Jul 2, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a great war movie and probably the first serious action war movie ever. There have been many action war movies, most of them ridiculous male revenge fantasies, like The Dirty Dozen or the Rambo saga. There are also American war movies that trumpet their anti-war indignation by portraying war as a surreal hell, like Jarhead or Apocalypse Now. The Hurt Locker (I love the title) is the first existential action war movie and if this scares you off, it shouldn't. It is a tense, suspenseful and unconventional film, as American war movies go. It presents the taut realities of war without sermonizing, yet it summons the bewilderment and rage of the best antiwar films by basically portraying the reality of this particular war as it is. It's probably one of the best written recent American movies I've seen, with a realistic, non formulaic screenplay by Mark Boal. Immediately one notices that even though the soldiers use soldierly jargon, this movie is discreet with the cartoony macho posturing of war movie dialog. These soldiers need to use language as precisely as possible, because language is their best tool for staying alive. They only engage in making it fancy, either before they are about to possibly blow up to pieces, or at the end of the day, when they come back to headquarters, exhausted but alive. Everything else is the minimum needed to communicate and survive. For this only, this movie deserves a medal, or more likely, an Oscar nomination for writing.
The Hurt Locker follows a trio of bomb diffusers in Iraq as they go about a dangerous and relentless routine of contending with lethal explosives hidden in all kinds of increasingly bizarre sources. The battlefield, except for one amazing sequence in the desert, is the city, full of menacing garbage, antsy children, families, cars, alleyways and buildings where danger lurks. From the start, it's clear that the soldiers have not been trained for this kind of combat nor do they have the right equipment for what amounts to urban guerrilla warfare. Subtitles make clear the amount of days left in this particular tour of duty in hell, and we know it's not going to be the last one. The young specialist, the excellent Brian Geraghty, indignant with fear and despondency, says, "What are the tanks for? To wait for the Russians?" Tanks are useless in a place where, as he says, you can be sitting in your (windowless) Hummer and blow up to pieces. This movie doesn't broadcast its complaints about the absurdity and injustice of this war with grand, sweeping gestures or speeches; the reality of the action and the place is enough to foster a growing sense of disbelief and despair, not only in the soldiers, seemingly left to their own devices by a gung-ho and abusive military (represented briefly by one asshole general nailed, as always, by the great David Morse), but in the audience too. As the excruciating routine of bomb diffusing continues day by day, over and over, the movie forces us to wonder, as I'm sure the soldiers wonder, simply, what the fuck are we doing here? Why are we here? That's enough to bring us back straight to the culprits of this misadventure, who instead of impeachment, deserve to be thrown into the action in Iraq and left to fend for themselves.
I will avoid repeating the general amazement at the fact that the person at the helm of this action packed, suspenseful, very male movie is a woman. But I will say that I am amazed by the way she keeps sentimentality, or many of the dangerous pitfalls of war movie clichés away from her film. There are moments in the script that could fall into that trap, but she and her main actor, the incredible Jeremy Renner, refuse to give themselves to cheap manipulation, and together they fashion one of the most fascinating American action heroes, let alone characters, to ever grace the screen. Renner is a bracing antithesis to any other male actor you have ever seen in a heroic role. The greatness of his performance lies in that he avoids being the cliché. His character is one: a reckless, genius bomb diffuser, who loves the excitement and the adrenaline rush of his job. You can already imagine what this would be like in the hands of any movie star. But Renner is a character actor, and so he is all character. It is important that nobody has really seen him before (he's been in many good movies and he once played Jeffrey Dahmer, quite well). The casting of the three leads (Anthony Mackie, also excellent, is the third) is right, for more "name" actors would destroy the illusion of realism of the film.
In fact, I have only two pet peeves with the film and one is its use of recognizable stars in minor roles. The other is a very good looking explosion in exquisite detail in slow motion. It is gorgeous, but it detracts from the illusion of realism and "you are there" that Bigelow sustains for the rest of the film (even though I can imagine that life seems in slow motion when you witness a comrade blow up to pieces).
Renner doesn't act like a soldier in a war movie, he is a soldier in Iraq. The difference is at once subtle yet too enormous to comprehend. It's an acting achievement. He is cocky, relaxed and likable, yet he never abuses these qualities for amusement. At first, he seems just reckless and arrogant, but he evolves into a complicated human. This is the first war movie I see where characters are not preceded by their moral choices, but they are made of instinct, reasoning and emotion. Most of the time they don't know why they act like they do. They don't think about it. They just are. Mackie is the soldier that likes to go by the book. He is exasperated to the point of despair with Renner's antics, but in the end, in a haunting, magnificent shoot out in the desert, he and Renner calmly, professionally, collaborate to stay alive. I can't stop thinking about this scene. Everything is honed to the most elemental, to a beautiful minimalism in which every action is poignant not because it is a character flourish, but because it is character. And it is deeply, quietly moving. This is a great, brave, fantastic film. People should see it.

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