The Hurt Locker

September 9, 2009

The Hurt Locker movie image (3)

Kathryn Bigelow is no stranger to the macho adrenaline junkie.  Point Break and Strange Days are all about the rush, whether it is surfing, robbing banks, or feeling someone else’s experience.  The Hurt Locker is no different, this time setting the action around a staff sergeant in a bomb disposal unit in Iraq.  I’ve mentioned the failings of Iraq War based film ventures before, and Bigelow wisely sidesteps the issue completely.  This is not a political film, but neither is it a straightforward action picture.  It’s thrilling at times to be sure, containing some of the best suspense sequences this year, but it’s more interested in the characters and how they function in such a high-pressure environment.

An opening sequence nicely establishes the procedures and apparatus with which the unit should work, but after member of the team is claimed in an explosion and his replacement is William James (Jeremy Renner), a veteran of Afghanistan and something of an enigma to his new unit.  That unit consists of the tough, professional Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the young, destined-for-PTSD Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).  A lesser film would follow the standard arc of mistrust of the new guy, followed by bonding through combat, followed by difficult decisions and a melodramatic depiction of the cruelties of war.  This is not, however, a lesser film, and while there are certain amounts of the standard Band of Brothers camaraderie, they don’t develop in the expected way.  Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was explicitly about the men on the ground, and how it isn’t about why you’re fighting or where, whether it is Somalia or Iraq, but it’s about the man next to you.  In a lot of ways, The Hurt Locker is about the man next to you, but instead of comfort and protection, you’ve got a liability.

The film is structurally very episodic.  We follow the unit on the final thirty days of their rotation, as they deal with a bomb in a car or in some rubble, or come across a crew of British contractors out to nab high-ranking Iraqi officials for the reward money.  As each chapter goes by, we learn more and more about James – he’s fearless to the point of insanity, he’s reckless, he’s more curious than frightened, he takes care of the younger Eldridge when he needs encouragement.  He even forms a (not entirely convincing, admittedly) friendship with a local Iraqi boy at the base, the consequences of which give us a better understanding of why he is the way he is.  Perhaps the best moment comes during a night of music and drinking the three men have (this is also a contender for most homoerotic scene of the year), where friendly displays of masculinity always threaten to veer into deadly violence.

James’ unpredictable nature gives the already almost-unbearably tense bomb-defusing sequences an extra air of menace.  I’m tempted to say that it must be impossible to make a film about a bomb squad that isn’t chock-full of suspense, but even if that’s true one can’t deny the visceral, almost queasy, thrill of these scenes.  There’s no ‘which wire to cut’ nonsense to hamper the film with cliché; James is exceptional at what he does, it’s just a matter of working out how the bomb works.  His reckless bravado when kicking the boot of a car full of explosives is dangerous enough, but there is added danger and paranoia as his unit covers him, watching as Iraqis film the scene with a camcorder and communicate via hand signals to men perched ominously on a minaret.  The menace is a tightly wound coil that threatens to spring into mayhem at any given moment, and for that reason it towers above almost all the summer blockbusters had to offer.

For all the good, there are some bum notes.  The aforementioned Iraqi kid relationship doesn’t completely convince, for one.  There is also a tendency to explain what’s going on with the characters when the acting is good enough that we don’t need it in the first place.  Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal should trust us to understand what we’re seeing, but there are a few scenes where the dialogue is so on the nose that we’re left jarred by the clunkiness.  In particular, a scene with Eldridge and the staff psychologist as well as the completely unnecessary penultimate scenes.

Those problems aside, it is really an excellent piece of work.  The characters inform the action, and the action reveals the characters.  The problems with the war are around, in the nooks and crannies of the demolished town and in the faces of harassed and broken people, but by largely ignoring the politics, we get a refreshing approach to the conflict.  The toll taken on the lives of the main characters are mostly self-inflicted wounds.  For some, it just might be that the excitement of war is just as damaging as the horror.  James is not suicidal, but he teeters on the edge, fully embracing his death drive, unable to suppress the rush of the job for the safety of those he’s responsible for or, indeed, the family back home he’d probably rather ignore.  He’s not a wild man or a sociopath; he’s just an addict.

-MH

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