With The Hurt Locker, I ended up watching a very different film than I intended to. The plan was to sit down and enjoy a dramatic war movie with nuanced performance and subtlety; an Oscar contender. By the end though, I was watching a high suspense thriller that happens to take place in Iraq. It’s not an insignificant difference, and it was one I needed to make before I could fully appreciate what I was watching. Expectation is often the bane of a viewer’s existence, and that’s never more true than when one finally watches an Academy nominee. The film was released on June 26th and Oscar-buzz began shortly thereafter. Ever since then, our unformed opinions have been molded by everything BUT the movie itself. I hate this for a number of reasons, but mostly because it’s unavoidable. Either see it opening day, or go live in a cave. Otherwise you had better be prepared to do battle with the forces of subjective opinion, because brother, they’re a-comin.
The story circles three men serving time in the Army, specifically in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. After a chaotic opener in which Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) lose their team leader (Guy Pearce) to a remote detonated IED, we meet the anomalous Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), whose approach to the work is savant-like and troublesome to his new team. Sanborn and Eldridge are counting the days to their discharge, just over a month remaining for both. James just wants to disarm bombs. As the days pace slowly, the three men suffer a number of harrowing moments, often gruesome and just as often terrifying. For Sanborn and Eldridge these episodes are all just glimpses at death, and Eldridge in particular seems just one more loud noise away from losing himself entirely. The direction for Geraghty’s performance might have been, “war is hell, and you’re always at war.” James meanwhile, is always at a distance, seeming incapable of fear or even anxiety. It’s apparent that he lives for the tension, that he thrives on it. Each bomb is another notch on the bedpost, and a calming cigarette usually follows a successful disarming. There’s more to the plot, though I would hesitate to say it follows a story arch, more considering each characters path. Anyway, story is secondary to experience here.
And experience seems nearly a character in this film. Occasionally we’re thrust inside of James’ protective helmet to see through his eyes and hear through his ears. It’s claustrophobic and hot, and the drone of heavy breathing is a barrier to the sounds of the world. Sound isn’t applied to scenes as much as it’s painted in strokes. Occasionally the canvas is blank, just the muffled sound of city in the distance. Then swiftly we’re immersed in the violent screams of battle and find ourselves longing for that silent tension. I would almost go so far as to say that director Kathryn Bigelow works better in short bursts than in constructing the whole. Though the film itself is vibrant, it’s in shorter bursts that she seems most comfortable. Still, the script seems to account for this, with the story being told in something closer to vignettes than cohesive elements. The pieces speak to the whole, but don’t necessarily define it.
Most war movies are more or less about war. War is bad, war is heroic, war is chaos, etc. The Hurt Locker though seems to use war as just a setting. The action is familiar and the violence rivals any dramatic war film, but the point is not to examine war. The point is to examine fear. Watching this film you feel drenched in tension, with every scene comes a recognizable foreboding. It’s familiar, though at first you can’t decide why; there’s certainly tension in war films, but this feels different. The strain of these scenes isn’t just dramatic, but scary, and that’s when the true nature reveals itself. This is a horror film. There’s no abandoned old house, and most of the terror comes in daylight, but there’s no mistaking this pattern of tension and release. You even find yourself wanting to scream at the characters, “don’t go in there!” The camera reveals the film’s most gruesome moments intimately, letting carnage play its role. This is without question a horror device, and adding to it the potential for truth in some of these ghastly moments, it’s terribly effective. Most of us know the genre well enough to know you need some key elements. There is of course the character who’s perpetually frightened, in our case Eldridge. There’s Sanborn, the natural leader and obligatory good guy. And James, the character with some unnatural connection to the monster, an ambiguous, otherworldly kinship. Then there’s the monster itself. The ghostly stalker of our main characters, casting its shadow of doom. In The Hurt Locker the monster is death, or fear of it.
Aside from making a war movie something more than a war movie, Bigelow does a number of other things right. The cinematography is somehow both gorgeous and dirty, with the Iraqi landscape a haunting and captivating place. What occasionally feels like documentary footage can turn quickly into sublime photography, and it all serves the agitated arrangement. Her performances too are noteworthy, with not just a solid performance from Jeremy Renner, but really standout work from Anthony Mackie who seems to have gone entirely unnoticed. Towards the end of the film when Sgt. Sanborn finally breaks down, weary from the days and days after days and days, Mackie bursts through from the celluloid in one of the film’s rawest emotional moments.
Still, the film is not without jagged edges. While Renner’s performance is good, it’s also confused. His Sgt. James is initially a simple character with a complex motivation, but as the film rolls James has his moments of breakdown, just as everybody does, and to be honest, they fall a little flat. While I don’t really need to see another character emotionally exhausted, I in particular want to avoid it with James, whose adrenaline junkie, fearless, cavalier persona is the perfect contrast to all the other war characters we’re used to seeing. What makes him interesting is his disinterest, and by breaking that down the filmmakers seemed to lose direction a bit. Had James remained stalwart throughout, never feeling pain, never feeling loss, never feeling guilt, the character would have become the personification of wartime indifference. He still has these moments: when we recognize his only real drive is his next fix, or when he sheds his protective gear and states like an Eastwood character, “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die comfortable,” but they’re diminished by his fallibility, and the lost potential is frustrating.
I suppose in general you could say that dialogue presents some small problems. Far too much happens on the surface here, patronizing the audience. I’m a firm believer in not placing a magnifying lens over your message or tying up your loose ends unless you absolutely have to. Nothing brings an eye roll like arriving at the point, then having to wait another thirty seconds for the film to arrive at it. I would name some examples of this within the movie, but it would feel a little defensive and unnecessary. Mildly trite dialogue is one of those things you either see or you don’t, and unless it’s terribly dramatic than it doesn’t really hurt the final product all that much anyway.
The inevitable question: Should this film win best picture? For my money I think Inglourious Basterds is the best film of the year. Possibly Up, and even Avatar feels like more of an accomplishment than The Hurt Locker. Certainly this film is good, with a moment or two that might transcend all others from 2009, but I just can’t get behind a Best Picture win. I can’t say for sure that my lack of enthusiasm might not be a byproduct of expectation, but I also can’t do anything about it. I watched the same movie everybody else did, and this is what I thought about it. Stories, like characters, like themes, like images, like sounds, like songs, are fluid and given without explanation. This is the beauty of film, and perhaps too the burden. It’s the x-factor and the element of the process you simply can’t control. It’s the reason the Academy Awards will, as always, be at least mildly frustrating. But it’s also what makes the whole thing exciting and keeps it from being a science. It’s the fickle charm of art.