Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

In The Hurt Locker, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) has just taken command of Bravo unit, an EOD team of bomb techs in Iraq with about a month left on their rotation before they ship home. For his other squad members, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)—who just lost their previous team leader in a detonation gone awry—the remainder of their time is a ticking time bomb that will inevitably go off early if they don't tread carefully. For James, it is a countdown of a different sort, one which he wants to stretch to infinity in avoidance of his return home to a life and family he can hardly relate to anymore. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) focuses on James throughout, delineating the character of a man who has been so efficiently trained by the military to thrive under the extreme pressure of defusing bombs; so inured to the consequences of the violence he dances with everyday, that he can no longer switch off the adrenaline addiction he's cultivated in order to survive. James can be sensitive, confiding in Sanborn that he isn't their to replace their venerated commander, only to be a team player; or fostering a friendship with a young Iraqi boy, "Beckham," who like him, seems to be thriving in the war zone (selling black market DVDs in his case). But every indulgence of sentiment he gives in to is immediately refuted by the circumstances of his harrowing surroundings. Bigelow returns to her exploration of men who live in an extended moment between life and death. But whereas in the past, she expressed the danger of such a balancing act, she now validates it by giving it its proper context. The character of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) in Near Dark (1987) was forced to conform to walking this highwire by the gang of vampires who "turned" him. Point Break's Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) wallows in the existentialism of living in the moment, partaking in progressively more dangerous activities while pursued by Johnny "I am an FBI agent" Utah (Keanu Reeves)—who himself is tempted by the same liberating rush, but cautious not too look as deeply into that abyss. Even Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is drawn into a dangerous cat-and-mouse by the taboo enticement of a rape-murder he relives on a virtual reality clip, in Strange Days (1995). Perhaps Bigelow's most extreme expression of the danger inherent of sustained exposure to the thrill preceding death can be found in Ron Silver's Eugene Hunt, in Blue Steel (1989). Eugene becomes addicted to the power he feels when brandishing a firearm he picks up after witnessing a rookie cop lose it during a shooting. The former stock broker finds that not even the thrill of the financial markets can compare, becoming twisted by his constant temptation to attain the orgasmic high he can now only get from firing the weapon. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow sanctions the same quality she previously expressed misgivings about by allowing that war provides the proper outlet for man's usually reprehensible addiction to violent stimulation. James recognizes the societal disapproval he would normally face, and chooses to indulge in his pathology alone. Breaking procedure in the initial bomb threat he faces with his new team, he suits up, going in himself to defuse the IUD, rather than send in the remote control robot that protocol calls for. The moment doesn't inspire respect in his teammates as much as it does incredulity. Eldridge is fearful that he may be called upon to kill any sniper that tries to sideline the suited-up James (a failure he perceives to be the cause of his previous commander's death). Sanborn is disgusted at the recklessness of the act. Yet after a night of drinking, Sanborn feels the need to ask James if he thinks he has what it takes to suit up. You can hear the wistfulness in James' voice when he answers Sanborn, "Nah, you don't have it in you." Renner's performance as James is spectacular. Always cool in even the most nerve-racking situations, he is nonetheless able to evoke the vulnerability of the man at some surprising moments. When he is in his protective gear—facing a man forced to be a suicide bomber and apologizing for his inability to defuse the device he is locked into in the sufficient amount of time—he doesn't seem nearly as human as when he is back home in the States, faced with a monumental decision of which cereal to buy at the supermarket. At that moment, he seems lost, a slow fuse burning down ever shorter within him at the prospect that life with his family holds no victories for him to measure himself by. For men like James, Bigelow declares, only the battlefield can serve as home.


Ryan McNeil said...

Great piece on one of the best movies I've seen in a while!

The only thing I'm having trouble with, is how many film fans want to hang this one all on the she's some sort of auteur. Funny though...I don't hear many of them talking about her stellar work in K:19 THE WIDOWMAKER.

(Sorry, couldn't help it).

Love this movie, and how it shows that the best soldier for the job isn't neccessarily the same one you wanna go have a beer with at the end of the day.

Tony Dayoub said...

Hey Mad Hatter,

Bigelow IS an auteur. She is an indie director, as she has never financed her films through a major studio, according to an NPR story on All Things Considered just yesterday. She also has a distinct set of tropes that she reeatedly comes back to in her films.

Every director has flawed films. In her case, I think The Weight of Water may have been an overreach. But the underrated K-19 suffers more from the miscasting of Harrison Ford, who was already on a decline in popularity, and was ill-suited for a role requiring a Russian accent. In her defense, it was one of the most expensive indies ever (over $100 million by some accounts), and she probably felt obliged to attach Ford, a somewhat bankable name at the time, to get the greenlight on the movie.

Ryan McNeil said...

Didn't mean to knock her so hard Tony. You're right that every director has flawed films - hell I'm a fan of Soderbergh...try arguing in HIS favour!

Anyway, auteur argument aside, she did an amazing job on this movie. Here's hoping that THL gets her the acclaim she deserves - hopefully even an Oscar nod.