Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The Hurt Locker
You almost begin to pray for explosions. Not out of malice or sheer bloodlust—you just want an end to the maddening tension that permeates every moment. And once in a while, there is the release of an explosion or some gunfire or even a few punches to the gut exchanged in the midst of some drunken macho horseplay. But again and again you return to that same nerve-rattling tension, that same suspended moment. There’s always the knowledge that you’ll be dead the moment you hit the ground, but for every second you’re in the air, you might as well be immortal.
The Hurt Locker, a steely-eyed new film directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a well-observed script from Mark Boal, is all about the addiction of war as an experience, examining the heavy psychological toll exacted by continual exposure to your own imminent death. This is war as a state of mind. You carry it with you wherever you go.
Set during 2004 in Iraq, the film narrows its focus to a single Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. After losing their team leader during a mission, JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) find themselves saddled with Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), an arrogant veteran EOD soldier who claims to have defused more than 800 bombs. Reckless in his confidence, James exposes his teammates to unnecessary risks without a second thought. He simply acts—effectively, as it typically turns out, but with little regard for safety.
Some of the conflicts that arise in the group as a result of James’ brash behaviour might seem familiar at first: Eldridge is a brittle, inexperienced soldier, crumbling under the constant strain, while Sanborn clings to regulations and rules as a bulwark against James’ more impulsive methods. But Sanborn’s by-the-book demeanor masks incredible anxiety and fear, and James’ cocksure attitude is similarly a façade of sorts. Even though initial appearances make it seem James is just an arrogant young twerp on a short march to the grave, it soon becomes evident that he is not only a good soldier, but also one who cares for his comrades, despite his recklessness.
In many ways, in fact, he is held up as an exemplary soldier (his superiors make much of his impressive record), and that is ultimately what makes his character so pitiable. As he excels at war, so he fails at domesticity. During one of the few scenes that occur outside of Iraq, we see him standing in a grocery store, staring at a daunting wall of cereal boxes, hesitating. Where is the bold confidence of the soldier who defuses a bomb in the still-smoldering wreckage of a car, unconcerned with the likelihood of his own death? When James tries to describe his relationship with the mother of his son, there is a helplessness and confusion that suggests war is, like any other drug, an escape from the bewildering problems of normal life.
Many of these concerns are more general and not tied to any specific conflict, but by limiting itself to this one group of soldiers the film provides some interesting insights into the Iraq war. For the EOD unit, everyone and everything is a potential threat. When they walk into a bomb scene, each scrap of litter potentially hides an IED, and each onlooker possibly holds the detonator. And if you have to treat all Iraqi citizens like enemies, is it any wonder when so many turn out to be exactly that? At one point, a standoff ensues when a taxi bursts through a military barricade onto a bomb scene. As Will points his gun at the head of the driver, the two stare in a sudden and inexplicable test of wills. Is this man really hoping to attack the American military? Or, merely frustrated by the sight of the army, did he choose to defy their presence and carry on with his normal route, only to find a gun aiming between his eyes? After he backs down, soldiers yank him out of his car and drag him away. “If he wasn’t an insurgent,” Will jokes, “he is now.”
The Hurt Locker represents something seemingly contradictory: an intelligent action film. We’re so used to seeing action filmmaking as purely mindless diversion that it’s startling to see a director of such intelligence committed to the cause. Yes, this film is visceral and exciting, but it’s also attentive to the consequences—both physical and psychological—of its violence. At this time of year, you could walk into any multiplex and stumble across countless imagined disaster scenarios, with buildings bursting into computer-generated rubble left and right while corpses fall like rain drops. Action is a dirty word in these cases, signifying films in which violence and carnage is envisioned as a child’s game. Bigelow prefers to describe her films as “experiential,” which only makes clear the divide between her and the mainstream of action filmmaking. In a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, you feel distanced from the action, but in The Hurt Locker, everything feels intensely immediate. You pray for that explosion to come and relieve the tension because this is happening not just to James, but also to you, and like that soldier, you can taste that same seductively self-annihilating adrenalin.
It’s tempting to see Bigelow’s film as a corrective to these mainstream action movies, even though that does a disservice to the complexity of her intentions and methods. When I think back to the first explosion in the film, I don’t think of the blast itself, but rather gravel rising in slow motion or rust shaking off of an abandoned car. Such images capture the brute force of the blast in a way that is not only more poetic, but also more tangible and meaningful, than the usual cliché of sending some debris flying at the camera. Who needs IMAX when you actually have a good director?