforts to locating Osama Bin Laden – she becomes more and more obsessed in the face of adversity, and it’s a brilliantly written role that is expertly executed by Chastain. She’s confident, impossibly hard-working, but most of all, seemingly unstoppable, and the film does not shy away from showing us both the ups and downs of such devotion, much to its credit.
In Bigelow’s own words; “I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding Bin Laden”.
Upon its release the film garnered much criticism for its portrayal of torture, and whilst some have even called it pro-torture propaganda, whether the impression that torture was an effective method for gaining information or not is not really the issue, and many seemed to have missed the point of its inclusion. It is of course horrible, and deeply unpleasant to watch, but this means that it is effective – not the torture, but the film. It’s a neat section of social commentary about a country that calls itself the home of liberty and the enemy of empire but has absolutely no problems at all torturing alleged terrorists, drone bombing largely civilian populations and invading independent sovereign states. In Bigelow’s own words; “I think that it’s a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding Bin Laden”. The tone of the film remains bleak and unsettling, and Bigelow does a fantastic job of keeping the tension turned right up to the ceiling, despite the viewers’ knowledge of the final overall outcome. Even when you know what to expect, you’re still on the edge of your seat.
So which is better? This is a difficult one. Two incredibly tense, gripping, war-based thrillers that, at first, seem to have far more similarities than differences. The Hurt Locker, with its micro-study of a man who wants to face death on a daily basis and cannot adjust to anything other than this does have its merits and its memorable moments – such as the harrowing sequence in which our protagonist finds an explosive device embedded in an Iraqi child, but as does Zero Dark Thirty. For example, the ‘car-bomb at the base’ scene is shocking not because it is unexpected, as it becomes apparent very quickly how things will pan out, but because it is executed so coldly. The already-high tension peaks quickly and then is suddenly dropped. It is not the relentless set-piece-after-set-piece setup that we see in The Hurt Locker, and indeed nor should it be, but it gives Zero Dark Thirty slightly more downtime to explore more controversial ideas, and for that- it’s arguably the better of the two.
By Oliver Rowe