Thursday, July 9, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando's review of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker"
The Film Club of the Air: Host Maureen Cavanaugh and critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss "The Hurt Locker."
"The Hurt Locker" opens with this quote from journalist Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Then for the next 130 minutes the film mainlines adrenaline as it follows a three-man bomb squad on its daily missions in Iraq. The films begins with a study in contrasts. The first bomb squad technician we meet is a by-the-book Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce in a clever bit of star-cameo casting). When he's called out to dispose of a bomb he proceeds with the utmost caution, radio to his fellow soldiers his every move, using a robotic device to check things out, putting on the massive protective gear. You name it and he's taken the precaution. But in the chaotic conditions of urban fighting in Baghdad where enemies can look just like civilians, all these precautions can prove entirely futile.
Enter Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). He's cocky, seemingly irresponsible, and just wants to get things done -- so sometimes that means taking shortcuts, not radioing back to his colleagues, and dispensing with the ridiculously hot protective suit. He seems to operate on the notion that if you ignore the dangers they simply don't exist or at the very least can't distract you from the job at hand. James' point seems to be that it's a dangerous job and no amount of precautions can really keep you safe so you might as well do the job however you see fit. And in the chaos of war, it appears that he might have just as good a shot at survival as anyone else.
Director Kathryn Bigelow plays these two scenes off each other brilliantly. In the first, she uses Pearce's star presence to immediately hook the audience and make them connect with the character, and therefore feel the tension of the situation more intensely because the audience is already inclined to like Pearce. She builds suspense by playing out much of the scene in real time, which means the pace is slow as Pearce's Thompson painstakingly goes over every detail and takes his time getting to the bomb and examining it. In contrast, the first scene with James moves quickly and jumps around. We know what he's doing is dangerous because the scene before with Pearce clearly laid out all the dangers. The difference in the shooting and editing styles of the two scenes reveals the contrast between the two men. The film allows Bigelow (who previously directed the vampire tale "Near Dark" and the sci-fi thriller "Strange Days") to flaunt her talents. She has a flair for action and for building tension and she puts both skills to good use here.
In one sense, "The Hurt Locker" is an old school war film – muscular, focused almost exclusively on men in combat, and not interested in politics or making a statement. But the film’s also very contemporary as it serves up a portrait of modern combat. The unique tone comes from screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with an Army bomb squad in Iraq.
"When you strip away the political explanations for war and you strip away the economic explanations," Boal says in the press material for the film, "there's also a psychological component to why men fight, and Sgt. James in particular is a soldier who is addicted almost to combat and there's something about a volunteer army and the fact that all these men have chosen to be there and chosen to be in these very harrowing situations that I felt was a story worth telling."
The story centers primarily on Sgt. William James who serves as an example of a particular kind of modern soldier in this volunteer army. But he's not the stereotype we have sometimes been given in films driven by a more anti-war agenda. So the surprise here is that James is NOT a gung ho warrior itching to go out kill the enemy. He's not wild-eyed and lusting for blood. Instead, he's an adrenaline junkie who thrives on impossibly tense circumstances where his skills determine if he survives or not.
"He is someone who is unpredictable, he's attracted to the allure of war, and the adrenaline of war and the chaos of war," says director Bigelow. "'I'd say he's kind of shut down emotionally, but at the same time he arguably has the most dangerous job in the world and he welcomes it."
James may be a wild man in terms of taking risks but he's one cool customer in the field. He's got a job to do and believes in getting that job done as quickly and efficiently as possible -- but on his terms. His style and attitude put him in direct conflict with Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who prefers a more by the book approach to keeping his unit safe. His conflict with Sanborn reflects a philosophical difference that began with the opening scene. Sanborn, like Thompson, is more cautious and by the book. So Sanborn feels that James' attitude could lead to the whole squad getting killed. But with so many dangers in the field, it's difficult to decide who if anyone is right.
Keeping safe, however, is not something James is necessarily interested in. In fact safety feels like boredom. That's one reason he can't function well in normal civilian life. The film allows James to go home for a visit so we see him in a civilian environment and he seems completely out of place and disconnected. Bigelow offers a brilliant shot to sum of James' displacement. He's at the grocery store and looks down what appears to be an endless isle of breakfast cereal. He stands for a moment, and we sense a bored desperation that this will be the greatest decision he'll have to face on a daily basis at home. That shot makes us understand why he needs to return to the field.
Jeremy Renner delivers a riveting performance as Sgt. James. He manages to create a fascinating character full of contradictions. On one level, Renner's character is just a guy doing a job, but it's a job with enormous ramifications. At one point he's called in to diffuse a bomb attached to an Iraqi man. The scene does not define the man as the enemy, he's just a person caught in a horrific situation and James wants to help by doing his job.
As the two men – divided by language – try to communicate, we see the war summed up not in political terms but humans ones. It's a bad situation with no easy way out. Bigelow ends her film with an eloquent shot of James walking down to a "kill zone” — it's the cocky walk of a maverick and a condemned man's somber recognition of his fate. The film may not have an anti-war agenda but its images leave an indelible impression that can’t help but color your perceptions of war.
"The Hurt Locker" (rated R for war violence and language) falters on occasion. It's easy, for example, to predict fate of an Ivy league officer who decides to step out from behind his desk for a sojourn into the field. Delivering on such a predictable cliche is disappointing in a film that does so much right. But in the end, Bigelow serves up a solid genre film -- well crafted, compelling, and even thought-provoking at times.
Companion viewing: "In the Valley of Elah," "Near Dark," "Full Metal Jacket"