The Hurt Locker (R) 130 min. Directed by:Kathryn Bigelow. Written by:Mark Boal. Starring:Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Feinnes, David Morse, Evangeline Lily. Cinematography:Barry Akroyd. Original music by:Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.
Despite the glut of films centered around it over the past few years, the Iraq War has not exactly made for compelling cinema. Tangled in extreme political stance or statement, or designed around a general cluelessness about the way the actual battle itself is being fought, previous pics like The Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs and Redacted were dead on arrival. Now, Kathryn Bigelow, director of Point Break and Near Dark, enters the Iraq conflict with The Hurt Locker;an expertly crafted thriller that leaves behind politics and posturing and brings the viewer onto the grimy, narrow streets of downtown Baghdad. With a singularity of vision and a documentarian’s eye for extreme and seemingly inconsequential detail, Bigelow transcends not only her own previous films but typical action cliches to deliver one of the most suspenseful and intense cinema experiences I’ve ever had.
The Hurt Locker opens up on the men of Bravo Company, an elite bomb defusing unit with the U.S. military who are in the midst of dealing with a particularly tricky IED when the robotic vehicle they are using to disarm it gets snagged on street debris. Donning a shrapnel resistant suit, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) walks into the blast range to manually defuse it. The rest of his team, Sergeant Sanborn(Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge(Brian Garahity), stay behind and provide cover and surveillance.
Then a civilian walks up and starts asking questions, possibly causing a diversion. Sanborn scans the ragged buildings, looking for signs of trouble. We can hear the sounds of Muslim prayers in the background, the wind whipping around the discarded husks of cars that line the streets and the growling roar of jets overhead. Everything comes down to time. Will Thompson defuse the bomb, will it be blown before he can, or will a sniper pick all of them off from the rooftop? The scene is devestatingly precise in racheting up the tension until we no longer care what happens, as long as something does and the agonizing wait can end.
After that incident, they go right back out the next day and do it all over again. And the film follows them as they do.
Picking up after the opening coda, we are introduced to Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner in what is sure to be a breakout role; he’s a hotshot, reckless, something of a loner and now he’s the leader of Bravo Company. To describe James, he sounds like a typical action stereotype, but the movie avoids that completely. His obsession with the adrenaline rush of being the star player of the bomb squad is internalized by Renner and visualized in the more harrowing passages when Will lingers at the work of manually defusing a car-based explosive while his teammates fret they might all be gunned down in the process. Renner’s job is to play a believable human being and a cipher at the same time, and he excels at it.
The script develops him in small bursts, in between the action, but the movie defines him by his grace under pressure in the field sequences. It also doesn’t shy away from the fact that his is a sickness; a psychosis of sorts that might very well do him and his team in if it isn’t held in check. Will has swagger and a personal record of defusing 873 bombs–he keeps a box of detonators under his bed, along with his wedding ring, as a reminder of things that nearly killed him–but in a film like The Hurt Locker there is no gurantee that he, or anyone else for that matter, will live to the next scene.
Anthony Mackie, who was quite good recently in We Are Marshall, plays Sanborn as a more level-headed soldier–he is good at what he does, but being constantly placed in harm’s way and finding himself shot at more than looked at has rendered him perpetually nervous and on edge. He is doing what he came to do, but he’s counting the days, and worries that he won’t get out of this mess alive. Mackie is very good at evoking the head-space of a guy who is both out of his league and more equipped than even he realizes. Eldridge is in worse shape; after a tragedy in the field, he has regular sessions with a therapist. Geraghty makes him seem younger and more vulnerable than the rest of the men;when he manages to pick off a sniper hiding in a sheep herd, we are genuinely surprised by his gusto. The three men play perfectly off each other and the escalating war-zone around them. Even the scenes back in the bunk are filled with tension, as the guys engage in rough-housing to take off the edge that their life-and-death existence brings.
The film’s structure is perhaps its greatest asset. Essentially, there are about six or seven tense, action-oriented sequences and they occur in succession with only the briefest of interludes in between. There is a repetition to these scenes that brings home the reality of what it must be like to operate in this environment–each day is just one more on the job, terrifying and exotic to us, but business as usual for them. We wait, nervous that a bomb will explode. Bigelow draws out the tension, painting all kinds of little details into the surrounding landscape in the mean-time. Everything looks like trouble, and sometimes bravado prevails, but more often a cool, sensible head. Several recognizable faces show up, and then disappear again. People die when we assume danger has passed, and some scenes escalate and then have no climax. Survival is the goal, but there is no triumphant victory when these guys succeed. When tomorrow holds the same danger and probably the same odds, how optimistic can you be?
The world of the Baghdad streets and the nearby military base are presented with such clarity, both in the dynamic cinematography and in the considerable sound design, that they take on the feel of a documentary. In getting down into it, and following it with the thrust of a genuine narrative, Bigelow and her team have generated more reality than similar real-life news footage has achieved. The film is a thrill-ride, but it has the presence of mind to flesh out those thrills to the point where the audience is forced to ask: is it really a good thing to desire this kind of thrill? The comic carnage of Transformers this is not.
Visually, the explosions are breath-taking and stomach-churning. When an IED explodes early on, we see the immediate impact shake clots of rust off an abandoned vehicle, thrust and hurl waves of rock and gravel, and fling human bodies through the air, cracking face-plates and breaking bones. There is more information here than we sometimes want. At one point the team find their way into a bomb-making facility that has been abandoned. There they find a ‘body bomb’–the remains of a young child with an explosive device sewn into his chest cavity. James is distraught; he thinks this is the same boy who sold him dvds next to the base. Hard choices and harder realities drop from minute to minute in The Hurt Locker. There is no breathing room left. But instead of a hyperactive upheaval that moves us cleanly from scene to scene like Black Hawk Down, Locker can move agonizingly slow when danger hits. Seconds may seem like hours. The film runs for 131 minutes, but it seems longer than that, and yet we are engaged and riveted for the entire thing.
This is not a message movie, but in reproducing the milieu of war, Hurt Locker provokes thought. Bigelow dissects everything from the daredevil, adrenaline-seeking male warriors to the confused, frustrated, sometimes deadly civilians dealing with an occupation in their already besieged city. In one scene a man in a taxi has approached the site of James latest bomb situation. Sanborn and the others are understandably excited and unnerved by his appearance. James pushes a gun through the window and against his head. If he is part of an insurgent group, this makes sense, and there is no way for anyone to know for sure. Showing weakness could get everyone, including the civilians killed. The man, if he is just a taxi driver, can be somewhat understood in his actions. What he does isn’t smart, but likely frustrated, he cannot bring himself to back down from these foreign occupants in his city.
I like a good action movie from time to time, and the more thrilling they are, the more I do enjoy them. I don’t know, however, that it can be said that I ‘enjoyed’ The Hurt Locker. I was enthralled, occasionally fascinated and even terrified by it. But did I enjoy it? That’s a hard call, but not one that is necessary to make. It is an experience, and one of the most powerful I’ve had at a theater in a very long time. In addition, its subject is a reality of the world we live in; not just the war, but the culture and mindset that drives this sort of behavior on a large scale. Kathryn Bigelow, despite not having any of her own, has specialized in the roaring testosterone of the boy’s club for years. In The Hurt Locker she captures it and then moves beyond it to even more primal urges and emotions; fear and self-preservation.
Like Alfred Hitchcock before her, she understands that film can be an expressive and immediate medium that can crystalize a “feeling” into a “truth” just by presenting it to the viewer in the right way. The Hurt Locker moves beyond simple questions of “is this right?” or “what sense do we make of it?” and instead tells us “yes, this is happening, and its happening right now”. What each of us does with it might be different. For some, like Sgt. James, it’s a neverending rollercoaster that provides him with the only thing that makes sense. For others, its the very definition of madness.
Welcome to The Hurt Locker, it just might be the best movie trip you take all summer.