Tuesday 1 September 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

Year: 2009
Director: Kathryn Bigalow
Screenplay: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Antony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

I was unusually quiet after watching The Hurt Locker. Usually after viewing a film, I'm pretty vocal about it to whomever will listen. It's just my way. After The Hurt Locker I had nothing to say. My silence continued until I got home and booted up my laptop. I was silent because quite simply I was stunned.

The bravest, brawniest, most testosterone fueled action movie of the year was not made my McG, it wasn't done by Micheal Mann (which is a surprise to me). It certainly wasn't done by Micheal Bay. No, the most macho film of 2009 was directed by a 57 year old women. Kathryn Bigelow (director of Point Break, Strange Days and Near Dark) brings to the screen not only one of the most visceral outlooks of modern war, but holds some of the strongest observations on the war in Iraq.

Case in point, the central performance of Jeremy Renner's Sgt William James. It's a display worthy of an award. Here's a man who lives on the edge and can't step away. James' medals are the bomb parts that could have killed him. He feels that most alive when standing inside the "moon suit" used to protect him. Near the end, when on leave, James is asked by his wife to pick up cereal in the supermarket. As he stands amongst the dozen of coloured boxes he realises that normal life holds nothing for him. What starts out as just a job has quickly become more than that. Almost every day this man holds the lives of so many people in his hands...and he isn't afraid to juggle. When asked why he's so willing to risk his life, James cannot answer, but for some reason he knows that his comrades can never do what he does.

Renner's performance in turn is almost a metaphor for the entire film. War is dark, complex and offers no easy answers. Compare this to some of the more simplistic looks at war as of late and you realize how strong Bigalow's film really is. The Hurt Locker doesn't politicize or try to offer simple answers. In fact it's lack of pandering brings out some of the darker and more intriguing aspects of war. Character motivations are murky at best but as that end shots pans up and we see the amount of days left, we thank god that James can't follow up the question.

The opening 10 minutes are the most tightly wound of the year. It encapsulates the chaos of war perfectly. Not since Saving Private Ryan have we seen anything so raw. Unlike SPR however, modern warware has no time for heroes, just men who can complete the objective. The film's unease heightens the more obsessed James becomes with the job at hand. He takes more risks than his squad leader before hims, risks that Sgt Sanborn (played with by-the-book directness by Anthony Mackie) isn't willing to take. Unfortunately when you've become as good as James is at disposing bombs it's hard not to have admiration.

Bigalow is back to what she does best mixing conflicted young men with heightened tension in a bowl and pulling it through the ringer. Her in your face style grabs hold of the viewer from the beginning and doesn't let go. The firefights have a Mann-esque feel to them. So close you can smell the gun smoke, so near that your sitting in the car bomb also. Many of the films victims (expect one) are so unexpected that like Stone's platoon, you hold the feeling that anybody can be next. The best shot of the film is the one of James lying in the sand waiting for an insurgent to move. A fly lands on his eyelid and yet he doesn't blink, a combination of his training and his obsession. Not until the job is done, death is no option.

But this is where other areas of Bigalow's direction comes in. The simple shots of the Iraqi people are amongst some of the most unsettling, because any of the distant and complacent faces could be holding a mobile phone or a 9v battery. In The Hurt Locker, you don't run from explosions and with that action cliche firmly out the way, the risk becomes far greater.

The film also manages to hold it's fragile story together despite a lack of a true strong narrative. Here less is more and a constrictive by the rails plotline is not what this film needs. War isn't a structured and as cliched as this sounds there are no winners. Wanna bet? Just ask Sgt James to pick up some cereal.

Note: I have left out the names of the bigger actors who have small parts in the film. It's best for you to discover them blindly the same way I did.

The podcast review is just on this link