Monday, October 5, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse
Running Time: 131 min.

Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

From the moment The Hurt Locker was released to universal critical acclaim it was practically a foregone conclusion that the war drama would be included among the newly expanded field of ten Best Picture nominees. I rolled my eyes at the mere suggestion, thinking they'd be rewarding a topic rather than a film. Now after seeing it I'm forced to begrudgingly concede this is one of the best war films in years (as faint as that praise may seem). My trepidation and bias would be understandable to anyone who had the misfortune to view any of the embarrassing political war propaganda studios have inflicted on us in the past couple of years. This includes but isn't limited to preachy one-sided liberal sermons like Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and Stop-Loss. For a while there was a genuine fear that no intelligent movie could made about the Iraq War.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has taken a different approach by just showing us. It's that simple, yet no other filmmaker was smart enough to do it. She succeeds where everyone else failed by resisting the temptation to get up on a soapbox, instead just letting us draw our own conclusions based on what we see. And by doing doing that she may have ironically crafted the ultimate anti-war (or maybe anti-addiction) film, even though any agenda of the sort of refreshingly absent. What appears in its opening minutes to be merely a workmanlike procedural evolves into something far more affecting as we connect with the three lead characters in such a way that they almost feel like family by the end of the picture. I feared for their safety and worried during every scene if each would make it home in one piece.

You wouldn't figure something as visceral and exciting as this would be considered an "actor's movie" but in many ways it is with an electrifying lead performance belonging to an unknown who probably won't be unknown for much longer. This isn't my kind of film and couldn't imagine watching it again but I'm forced to eat crow and admit Bigelow has directed a nearly perfect picture. The praise it's gotten is exaggerated, but not by much.

It's 2004 during the early stages of the Iraq War when the leader of the Bravo Company's EOD unit, Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed by a remote IED (improvised explosive device) in Bagdad, leaving Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) without a first in command. Enter Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an egotistical hotshot who makes reckless, split-second decisions that frequently put the lives of himself and his team members in danger. A title card appears on screen letting us know how many days remain in the company's rotation as we follow the soldiers on their missions. Sanborn and Eldridge attempt to communicate via radio with James in his protective bomb suit which proves to be difficult when he constantly ignores every word they say.

The film unfolds as almost a series of episodic vignettes as we watch James disarming bombs in a variety of suspenseful situations, including one where the team is pinned down by snipers and the most memorable involving a civilian with explosives strapped to his chest. Through all of it tensions continue to mount between the three men as a result of James' controversial, self-serving leadership style. He frequently seems more interested in playing hero than saving lives. Or so it seems.

Bigelow and screenwriter/freelance journalist Mark Boal made a wise decision in narrowing the focus to just a bomb tech team and letting the rest of the details of the war exist on the periphery. This isn't so much about war as it is about their jobs and how they handle them. Through that we get to know each of these men and what makes them tick under the most dangerous of circumstances. We care about this war not because the filmmakers told us we should but because we're absorbed in the psyches of these characters fighting it. It becomes a personal story instead of a political one, and as a result, we're left to draw our own conclusions as to the effects this ordeal.

With no standard plot to speak of, the events are filmed in a documentary style not unlike United 93, but more action-oriented. This gives the picture an even greater sense of objectivity in just showing what's happening and that's it (although that's admittedly a lot under Bigelow's direction). This could be disappointing to those who hoped the movie would take some grand stand one way or another either against or in support of the war, though I can't see why anyone would want that given how clumsily the topic has been explored in other films. As suspenseful as they are, it is draining watching these missions for 130 minutes straight and it isn't an experience I'd feel like repeating anytime soon. Of course, it's not supposed to be.

The film belongs entirely to the three actors who infuse life into soldiers who could have easily been played as stereotypes. Resembling a cross between Russell Crowe and Benjamin Mackenzie, Jeremy Renner doesn't make a huge impression initially as Sgt. James and it's far from obvious he's going to be the main character. "Who's this nobody?" could describe my initial reaction. But Renner puts all those doubts to rest quickly and as each scene wears on it becomes increasingly apparent that this is no poor man's Russell Crowe. He has the charisma to hold the screen like nobody's business, revealing James to be a whole lot more than the arrogant hotshot with a hero complex we had him pegged as. What's so brilliant about the Oscar-worthy performance is how while the character's actions suggest he doesn't care and is operating out of pure selfishness, Renner suggests the exact opposite in the film's quieter moments. James' real problem actually isn't that he doesn't care, but that he cares TOO MUCH.

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

That's the quote from New York Times journalist Chris Hedges that opens the movie and can very well sum up not only the character of James but the story itself. His most memorable scene comes not in Iraq but at home, when a trip to the supermarket with his family is more foreign to him than anything in Iraq. He doesn't just want to go back there. He NEEDS to because he forgot how to survive in the "real world."

Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are slightly more recognizable as actors but casting relative unknowns in the three main roles was a masterstroke in that you're given the sinking feeling any one of them can go at any minute. Mackie (almost equally as impressive as Renner) plays Sanborn as the hothead who won't stand for what he perceives to be James' grandstanding while Geraghty's green, naive and petrified Eldridge represents the audience's entry way into the movie, questioning why they're even there.

Bigger name actors appear in much smaller roles. In addition to the aforementioned Pearce, David Morse has a bizarre scene that's wide open for interpretation while Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly (as James' wife) both enter and exit the film fairly quickly. Of those, I thought only Lilly's needlessly called attention to itself and caused a distraction, which could be chalked up to me just being so familiar with her from Lost. The second she appeared I was taken right out the movie, wondering how Kate got off the island again. Granted not everyone watches that show, but if the role is just a cameo wouldn't it make more sense to cast an unknown?

This isn't the small, art house drama it's been toted as. It's exciting, suspenseful and obviously represents a big comeback for the director best known for more fun, but no less accomplished efforts like the Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves not-so-guilty pleasure Point Break and 1995's underrated cyberpunk thriller Strange Days. Still, I don't concur with those who feel it's everyone's moral obligation to see this film because of the subject matter and can understand why audiences have stayed far away. I mean, can you really blame them? This topic has been embarrassingly (dare I even say offensively) mishandled so many times that I'm sure no one felt like getting burned again by the type of movie that wouldn't have them giddily skipping to theaters even under the best of circumstances. I'd also much rather have a risky out of left field choice that really needs the attention occupying one of the expanded Best Picture slots rather than something that would have been an easy contender anyway if there were five nominees.

That I'm not as over-the-moon about the movie as everyone else is more a reflection of my long-standing bias against the genre than its actual merit. It'll be interesting to see if I can temporarily put that bias aside long enough to include it on my list of the year's best, as it's definitely worthy of consideration. This film is playing in challenging territory where it's close to impossible to bring anything innovative to the table or say something that hasn't already been said. Ironically, The Hurt Locker ends up working so well because it bravely chooses to say nothing at all.

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