Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009)

WARNING: MAJOR “PLOT POINTS” OF THIS FILM ARE DISCUSSED AND ANALYZED

“...[Kathryn] Bigelow is—most fittingly for a female director rightly celebrated for her breathtaking command of action—an expert fabulist of unlikely male bonding.”

So concluded this writer's review of Point Break. As The Hurt Locker opens with an unnecessary, wrongly mollifying quote by Chris Hedges—whose antiwar speech to a graduating class at a university in Rockford, Illinois was booed and heckled in 2003—which emphasizes that “war is a drug,” it became evident that Kathryn Bigelow was not only endeavoring to explore men growing closer to one another through attachment and proximity, but the peculiar hold adrenaline plays on the male psyche. As in her 1991 action thriller, Bigelow's new film finds itself propelled by a man who perhaps does not himself “get off” on the thrill, excitement and adrenaline rush—Patrick Swayze's Bodhi was closer to this mold, though he continually spouted off philosophical and spiritual rationales as reasons for throwing caution to the wind—but is certainly wholly comfortable with the relentless presence of sure death if he fails in his mission. That man is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose task it is to diffuse seemingly countless Iraqi “IEDs”(Improvised Explosive Device just for clarification). James is assigned to a company of men after its “EOD” (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) master of bomb- and trap-disarming Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed. Soon, two of those men—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and a guilt-ridden Specialist Owen Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty (he believes he should have dropped the insurgent responsible for detonating the device that took out Thompson)—will find themselves wondering whether or not Renner's staff sergeant is uncommonly courageous and unorthodox or simply insane.

If James is like Bodhi or Bill Paxton's Severen from Near Dark or in a frightening way, Tom Sizemore's Max Peltier from Strange Days, then Mackie's Sanborn is the reserved, judicious flip side who, like other Bigelow men of reason, sees the wild man (a CO played by David Morse actually calls James a “wild man” in awesome reverence) as something resembling a monster that has to be put down. In one disconcertingly quiet and unsettling scene, Sanborn talks to Eldridge about killing James. Seeing the wild man as a threat to the unit, Sanborn's initial distaste for James is palpable; as he shaves in the mirror one morning he tells James in no uncertain terms exactly what he thinks of him. In perhaps the film's finest sequence, however, as James attacks a wildly complicated booby-trap set in a car, and Sanborn and Eldridge nervously wait for him to finish, finally almost begging him to give up on the apparatus and vacate the scene—young Iraqi men stand about rooftops looking onward at the Americans and any one of them may be an insurgent—the audience may find itself siding with James, who, like an artisan entirely absorbed in his work, loses track of time, space and location as he assiduously applies himself. James grabs his headset, into which Sanborn has been yelling that there is limited time and they should probably leave, and throws it to the ground the way a writer may finally unplug their telephone after they have received one too many disruptive calls for the fourth consecutive time.

Bigelow's direction and mastery of mise-en-scene has never been fiercer or more appropriately utilized. There is an epical integument to her work; it is difficult to consider any of her pictures remotely “small”—her characters are titans representative of philosophies and dispositions, the confrontations between whom are staged as grand battles of demigods dueling with one another over righteous quarrels. Bigelow's men are wounded—figuratively as well as literally, like Ralph Fiennes' unlikely hero of Strange Days who will not allow himself to recover from a broken love affair. The Hurt Locker's James is a man who has blanketed himself in the adrenaline of “not knowing”: what terrifies the average man exhilarates him because his job is the most immediate and unadulterated metaphor for placing oneself in the tempestuous food blender of fate while defying its whims by being so consummately au courant in all things. At a certain undecipherable point, James' acceptance grows into something more—it is here unfortunate that the opening salvo and, in this context, judgmental, quote appears at all, because The Hurt Locker explains away James' obsessiveness and derring-do as addiction. Whenever the film does take a needed breather from the heart-racing suspense, the screenplay—written by journalist Mark Boal, whose real-life experiences with an EOD squad in Iraq inspired The Hurt Locker—carefully sheds layers of James' distancing, protective tissue (visually represented by his specialized suit that he elects to peel off in the aforementioned rigged-car scene due to wanting to “die comfortable”). It is revealed, not surprisingly, that James' home life is bizarre: he believes he and his wife are divorced but his wife will not leave him. He vocally questions what that means.

Bigelow follows her own instincts in many disparate avenues of the film's mostly unpredictable narrative. The Hurt Locker's tension does not “escalate” in a manner befitting the average “action movie,” but rather it does continuously augment the stakes of the mortal game until, finally, James must choose between literally—and crazily—sacrificing his life for another for whom nothing can be done or preserving himself to continue on. What makes this rewardingly unique is the cinematic convection of import as each scene follows the other. Already similar to Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell in its tale of a squad of bomb-disposers, Bigelow's film likewise focuses with greater, intimate and crystalline clarity on the circumference of ethical dilemmas that arise, but does so through the exploration of its own building blocks. The Hurt Locker begins with three men—Thompson, Sanborn and Eldridge—joking around and teasing one another like good chums on guy's night. They might be playing pool or driving to a football game. The casualness underscores the tension and the danger. Bigelow, armed with Boal's screenplay, immediately assaults the testosterone-fueled climate of her war movie, commenting on the masculine domination by overtly addressing the instrument the men are utilizing as a facsimile for their penises. The sudden connection between the men and their phallic symbol voluminously lays a sound foundation for the entire film. This baldly vociferous commentary on the film through characters—and the staging thereof—only continues until The Hurt Locker almost inverts itself wholly as a meta-textual distillation of war film tropes for more seemingly enlightened purposes. By reducing the men as guys playing with their specifically male organs, Bigelow ostentatiously alters the context, and this helps to suggest that if James were not in Iraq defusing and disposing bombs, he would be elsewhere.

Being the first Iraq war film to not bother to question the wisdom or morality of the war itself, Bigelow's picture asserts an environment in which some young men thrive under the sweltering heat and chaos while others simply endure it. By engendering an unblinking, incendiary milieu—never tarnished by the kind of cinematic prolix many of her contemporaries would thrust against the film, nor the whirling, fast-cutting machinations that tend to decrease genuine suspense in favor of the insipid faux suspense that alienates the viewer—Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, frequently utilizing four rolling cameras, leave an indelible impression without resorting to lecturing. Pace Francois Truffaut, who believed war action carnage always glamorized combat, Bigelow's film presents grisly imagery without desensitization. The intensity of vision lent to the defusing of the bombs says all that must be said—in her usually extraordinary cinematic shorthand, Bigelow has stated a great deal about the American invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing responsibility to bring a country back from the brink of immolation without accidentally setting the bomb off. The Hurt Locker's insistence to remain aloofly apolitical takes the Iraq war's existence for granted, leaving the accurate history lessons of the Athenian Empire for Chris Hedges.

Bigelow's mise-en-scene is gut-wrenching; often simply staging action in long, merciless takes, she allows her characters to drift about like balloons caught by gusts of wind. As the three characters unify, dissipate, and unify once more, Bigelow's camera follows them about, nonchalantly noting how they drift apart only to resume as a complete whole. The Jordanian soil serves as a convincing substitute for Iraq. Ackroyd's compositions aid Bigelow in creating conflicting realities: the three men may as well be all alone in the world, and yet their story is in many ways a microcosmic study. Bigelow's suspense-building maneuvers are downright primal. She exploits the harshness of the sound of a knife cutting through a car seat. The distorted eyes of a man looking like wicked pools of hatred caught in a rear-view mirror. The blurry, mirage-like shapes of rifle-wielding insurgents. The terrifyingly endless narrow walkways between buildings at night. Bigelow once again resorts to her famed point-of-view shots, which help to place the viewer in the cuplable, perverse position of finding the adrenaline rush in the action, as with Keanu Reeves in Point Break or the criminals at the beginning of Strange Days. Bigelow does repeatedly succumb to the “shaky cam” approach to action that has dominated action cinema since she largely moved away from the genre. Perhaps emulating YouTube videos from Iraq, this visual tendency does not distract from her work, though it does mark a change in her style.

The Hurt Locker's performances are galvanic, suitable for the titans Bigelow must survey, but never threaten to break the spell of a plausible reality. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are all as well-honed in their roles as they must be; the former two pitted as strong rivals, the latter playing a character only sure that death resides nearby, and the farther down the road they go, the less possible it is to retreat from sliding over the precipice. Renner's performance suggests Chris Pine's Captain Kirk halfway burnt-out, still a daredevil hotshot, maybe no longer convinced he is immortal, nevertheless only more cocksure and stubborn than he once was. Mackie has a difficult part because he is in essence Renner's straight man—fortunately for him, Bigelow and Boal's screenplay are less inclined to cheer on James' fearlessness and appetite for adrenaline than merely observe, so when he goes face-to-face with Renner, the deck is not stacked against him. Geraghty is fine in his damaged, scared role; his Eldridge oscillates—he is not actively hostile towards James but he is fairly sure that James has placed a fifty-pound weight on the accelerator to the car headed to ruin.

The Hurt Locker is many things; perfect is not one of them. The picture's denouement is troubled—a return to the United States feels more inauthentic in one minute than anything in “Iraq”—and the screenplay mistakenly becomes a mouthpiece for soldiers who have failed to reinstate themselves in America since “coming home.” The dialogue says too much, and in the wrong way, but once Bigelow commits to it, there is at least some poetry behind the performance. Seeing a connection between his child's jack-in-the-box toy and the devices he has miraculously survived in disposing, James notes that he is a different person than he once was—a revelation which threatens to be absurdly, crushingly vapid—and Bigelow almost immediately gears up a new, closing montage that could be the only conclusion for a film about a war still ongoing.

Point Break, it was written, was about unlikely male bonding. Bigelow has taken another major step in analyzing this phenomenon. With The Hurt Locker, she once again scrutinizes and essays male bonding, but it no longer seems unlikely. Under these conditions, Bigelow seems to ask with each hair-raising scene following the last: How could they not grow closer, how could they not bond?

30 comments:

tim watts said...

You covered it all as always. I really dig what you're getting at about Bigelow looking at masculinity and male bonding, because I have gotten that impression too.

The only part I didn't like was the stuff with the Iraqi kid.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Tim.

I must admit: I thought the section with the Iraqi boy probably belonged in a different movie. Of all the major turns in the narrative, this seemed to be perhaps the most superfluous, though not egregiously so in the moment.

the editor., said...

Alexander, I plan to go check out the film entitled The Hurt Locker.

Below is a poll question that I asked on my friend website about the film The Hurt Locker…because after reading all the positive feedback (reviews) for this film…I was wondering….Do You Think It Is Too Early To Release Films About This Iraq “War?”

My Response
Personally, I don’t believe in war, but I know in some instances, war is unpreventable!…Therefore, I voted undecided…No, if people can learn something positive from it…
Yes,
if a lesson isn’t learned…in order for people to learn how to settle differences without going to War.
What do you think?


…and it’s obvious from my indecisiveness that the “jury” is still out…on where I think this film will fit in the “canon” of war films.

DeeDee ;-D
Alexander, my response was copied and pasted

the editor., said...

By the way,
I didn't read your reviews because
I have not watched the film yet and because of the aforementiond warning,

WARNING: MAJOR “PLOT POINTS” OF THIS FILM ARE DISCUSSED AND ANALYZED

but I must admit that not to many critics cared for that scene with the Iraqi kid...I can't wait to watch the film in order to find out why?!?
or at least...from a first hand point of view.
Take care!
DeeDee

Alexander Coleman said...

DeeDee, thank you for that interesting poll question and helping to lay the foundation for a discussion of same.

One of the cliches which circulated around the Internet when Hollywood started releasing "Iraq War Films" was that it was "too early"--simply because the context was limited.

I would counter this conventional wisdom by simply stating that art which conveys various messages is often most interesting in the heat of the moment, so to speak, rather than sitting back long after the events (in this case dramatized) occurred.

This film itself leaves in the room for context, since it takes place in 2004. Several years passed between the time in which this film is set and the time during which it was produced. Several years is not a long time at all, of course--but the issue is fundamentally moot because The Hurt Locker is not making a political statement, per se, about the war.

One could contend that choosing to not make a political statement is itself making a political statement. This film is a "war film," but like all other films--including noirs, Dee Dee :-)--much of what the picture means depends on the filmmaker's vision or filmmakers' visions.

I never believed Bigelow would make a political war film as such. She went after a story that best suited her and worked from there.

For the record, I consider the Iraq war a terrible, immoral blunder. The congressmen and Senators who "authorized the use of force," as was the chanted mantra at the time, should be held directly culpable in every manner of speaking along with the previous administration.

Alexander Coleman said...

DeeDee, it is indeed a wise policy in this instance to see the film first and only then come back here and read my review. :-)

sean said...

Fantastic piece. I really thought this was a great film. Probably the best of the year so far.

Sam Juliano said...

"Bigelow's direction and mastery of mise-en-scene has never been fiercer or more appropriately utilized. There is an epical integument to her work; it is difficult to consider any of her pictures remotely “small”—her characters are titans representative of philosophies and dispositions, the confrontations between whom are staged as grand battles of demigods dueling with one another over righteous quarrels. Bigelow's men are wounded—figuratively as well as literally, like Ralph Fiennes' unlikely hero of Strange Days who will not allow himself to recover from a broken love affair."

Well, brilliantly said and couldn't agree more. Of course you do go on to point out some difficulties with the film, which I rather dismissed, especially since I have never cared much for Bigelow and was totally unprepared for the powerful film THE HURT LOCKER is. I know Craig also had the same problem with the Iraqi kid as Tim Watts did, but I still accepted it as a believable part of the narrative. I read somewhere (I think from Dan Gatahun) that some of military found elements of the film fraudulent, but again, I am less indisposed to judge a film for its authenticity than for its art and craftsmanship.

I envisione dthe likes of BATTLE OF ALGIERS here, which of course was the forerunner of guerilla warfare. The events of THE HURT LOCKER are of course enshrowded in uncertainty, with danger lurking on ever turn, and camuflage in full flower. It's a tense, no-holds-barred riveting piece of cinema, that is one of the better Iraq feature films we've had, especially since it is the first in-depth treatment of this kind of warfare.

I really liked this:

"Already similar to Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell in its tale of a squad of bomb-disposers, Bigelow's film likewise focuses with greater, intimate and crystalline clarity on the circumference of ethical dilemmas that arise, but does so through the exploration of its own building blocks...'

...and the ensuing clarification and expostulation.

And this is great too:

"Bigelow's mise-en-scene is gut-wrenching; often simply staging action in long, merciless takes, she allows her characters to drift about like balloons caught by gusts of wind. As the three characters unify, dissipate, and unify once more, Bigelow's camera follows them about, nonchalantly noting how they drift apart only to resume as a complete whole....."

But alas, I note you say the denouement is troubled. personally I didnt have an issue with the return to the U.S., as the lion's share of the film defty scrutinized its central premise. Th emale bonding by the way was superbly presented an drealized.

Another review that simply leaves one without superlatives. And it really kept me on my toes reading it. Extraordinary work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much. I appreciate the kind words.

I was prepared for The Hurt Locker, Sam, but I understand what an experience it would be if one were not, as you admit to not being a Bigelow fan before this release.

Thank you again!

Joel E said...

After I first saw the film, I wasn't pleased with the Beckham subplot or the scene later in the film where James orders his unit to hunt the bombers but then I read a comment at HND that changed my perspective on those scenes. I will edit out the more spoilery aspects of this to get at the meat, but here's the comment:

========

"The brief "mystery" plot suggests that any attempt to "give us meaning" with this war will end in confusion and failure...His search is fruitless. He's no detective. Outside the base -- outside his narrow assignment -- he's useless.

To me, with the failed "procedural" in the middle of The Hurt Locker Bigelow dispels any meaning to her alpha-male hero's exertions beyond the most immediate. He's defusing bombs -- a good thing, no doubt, but there's no way to apply his actions to "civilization" writ large. Bombs are a force that blow up or don't, kill or don't, but they don't give us meaning.

==========

I have to admit that this perspective put these scenes in a new light. I don't think they're entirely believable or realistic, but they point out the futile nature of James' role. He does not kill bad guys. He stops bombs. A nobile role, but in and of itself not very satisfying.

I appreciated the movie quite a bit and I think it's fairly successful at what it sets out to do, but I agree some of the choices are a bit on the nose.

Still, wouldn't it be fun to have Bigelow and Mann work on a project together? It would be the ultimate ode to manliness. And I mean that in a good way.

Alexander Coleman said...

Interesting, Joel, thank you for sharing. I received the same message from the film, too, and perhaps the Beckham subplot will play better on repeated viewings (I'm planning on going back very soon). James is a master at defusing these deadly devices but once he tried becoming his own cop, things did not work out at all. It helps to define how limited his role is; others are charged with the responsibility of going after the people who actually set the bombs.

Quibbling on several issues aside, this is a fine film. Your point about Mann and Bigelow is a great one--receiving offerings from both this summer has created much discussion, to be sure.

the glimmer man said...

rip john hughes

Harold said...

I saw it and liked it but I wonder if maybe some people aren't overrating it because it's not preachy or schmaltzy like the other Iraq movies have been.

Also one reason the movie is not doing well at the b.o. is cuz the title sucks. I'm not sure what it should be called but The Hurt Locker as a title is a stinker.

BUT I liked it. Bigelow is an ace director.

Great review, Alexander.

alex coleman said...

thank you glimmer man

glimmer man said...

i cant wait for taking woodstock to come out

the dook said...

r u on myspace?

Stu said...

Awesome review. You really write beautiful essays here. Keep up the great work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Harold, Sean and others.

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Of all the major turns in the narrative, this seemed to be perhaps the most superfluous, though not egregiously so in the moment.relief from back painGenF20 Plus

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uknowme said...

I saw it and liked it but I wonder if maybe some people aren't overrating it because it's not preachy or schmaltzy like the other Iraq movies have been.

Also one reason the movie is not doing well at the b.o. is cuz the title sucks. I'm not sure what it should be called but The Hurt Locker as a title is a stinker.

BUT I liked it. Bigelow is an ace director.

Great review, Alexander.
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