Tuesday, August 18, 2009
In Theaters: The Hurt Locker
THE HURT LOCKER suffers from being an Iraq war film in a marketplace that is really, really tired of Iraq war films. It’s an uncomfortable subject to start with, and pictures like JARHEAD and STOP LOSS pretty much scared audiences away from theaters (note that I have no idea whether either film was any good.) To be sure, THE HURT LOCKER is a grim picture about a grim subject, but at heart it’s an action film. Veteran action director Kathryn Bigelow (she of the wonderfully psychotic POINT BREAK) has crafted a film in the tradition of gritty epics like THE WAGES OF FEAR, mixing action and drama and drawing thrills from the heroic efforts of everyday people. Or, in this case, everyday soldiers, who happen to have some problems lurking beneath the surface.
Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is a demolitions expert, sent to work for Bravo Company in Iraq near the end of their deployment. While the last guy working this job was meticulous and methodical and was blown up for his troubles, James seems to play things loose. He knows what he’s doing- he’s disarmed over eighty IEDs in his day- but team leader Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) fears for his safety even more than usual whenever they get called out. The story is an episodic ticking down of the clock until the day when James, Sanborn, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) can go home, and in a little over a month the company must defuse or contain several bombs and deal with a number of logistically and ethically complicated situations, with the enemy often in sight but always just out of reach.
In many ways this is a classic war story, almost weirdly traditional given how nontraditional the war itself has been. James’ character seems to have roots in the archetype of the hero who never quite follows the rules but gets results, but there’s a justification of his behavior beyond that. The boys of Bravo Company are in a situation where it seems that the standard procedures are no help; whether or not you have a helmet on, if you’re sitting in a hummer and get fired on from the side you will be shot. James’ body armor is rarely useful; when he comes across a car loaded with bombs, he takes it off, on the grounds that an explosion will kill him either way and he may as well be comfortable. At the same time, James is not cavalier; he is acutely aware that anything could kill him at any moment, and the title seems to refer to a small box the character keeps under his bed, full of components of bombs he’s disarmed, as a reminder that a cheap drug store battery or set of wires bundled into a dead man switch could have taken his life. Renner’s performance is rightfully attracting a lot of critical acclaim; the character never seems unreal for a second.
Though the film uses a good deal of handheld camera work- perhaps inevitable these days, but at least justifiably realistic in a film about urban combat- Bigelow does not fall prey to the temptation to shake the thing around so much that images become artistic blurs of color. The action sequences are always clearly laid out, and the use of angles to reveal information (as in a destined-to-be-classic overhead shot where James follows a wire leading from a single bomb to several laid out around him) is clever without being gimmicky.
In the end, of course, the real problem James has is that the best he can hope for at the end of each day is survival. This is not a war in which the bad guys are easily engaged, and even when they are- as in a harrowing detour in the desert- there’s no satisfaction to be had in victory. There’s always another bomb, and our characters are beaten down by the sheer grind. But there are also bonds to be forged, and Renner, Mackie, and Garaghty establish a very interesting dynamic. And of course, there’s the opening quote informing us that war is a drug. James finds a purpose in what he does even when any sense of justice or triumph eludes him, but it’s as much a compulsion as a drive.
I would only take issue with a couple of things in the film. There is one supporting character whose fate is obvious from the moment he is first seen, and who is never developed much beyond stereotype. Also, in the aforementioned desert engagement, a famous face appears out of nowhere, which is kind of disconcerting. Otherwise, this is a very tight picture.
To be utterly clear, THE HURT LOCKER is not the depressing ordeal one envisions when one thinks of a realistic Iraq war movie. It’s intense, but in a white-knuckle sort of way where you don’t have time to be depressed, because you’re wondering when things are going to get worse. There are moments of humor, and briefly warmth, and parts of the experience are what one might describe as fun. It’s one of the best films of the year, easily, and if it takes a while to find its audience, it’ll have lasting value as one of the first really compelling films made about the second Gulf War. Also, it’s just a damn good movie.
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow