Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film Review #206: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

“I probably wasn’t injured because I was way in the back of the vehicle. I was on top of all the bottled water, because I was little,” my friend had explained, recounting how the troop convoy in Afghanistan encountered on IED on the road beyond the city. My friend paused a beat, then added before going on, “Well. I still am little.”

The capacity to compress yawning gaps between the before and after of life-shaking violence to a simple, quiet change of tense is similar to the kind of detail you’ll find in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, set in the pre-Surge days of 2004 Iraq, which opens this week at Manlius Art Cinema. That is what sets it apart from most action thrillers and what drives its surprising capacity to comment on war in intimate and domestic as well as surreal and dislocating ways.

The Hurt Locker is billed as an action thriller and it certainly has both parts of that phrase in spades. Its exhausting two hours and eleven minutes fly by, but its pedigree predicts an authenticity beyond Hollywood style and pyrotechnics. Mark Boal based his script on his experience as an embedded journalist with a US military specialist bomb squad in Iraq and in fact the film opens with words from another journalist, Central New York native Chris Hedges, asserting that “war is a drug.” This is from Hedges’ 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, one of the best of a rich crop of efforts by war reporters since, say, the break-up of Yugoslavia, in which Hedges writes about why he left combat and genocide coverage. As well, the actor Jeremy Renner – there is an excellent interview with him at NPR from earlier this week – spent time training with such a team to get ready to play Staff Sgt. Will James, the audacious leader of the film’s lead trio. Bigelow shot the film in the summer of 2007, just over the Iraqi border in Jordan and at the height of the Surge. Actual Iraqi refugees played most of the Iraqi roles and we may presume informed the film’s progress. Renner says further that the conditions of the “set” were sometimes so hostile that the cast and crew had shots fired at them during filming; there’s one passage in the film, apparently unscripted, when a gang of young boys pelt James’ vehicle with stones.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Bravo Company’s year-long active duty rotation has 38 days left and our bomb squad’s staff sergeant (Guy Pearce) dies during the opening scene when an insurgent in a nearby shop detonates an IED with a cell phone. In a prelude to his own development, although he’s visibly the most gripped in stomach-twisting panic of the three-man crew, Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the first to glimpse that tell-tale cell phone. The third squad member is former intelligence officer Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). By the next day they’re out again with their new Staff Sgt. James, who alarms them right away with his risk-taking. The film then ticks down Bravo’s remaining time – Day 23, 16, and 2 – followed by an epilogue in which one of the three re-ups, returning to Iraq to begin Delta Company’s rotation at Day 364.

These episodes – acts, if you will – are structured around variations on what such a squad might typically encounter – a cluster of bombs connected by a spider-web of buried wires, an unevenly sagging car with the detonator hidden in the windshield wipers, an ambush in the countryside in which the crew is pinned down all day, a dead child’s body rigged with explosives, a man in a suicide bomber’s vest begging for help. At Day 16, time – along with some other boundaries – starts to break down as days and nights flow together. James’ attachment to an Iraqi boy selling boot-legged DVDs takes him first outside Camp Victory alone at night and then finally to lead his team into danger that almost loses one member.

The Hurt Locker was filmed with four hand-held cameras going at once, so there’s an immediacy and sense of being inside the action. But over a whole film, you see that Bigelow also takes her time and is less concerned with the bang than what it surrounds. (The only thing recently on screen to rival The Hurt Locker in this regard would be Anthony Mann’s Public Enemies, especially that admirably-shot second prison break.) Bigelow has concerned herself with what the she calls “the seductiveness of violence in cinematic form” from the start. Regardless of who has served on any given film as her editor or cinematographer, her masterful pacing of extended action sequences and provocative use of point of view have been reliable over a career dating to The Loveless (Willem Dafoe’s feature debut as Vance), a 1982 biker film after which the terms “languid” and “explosive” no longer seem contradictory. Watching her other films, readily available at Netflix, repays the effort. The jolting zombie flick set in the Southwest, Near Dark (1987), has actually more stupendously fiery explosions than Hurt Locker. The 1990 cop drama Blue Steel wrings you out with that final chase up from the subway into the street (and makes me wonder if Michael Winterbottom had it in mind when he made The Brave One). Strange Days, made in 1995, looked forward to addictive, technologically-supported vicarious violence and a racist LAPD on the eve of the Millennium; it’s considerably smarter than similarly themed movies like Total Recall, and considerably more violent than almost anything in The Hurt Locker. A year later Bigelow made Point Break, ostensibly about an FBI agent infiltrating some surfer bank robbers but inserting some nifty chuteless sky-diving too. The Weight of Water (2000) didn’t do well, with its parallel stories set centuries apart, but Bigelow does a great shipwreck and she brilliantly directed Sarah Polley as a Lizzie Borden-style colonial wife. K-19: The Widowmaker of course put Harrison Ford aboard an endangered Russian nuclear submarine in 2002. Some of these films are arguably gory and spectacular enough to make The Hurt Locker seem positively contemplative by comparison, but Bigelow’s films also have human – often redemptive – dimensions beyond the regular wild ride.

The Hurt Locker, for example, uses the relationships among its trio of bomb specialists to explore what fatherhood means to these young men in rich but spare detail. James has an infant son, with whom the film briefly reunites him near its end. By then it’s no surprise that he is an affectionate and tender father, because we’ve watched him throughout the film look out for his men. Well, that’s what staff sergeants do, yes, but Bigelow focuses much attention on the depth of this care with details like the juice box he gets for Sanborn when they’re pinned down. Or the extended tutoring in the finer points of soldiering he gives the talented but frightened Eldridge, the times he talks him through dangerous moments and refocuses him exactly as a father might. Virtually the first personal conversation the three men have concerns fatherhood, in which Sanborn says his girlfriend is always pestering him about babies; his turning point occurs on nearly the last day when he sums up his desire to leave the war with, “I want a son. I want a son.”

Although nobody in the film literally calls James a “cowboy” – I listened carefully for this word – that’s what all of us, on screen and off, know he is as an American type. This unspoken common reaction drives several powerful cameo performances – implicitly the decidedly un-cowboy staff sergeant he replaces, then Ralph Fiennes as the private British contractor in the desert, and David Morse as a colonel whose congratulations after one close call might or might not be infuriated sarcasm – as well as Eldridge’s eventual (and very son-like) rebellion against James’ “adrenalin fix.” Curiously, so far only Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor calls this film a Western. Rainer cites the cowboy’s classic unease with the homestead. Then there’s the requisite pinned-down-by-savages-in-the wilderness scene. And James’ walks into the “kill-zone” are nothing if not high-noon showdowns on dusty frontier main drags. But I think Bigelow calls up something older too with her filmmaking too, like “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

This review was announced in the July 30, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. Opening on Friday at Manlius Art Cinema, “The Hurt Locker” screens daily at 7:30 PM with weekend matinees at 2:00 and 4:45 PM as well. Carousel Mall has also added some screenings. See other Kathryn Bigelow films listed in this review at