The Hurt Locker opens with the ground, close to us, flitting by as the image flickers in and out of digital static. The quality of the video is poor and very clearly digital, much like an early digital camcorder. Eventually, there is a cut to a side angle, and we see that what we’d been watching was the camera view of a rover vehicle, rolling through the debris covered streets of Baghdad. This transition, from the perspective of the rover to that of the film camera, alerts us as viewers that the film is now beginning, that we are now in the perspective of the story's camera.
A narrative quickly becomes clear. The rover is being operated by an American army bomb squad, inspecting a mysterious package left on the roadside. Residents are being cleared out, an ominous tone clues us into potential danger, accented by a heartbeat like ticking. Notably, though, even though the perspective has switched from the rover’s POV to a traditional camera, the camerawork feels like a documentary. It is shaky, with quick zooms in and out. There are hotspots of overexposure, and tight, unconventional framings. It is the kind of camera work that would make Paul Greengrass famous, both for the Bourne series and United 93—it isn't a coincidence that The Hurt Locker was shot by same cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd.
The tone of the film shifts again when we meet the three members of the bomb squad. Specifically, it shifts when we meet Sergeant Thompson played by Guy Pearce. Pearce, already a known actor at the time, is immediately recognizable as, if not a star, a piece of Hollywood in this Iraqi landscape. He is jovial with the other squad members, crude but funny, firm without being overbearing, and liked and respected. Clearly, we are being set up for his death.
The unit finds the bomb and, having cleared the area, decides to detonate. They send the rover back to drop off the trigger explosives but, in a Hitchcockian twist, a wheel falls off. The payload is stranded halfway between the team and the IED. Thompson chooses to “suit up” in a large, blast-resistant suit, looking like a militaristic astronaut.
The film continues to treat all of this like a documentary. The banter of the unit seems casual and unscripted. Their reactions to the situation are calm and they maintain good-natured, tough guy chatter. As the audience, though, we are tense. The other members of the unit look at Iraqis on buildings nearby, also watching the scene, and we wonder if these people are dangerous or not. The soldiers don't let us know. An Iraqi approaches to ask where one is from and we get tense. Why has he shown up just now? The soldier gets tense to, pointing the gun at him shoving him away. But, when the man complies, they return to their bantering.
Thompson success in laying there charges on the IED and starts the trek back. For the soldiers, the tension relaxes. They joke about starting a grass growing business in Baghdad. But as viewers it's clear this is just comedic relief before the storm. The last seven minutes of the scene haven't been a prelude to nothing. And quickly the drama appears. One of the soldiers spots a man with a cell phone. Even if, as viewers, we don't know what this might imply, the soldiers’ reactions make it clear. They start running and shouting. One advises the other to “burn him.” Thompson, not hearing their conversation, asks what's going on. The scene descends into chaos. Is the man an insurgent or not? Is he or Thompson about to be killed? Before we can ask these questions the man punches numbers into his phone. As he hits send, the IED explodes.
And again, drastically, the cinematography changes. The frame rate ramps up to slow motion. We see details in locked-off insert shots—dirt on a metal plate rumbling, the impact rippling through the ground. And, in extreme slow motion, we see the explosion take shape, throwing Thompson into the air. Briefly, we flick back to the documentary style editing, but it is only to see the dust blow over the other members of the unit. We return to Thompson and his slow motion, almost graceful fall. He hits the ground and is still as debris sprinkles down around him. It is his death which stirs the plot of the film—the introduction of a new sergeant with a much different personality—but it is also his death which reminds us again that this is a film, there is a spectacle to it. Where the initial transition told us as viewers that this would be a film with realism, gritty handheld camerawork even with Guy Pearce star power, this transition now tells us there will also be beautiful things here, even in the midst of characters dying. We don't know right away that Thompson has died, the scene ends on his slow motion still body, but it's clear the prelude has ended. And as we return back to the gritty reality of the film and its handheld camerawork, the beauty of Thompson's death lingers with us.