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The Hurt Locker: The Rare Action Film Where The Audience Doesn’t Want Explosions

When it comes to war films, there’s a delicate balance necessary. The audience doesn’t want the film to preach at them, but they want an authentic feel so that the battles waged don’t seem Hollywoodized or glorified. The Hurt Locker reaches that medium more than any other Iraq war film to date, despite requiring a suspension of disbelief for a few details and plot twists. It’s an exquisitely crafted exercise in suspense, directed by Kathryn Bigelow in a style that puts most Hollywood action directors to shame. She takes the approach that by giving us well-developed characters and putting us directly into their world, we require no heavyhanded speeches about war; in fact, she gives us no message to leave with, trusting the audience to come to their own judgments. The film also gets to boast three of the best performances of the year, with Jeremy Renner an early favorite for Best Actor. The Hurt Locker may exaggerate the truth to create suspense– but what terrific suspense it creates.

Whatever you do, don’t read a plot description until you see the film. I knew nothing going into it, and I was taken aback by many of the surprises the film has in store. The script doesn’t keep any character safe, that’s all I’ll say on the matter. The central conceit of the film is that it follows bomb specialists in the Army in Iraq– and when folks who take every precaution die on this job, people are very rattled by Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who takes recklessness to a whole new level on the job. Eventually, his team develops a trust in him… but a violent occurrence shifts James’ perspective, causing him to go from a man who feeds on his adrenaline when faced with imminent death to a man so high on adrenaline from anger, frustration, and a need for revenge, he seems to have a death wish.

This war is utter chaos. It’s the least ideal scenario for defusing bombs. Most of the time, you’re walking towards a bomb (or ten), and there are hundreds if Iraqi citizens in buildings all around, any one of whom could be an insurgent ready to detonate. You have a few team members around you, but if they hesitate, you’re dead. It doesn’t matter how protective your giant bomb suit is, or even whether you’re outside of the kill zone (the area of proximity to the bomb that you are guaranteed to die in if you are inside it)– you are in enormous peril. Most of the Iraqi citizens don’t want to harm the soldiers, so shooting a man due to the slightest suspicion is not the right moral response… but it seems to be the only way to guarantee safety for the man defusing the bomb. How do bomb squad members make that decision? How can the defusing specialist focus under such intense adversity? Bigelow successfully makes the audience feel this pressure.

The scene that you will likely leave thinking most about is an attack in the desert from snipers on the team and some allies. It brings to mind the scene in Full Metal Jacket with the sniper, but instead of thousands of places where they could be shooting from, all the specialists can see in any direction for the most part is sand. They know someone is over there killing them, but they have no idea what to aim for. Once they find who is shooting them, it takes incredible focus to take the time necessary to get the enemy in the crosshairs– time that your enemy could be using to shoot you. Once you think you’ve killed all the enemies, there’s that lingering uncertainty; if you let your guard down too quickly, you could be the next one bleeding on the ground. It takes incredible focus and discipline: one of the lingering images is a fly landing on the eyelid of the man trying to snipe the enemies, and he doesn’t blink.

The problem with the film is that Bigelow, a skilled and experienced director in the art of suspense, clearly crosses the line of plausibility with the actions that Sgt. James takes, leading the film directly into a few thriller cliches. At one point, he wants to get information about someone who was killed, but when his suspect doesn’t talk, he puts on civilian clothes, holds the man at gunpoint in his car, and asks him to drive off the Army camp premises. Having never been to Iraq, I cannot vouch for whether this is plausible or not, nor can I vouch for an American soldier’s ability to run all the way across Iraq back to the camp. However, when the gates to the camp are so clearly heavily guarded, one would think there would be a slightly more thorough investigation of the contents of a car before letting it leave Camp Victory. Also, Bigelow brings in three of the oldest cliches in the book in one: 1) A team overstepping their bounds because they want to catch the bad guy. 2) A team not calling for back-up or explaining to anyone who could help where they are going. 3) The old stand-by, “Let’s all split up so we can cover more ground.” Again, maybe this happens in the Army, but one would think, when it gets someone shot, there would be repercussions for the person who led them into harm’s way. In any event, whether they could happen or not, they certainly aren’t protocol, and they certainly are thriller cliches– cheap tricks in order to crank up the suspense.

It turns out these cheap tricks really weren’t necessary. Bigelow stages an action scene better than most directors, knowing that the audience needs to be aware where the characters are and the prospective danger is at all times. We get a great sense for the geography of the sequences, so the thrills are successful without CGI and without rapidfire editing. She also has characters we care deeply about, even with very little back story: Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty carve out the best performances, as the specialist who is strictly rule-oriented and the specialist whose psyche seems to be more fragile than everyone else’s– these aren’t the showy types of performances that get remembered come Oscar season, but in a just world, their names would be right near the top. Also delivering strong work are Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Christian Camargo, and Christopher Sayegh– they aren’t main characters, but they possess that valuable gift of being able to establish a character within seconds of being onscreen. We get a sense of their code of conduct, their background, their thoughts on the war, and how they survive from the moment we meet them.

Jeremy Renner as Sgt. James is as memorable and mesmerizing a war film character as has been created since Saving Private Ryan. He helps makes Bigelow’s themes clear through a few bits of silence, a few determined looks, a few moments of introspective concern. There’s a temptation when you play a scene fully clothed in the shower, contemplating the mistakes you’ve made in your life, to overact and go for Oscar gold– Renner never comes close to crossing that line. Bigelow lets the camera simply linger on his face for stretches of time, and it never gets boring. Also note a scene with a Capri-Sun, and how Renner plays it; he sees the leader in James, underneath the adrenaline junkie, and admires those leadership qualities. Even when his character takes a turn towards cliched action hero, his performance manages to keep us intrigued. Between Renner’s character and Bigelow’s staging of suspense, the whole film is a magnificent slow burn, like watching the fuse of a bomb slowly creep towards its destination. It’s the most expertly made Iraq film to date (even with the obvious fiction elements), and its thrills will almost certainly prove to be amongst the most tangible of the year. This isn’t your average war flick– go check it out.

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~ by russellhainline on August 2, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Hurt Locker: The Rare Action Film Where The Audience Doesn’t Want Explosions”

  1. […] 9. Ryan Reynolds- Adventureland 8. Clifton Collins Jr.- Sunshine Cleaning 7. Anthony Mackie- The Hurt Locker 6. Alfred Molina- An Education 5. Jackie Earle Haley- Watchmen 4. Peter Capaldi- In The Loop 3. […]

  2. […] The Hurt Locker- The Oscar winner for Best Picture this most recent year also is one of the rare film appearances by Evangeline Lilly. She plays the […]

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