Soldiers of fortune

In action and story, The Hurt Locker might be the year’s best

Jul 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

"Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."
—from the film Patton

Ever since George W. Bush's $1 trillion misadventure in Iraq began, American audiences have been dutifully avoiding any and all documentaries or feature films on the subject, lest they be forced to admit their complicity in this life-taking horror. Similarly, with the election of Barack Obama, anti-war protesters have mostly quieted their outrage, as if the men and women serving (and the millions who live) in the Middle East were any less in harm's way. Well, don't worry your beautiful minds over Kathryn Bigelow's riveting The Hurt Locker. Your conscience is safe. The film is merely set in Iraq. It is not about Iraq. 

Much like the critically (and unfairly) dismissed Stop-Loss, Bigelow's film, on its surface, is apolitical, focusing on the true-life experiences of soldiers in Iraq without pontificating or moralizing. In fact, not only does Bigelow drive home the cruel and sudden realities of war, twisting our nerves into tense little knots, she also unabashedly embraces how exciting war movies can be, bolstering Gulf War sniper Anthony Swafford's (the author of Jarhead) claim that "... Vietnam War films are all pro-war, regardless of what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man." 

And if Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) has proved one thing in her erratic career, it's that she can out-cock the action-movie big boys. To wit, The Hurt Locker has 10 times the thrills of Michael Bay's $200 million Transformers sequel, and on a budget of $11 million. It's not only the best action movie of the season; it's one of the best films of the year so far.

Fact-based and character-driven, The Hurt Locker, written by journalist Mark Boal, focuses on a three-man squad that specializes in defusing roadside bombs in Iraq. When the team's leader (Guy Pearce) is lost, the surviving members (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) must make it through the remaining 38 days of their tour with a new and far more reckless replacement, hotshot Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner).

Bigelow's movie is stripped down to bare-bones narrative, following the bomb squad as it deals with one nerve-racking scenario after another, hinting at what makes James tick. Inscrutable and cocksure, he struts into danger with an appallingly calm single-mindedness, revealing a profound inability to care about the consequences of his actions. Each bomb is a puzzle to be solved, a chance to spit in the face of death. It's a potentially fascinating portrait that's well served by Renner's impeccably lived-in performance but far too opaque to resonate past the credits. 

The Hurt Locker so deliberately keeps James at arm's length, there's little to learn about him other than war has become his drug of choice — a too-neat message inelegantly displayed at the film's start. Boal's final thesis seems to be this: Some people are meant for war. I find that explanation unsatisfactory. And because of this reductive approach to character, a late film complication involving the apparent murder of an Iraqi boy feels simultaneously overscripted and underdeveloped. 

Bigelow and Boal are on much firmer ground when they keep things episodic and tightly procedural, letting the psychological complexities of their characters reveal themselves in the heat of the missions. Luckily, they stick to this strategy for the majority of the film.

Wisely, Bigelow depicts war as intimate and modest, turning the screws on the audience by ratcheting up the tension and playing down combat pyrotechnics. Experiential action is extremely difficult to achieve in film, requiring more than a shaky handheld camera, canted angles and a series of fast edits. Though many of Hollywood's top directors are clueless as to how to effectively orchestrate action, Bigelow has spent nearly two decades refining her process, and here we're in the hands of a master, one who doggedly avoids cinematic clichés, understands the importance of geography and continually elevates the sense of danger. The effect is both visceral and terrifying. And unlike, say, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which abstracted violence and humanity for the sake of gorgeous imagery, Bigelow never lets technique overshadow the human faces and ground-level stakes of these awful situations.

The Hurt Locker is not a conventional approach to wartime heroics but rather a penetrating and harrowing examination of war's unrelenting damage on the human psyche. Though she doesn't quite pull it off, Bigelow's final shot of James' return to Iraq after a soul-deadening furlough with his family says it all: There's the wry smile and cocksure swagger of a soldier who finally feels at home, and the undeniable sense that we are watching a dead man walking.

At the Landmark Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111) and the State Theatre (233 S. State St., Ann Arbor; 734-761-8667).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].