The Hurt Locker: Being More Than One Thing At A Time


Vincent van Gogh put the barrel of his pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. Earnest Hemingway, three weeks shy of his 62nd birthday, used a shotgun and aimed about a foot higher.  Heroine and cocaine took Belushi and Farley.  It appears, at least in part, that small armies of sycophants with the power to prescribe presided over the waning moments of the lives of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith and Elvis Presley.

But you knew that, didn’t you.

the-hurt-locker_1231882171_640wYou probably even have your best guesses ready as to why. Some reasons might even be romantic: the world never understood their genius; the pressures of wealth and fame were more than anyone could be expected to handle; reality had been a moving target since the first time their overbearing father stuck a microphone in their hand and commanded them to dance.

Truth is this world is filled with celebrity meltdowns.  Some huge.  Some you saw coming a mile away.  For others, the collapse hasn’t happened yet, but you know its only a matter of time. In this world, you can’t just be a celebrity.  You also have to be human living in a relational world.  And relationships are hard work.

What broods beneath the surface of every public spectacle of self-destruction lies buried in all of us, like the plastic explosive C4–stable until the right charge sets it off.  Then, look out!

There’s the man who quietly packs his bag and abandons his family because they aren’t fulfilling him as he thought they should. (He’s been thinking about this for over a year now.)  Or the woman who builds an artificial community through her online social network, logging hours each day checking and commenting on statuses and pictures, but never emerging from her home to speak to actual living souls.  Or the boy in the hoodie with his headphones. Or the mom who can’t help but see her kids as the thieves who stole away the best years of her life and can’t wait until they’re out of her house.

What about you?  What are the reasons you want to blow up?  Or bolt?  How close have you come?  And under what refuge would you have to flee to make a clean break? Have you ever felt that maybe becoming a bomb specialist overseas would be easier than your current domestic gig?

The Hurt Locker is a story about a group of specialists in Iraq charged with the job of diffusing improvised explosive devices (IED’s), often in broad daylight and quite possibly while the architect of the bomb in question looks on, casually fingering the disposable cell phone he married to the detonator in the specialist’s hands.

hurt-locker-1The Hurt Locker isn’t an anti-war movie. Neither is it pro-war.  It takes the war in Iraq as a given, the IED’s as deadly, and the military as a highly specialized organization filled predominantly with men, brave beyond description and at times juvenile beyond belief.

Still, with no margin for error, the members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad volunteer for their work.  They sign up for it!  Would you?

Jeremy Renner, the lead actor, gives an oscar-worthy performance as an ordinary civilian and glorious warrior who can’t figure out how to be both at the same time.  His work in Iraq is about one thing–diffusing bombs–and if he adds anything else to it, he’ll die.  His mission is clear and his work is suited to his skill-set and personality type.  People in authority over him are in awe and those beneath him are dumbfounded by how he could still be alive. He’s happy as a pig in mud.

Technically, the film is riveting.  Borrowing from Roger Ebert quoting the Master of Suspense: “Hitchcock said when there’s a bomb under a table, and it explodes, that’s action. When we know the bomb is there, and the people at the table play cards, and it doesn’t explode, that’s suspense.” This film is about the game on the table.

But it’s also about Van Gogh , Hemingway, Belushi, Farley, Jackson, Smith, Presley, the man leaving his family, the woman in isolation and the mother who quietly resents her children. It’s about public excellence and personal failure.  It’s about what it takes to detonate stability.

The Hurt Locker is about how hard it is for so many of us to be about more than one thing at a time.

Most of us, at some point or another, want to run.  We dress this urge up in our best rationales: no one understand us; we’re not appreciated for who we are or what we do; we’re not the same person we were before; we’re not being our “true selves” anymore.  For many of us, this comes when we’re chin deep in our vows before God and witnesses to have and to hold until death do us part. Or in parenthood.

So we sit alone in our garages, at our desks, in our studios, or wherever thinking life is passing us by while we waste our formidable years chained to another person’s wants or needs. Life isn’t what we thought it would be.  Our work isn’t clear or suited to our skill set or personality type.  What we wouldn’t give for some det-cord–blow the whole thing to hell.

We begin to think we’re losing our identity because that child or spouse or job seems to demand that we be about just one thing. But we dreamed we were going to be so much more.

If this is you, here’s where you’re dead wrong.  No one is asking you to be just one thing.  They’re needing you to be more than one thing at a time–and some of it you’re not that good at.  The rock star butts up against the reality that every night unknown fans reach for him on stage, but his own daughter seems to just want mommy. The brooding writer easily enters the tunnel which takes her deep into the world of words, ideas and characters, but feels detached at the dinner table and gets uncomfortable and annoyed when asked about her day. The salesman lives for the pitch, knowing he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to hit it out of the park, but tries to spend as little time as possible tucking his own kids in so he can be done for the night and zone out to SportsCenter. The network specialist can’t fix his own leaky faucet, and wonders if his wife respects how hard he works as he dials the plumber’s number.

Tragically, rather than deal with the inadequacy, many surrender to the temptation to just leave the hard stuff in favor of the glory.  The problem is the hard places are usually where our relationships attach.

Jettison the hard stuff and what’s left?  Glory?


Full disclosure: I am going to Texas to visit my only brother Ryan next week so we can get some time together before he deploys for his second tour in Iraq.  The first time he went, his daughter Reagan (yep, named after the other Reagan) was a toddler.  She didn’t know what was happening then.  She barely understood the passing of time.  Now she cries most days because she doesn’t want her daddy to leave.

And I don’t either.

Please pray for them, for his wife Nancy, and for all our soldiers. Some don’t come home, but none come home unchanged. Pray for the soldiers coming home, that they’d love the home the return to.

Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).


  1. Jake Willems

    This movie left me drained like none I’ve seen in years. It’s my favorite of Bigelow’s films. Russ, I love your interpretation of the themes and threads from the film.

    “Jeremy Renner, the lead actor, gives an oscar-worthy performance as an ordinary civilian and glorious warrior who can’t figure out how to be both at the same time.” I think that captures not only his time back home with his family, but also his interactions with the boy at the camp. As soon as got attached and left the camp looking for his “killers” you could see his emotions get in the way of his normal behavior. I almost cried when he saw the boy back at the camp and instantly shut himself off in that relationship.

    All in all, wonderful film. Do take time out and search this film. I had to wait two months looking every Friday before it finally come to Omaha. Have you seen it yet Curt?

  2. Matt Conner

    Loved, loved, loved this movie. My favorite I’ve seen of this year so far for sure. Great write-up as well. Thanks, Russ, for bringing attention to this.

  3. Janna


    What about the person who says he’s doing and being what he always loved and dreamed of doing and being. Is he inadequate at nothing, or is he in denial? Did your wife watch the movie with you? Just curious.

  4. Russ Ramsey


    Janna, thanks for your post. My analysis above is meant to be specific to what I saw as a big part of the story in the film, so I am most certainly singling out folks for whom that shoe fits.

    But here’s what I’d say to your question above. If a person says they’re doing and being what they always loved and dreamed of doing and being but that love and dream makes it impossible for them to live in healthy relationships with other people, I think that person is living in major denial. So the rock star who abandons his family on the grounds that their desire to have him present and engaged in their lives is incompatible with his dream to tour the world and stand before adoring but unknown fans is, well, he’s a fool.

    On the other hand– and this was my aim in this post– the hope and goal is that people can pursue their calling with excellence while living in relationship. It means they have to be willing to die to themselves and take into account the needs of others, seeing that as an equally valid and essential component of their call.

    For a lot of guys, we’re not that good at being emotionally present, and for many, they use that tension to excuse themselves from relationship. I see it happen a lot. And it’s so sad because the people they excuse themselves from really desperately don’t want them to go, and often don’t even expect them to be great at relationships. They just want them to be present and willing to try to engage as best as they can.

    My wife didn’t watch the movie with me, but over the years we’ve lived out some of the themes in it. That said, I admit I’m aiming this post largely at men and I’m doing so with a fair amount of certainty that they’re picking up what I’m putting down here.

    One more thing, and I don’t know if this is related to your question or not, Janna, (and please, don’t anyone mistake this for a sexist comment) but one of the things that fascinates me is that this film which is almost exclusively devoted to male characters was directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, and she’s ruthlessly on target, wise and revealing of the inner lives of many, many men– perhaps similar to Marilyn Robinsons’ wonderful book Gliead.

  5. Andrew Peterson


    Great post, Russ. I loved this film too–until the very ending. The hardcore “I’m bad to the bone” music was over the top and seemed to glorify it a little too much. But I’m nitpicking. MAN, the tension in the film was exquisite. Parts of me are still unclenching weeks later. And who is this Jeremy Renner? I thought he was great.

  6. E


    I am picking up what you’re putting down. Great post and timely for me. I’ve been trying to find the practical handle on work / life balance stuff for a while now, and not very successfully. We will pray for Ryan, Reagan and family.

    Thank you.

  7. Jeff M

    I too am picking up what you’re putting down – or as another once said, “I smell what you are stepping in”. This is a great post and I will certainly check this movie out (have not yet heard of it) – thanks for sharing.


  8. Shawn

    Spot on. There’s a great David Mead song called ‘Reminded’ that includes this chorus:

    “There’s nothing to fear,
    Whatever I do you know I always remember you,
    But I needed to be
    Reminded of me.”

    So true – I have found myself caught in the non-appreciated, misunderstood garbage before. When mired in it, surprisingly enough, pulling myself back to something I had always enjoyed and had given up (for the sake of time trying to be all things to people), removing myself from the ‘reality’ I had built of unfairly heaped expectations (on myself), I came back so much more refreshed, identity intact, able to approach my heavenly Father much more honestly and all relationships as well.

    Important post – especially for guys. Thanks.

  9. Aaron Roughton

    I’m still chewing on this post Russ. It’s been too long since we’ve read some of your words here. Thanks for the insight and the review. I’ll look forward to the movie.

  10. elijah

    AP, with regard to the ending, I found it terribly ironic, and I think that was the intended effect. Why else would a film that so unabashedly showed the addictive (for Will) and vainglorious (vainglorious not for Will but for those in authority over him) effects of combat end so disingenuously?

    I loved the very end because it forced me to (re)act. I hurt for the soldiers. I celebrate their work on my behalf, but I do not to cheer for war itself in any way.

  11. Jonathan Rogers

    Great review, Russ, and great insights re: the way we detach from the people who need us most. An important reminder as I push to finish a book…

    On another note, the guy in the picture looks like you, Russ. I mean without the wings.

  12. Peter B

    Thanks, Russ. This is the kind of thing we can’t be told too often; what higher calling is there than the one that calls us to be doggedly faithful, day in and day out?

    A friend told me about this film and I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I think it just jumped up my list a bit.

    Also, “defuse” means to disarm, whereas “diffuse” means to dilute by spreading out over a larger area (I suppose the diffusion could be achieved by failure to defuse).

  13. Janna

    Russ. I see and appreciate where you’re going with all of this. You mentioned a female writer though, and the wheels in my head started spinning. To be completely honest, my question really had to do with some women I’ve encountered who say all they ever wanted to be is a wife and mother, a statement that makes me feel I must be some sort of alien. I did want to be a wife and mom and I’m thankful to be both, but it is not ALL I ever wanted. Yes, the goal should be to do both well, and it is hard to find the balance. Sandra McCracken’s song “On the Outside” seems to display feelings very similar to my own, regarding this phase of young motherhood. I have to fight the urge to focus only on what I like to do and am good at. Still, my kids think I’m a good Mom even when I don’t – not teenagers yet – and I should enjoy that now, huh?

    It is interesting when a man or woman is able to reveal what we think he or she has never truly experienced. And it encourages me that male voices are not the only ones who need to be heard. Thanks again for all the truth in this post.

  14. Peter B

    You can always sneak into Joe after this one. Far from theft, they’ll probably owe you some money for your time afterward.

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