Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow)

The Hurt Locker took may people by surprise this past summer. Amidst the Harry Potters, the Revenge of the Fallens and the Happy Peoples came a film about American soldiers stationed in present day Iraq. It was helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, a director whose previous efforts varied from fair to average, and the added factor of another Iraq war themed film coming our way, there was a slight cause for concern. The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, with detractors really being far and few between. As I entered the dark air conditioned room with a disgustingly sticky floor, I hadn't seen any trailers, I was unfamiliar with the filmmography of the cast, and I still didn't know what exactly the story was except that it involved an anti-bomb squadron. Interestingly enough, I recall that it was playing on 2 or 3 screens at the local multiplex, so it was obviously a 'big' release.

First and foremost, as an action film, it is mightily impressive and entertaining. I haven't looked at the numbers pertaining to the film's budget, but it feels like an expensive endeavor, and that's all that matters. There are a handful of scenes in which our heroes, SSgt William James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who make up this anti-bomb unit, are involved in moment of surprisingly tension. The key word here is in fact 'tension.' The viewer will of course see bombs go off and some bullets fly, but the most successful scenes are those that have SSgt. James attempting to defuse an explosive device with his two comrades covering his back as potential enemies surround them. Are the onlookers innocent bystanders whose curiosity got the better of them or are they legitimate threats who hope to foil the unit's goal? Will SSgt. James even succeed in neutralizing the mechanism? These are such simple concepts, and yet when used as they are in The Hurt Locker, they are remarkably effective. Rather than being a purely action-oriented film, which is what many have qualified it as, myself included, it is far more of the thriller genre. That being said, there is one intense action scene which has our band of protagonists and a group of British contractors pinned down in a small pit-like are in the desert by sniper shooters hidden in front of and behind them. This scne is yet another perfect example of effective editing and cinematography. It is mature filmmaking in that it allows the viewer to understand the geography of the moment. The movie is aided by an all-around effective directing style, one that shows a sufficient amount of competence in handling action and suspense without ever resorting to any overbearing sense of style.

In addition to being a solid piece of entertainment, Bigelow's outing, also shows off some more cerebral muscles. Between all these bomb diffusion missions are a number of compelling character based moments. It is during these moments that we learn how frighteningly comfortable William James is in this environment. He is as far removed from the typical soldier who 'just wants to make it back home.' as can be. Instead, James feels the most alive and excited when starring death in the face during their assignments. The stress, the danger and the notion that any slight error may lead to oblivion are taken as moments of tremendous thrills and allows him to be himself, no more and no less. He shows cockiness not only in the face of danger, in the face of his comrades as well. When pressed for time and with lives on the brink of extinction (including his own), that is precisely when he demonstrates the least amount of fallibility. What makes the character of William James all the more a conundrum is the reality that he has a family back in the United States, including a child who requires some upbringing. And yet, it is in Iraq, a place where admitting that one is American does not earn one many popularity points, and where he continuously plays deadly games of chess with the wiring of explosives that he is at his very best. The aggressiveness of this world is what fuels above all else. The final minutes of the film exemplify this perfectly, whereupon after returning 'home' for a short period to spend time with his family, our hero re-enlists to perform more bomb-diffusion acrobatics under the hot Iraqi sun. There is no shortage of films featuring characters who enjoy 'living on the edge,' but I'd wager that The Hurt Locker is a cut above most of them.

Over at the Filmspotting message boards there is a discussion tread dedicated to the movie, but the exchanges have not been limited to the obvious topic of the film's technical merits or lack thereof. They also concerned the topicality and political relevance of Bigelow's effort. Some very perceptive comments were made, many of which pertained to what thematic relationships exist between the world of the film and the real world American involvement in Iraq and whether or not the story takes a pro-war or anti-war stance. While I absolutely agree that some compelling cases can be made and that there is undoubtedly value to those discussions, I'm more impressed with how apolitical the film is. It is a series of sequences with people trying to diffuse bombs in a hostile environment. Iraq is indeed a sublime setting for such an adventure, but The Hurt Locker nonetheless shies away from being overtly political, and I admire it all the more for that. Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter Mark Boal preferred to concentrate their efforts on creating a character based action thriller. The Iraqi setting adds a topical flavour, but the film doesn't have to take political stances because of that choice. As I have already written, one can assuredly make connections between the movie and the realities of war or the reality of present day Iraq, but the film can easily live independently of them.

The film did reasonably well during its theatrical run, although it was ultimately overrun by the more obvious summer fair which played at the same time. I hope more people will discover it on DVD or Bluray in the years to come. If you enjoy action and thrills, I cannot think of a reason why you shouldn't check out The Hurt Locker.

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