Monday, April 12, 2010
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a powerful, crisply made action movie about a military bomb squad working in Iraq. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the new leader of the squad, replacing the former sergeant who's blown up by a roadside bomb in the tense opening scenes. James is an unwelcome new presence to his teammates, the professional Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the perpetually nervous Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is a cowboy, or as one superior officer appreciatively calls him, a "wild man." He steps recklessly into danger, always placing himself in the most unstable positions, always refusing to give up or walk away until he has defused the bomb.
The film excels at crafting one suspenseful, taut action set piece after another. Bigelow has an exquisite feel for pacing and timing, for drawing out tense moments into seemingly endless, heart-pounding sequences where each gesture, each slow intake of breath, feels like an explosion. The film is largely structured around the squad's tour of duty, with periodic onscreen titles announcing how many days they have left before they get to return home and end their tenure in Iraq. Each sequence then advances these three men a day closer to leaving Iraq safely; there's little more structure than this slow countdown, and the length and tension of each individual sequence emphasizes just how harrowing and exhausting a tour in Iraq must be. In one sequence, as James struggles with a huge car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge survey the area, watching for suspicious activity in the crowds of Iraqis who inevitably gather to watch as James tries to defuse the bomb, tearing apart the interior of the car looking for wires and tracking down the ignition device. It's tense and wonderfully handled, as Bigelow cuts back and forth between James, trapped in the claustrophobic interior of the burned-out car, and the two soldiers outside, their eyes flitting around, trying to look everywhere at once and knowing that they'll never be able to see everything. The tension builds and builds and builds, as James cannot find the ignition device and, outside, the atmosphere starts to get subtly menacing.
One of the film's most effective aspects is the way in which it portrays the Americans' complete incomprehension of the Iraqi people around them. In scene after scene, the Iraqis are a silent, threatening presence, simply staring impassively at the soldiers; their thoughts and motivations are a mystery, both to the audience and the soldiers. It's impossible to know who among them is an insurgent and who is simply a citizen observer. This situation creates a dominant mood of fear and paranoia, in which every Iraqi is potentially a threat, everyone they meet might be a spy, or a bomber, or a sniper — or simply a citizen, as scared as the soldiers are by what's going on, unsure of how to act or what to do. At one point, a taxi cab speeds through a blockade of soldiers towards James, who stops the car by pointing a pistol at it, holding it in a Western-style standoff. It's a mysterious scene, since it's not at all clear what the cab driver intended to do, what he wanted, where he was going. Was he an insurgent or a terrorist of some kind, or simply an innocent man who'd blundered into the wrong place and then froze up, making himself appear guilty through his refusal, or inability, to speak or understand? As James says afterward, equally chagrined and darkly amused, if the man wasn't an insurgent already, he would be now.
Scenes like this establish a situation in which the gap between the American soldiers and the Iraqis is more than a simple language barrier; it's a profound disconnect in culture and understanding, a complete lack of knowledge about the other's motivations. The two sides are so rarely able to get beyond the mutual fear and paranoia, complicated by the legitimate threats that seem to be omnipresent in this country. As James defuses a complex web of bombs, an Iraqi man watches from a window above, and it's apparent that he was the one who planted the bombs. He runs downstairs, and his eyes meet James' for a moment as the soldier works on the bombs; the bomber and his prospective victim come face to face for a moment, but James has no way of knowing it. In the scene where James is defusing the car bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge watch a group of men in a tower seemingly signaling to a man across the way with a camcorder, and they're helpless, unable to guess what's going on, knowing that they can't shoot until it's probably too late, until the men have put whatever they're planning into motion. The film shows the complex types of decisions facing these men, never sure if they're confronted with friends or enemies. No wonder they're so tightly wound that they mistake a British squad with a flat tire for a group of Arab commandos.
This encounter triggers the film's best set piece, a lengthy confrontation between opposing snipers in the desert, as some insurgent snipers set up in a small shack some distance away and begin picking off the British and American soldiers. Sanborn takes up a sniper's perch in response, and time seems to slow down, as each motion takes an eternity. The rifle jams, the bullets are covered in sticky blood from a dead soldier, and each shot takes long moments to set up, with James directing Sanborn where to aim. Each missed shot demands an adjustment, a small tweak upwards or to the right, and Bigelow switches between shots through the rifle's scope — heat-blurred, hazy views with hints of motion identifying the locations of the enemy snipers — and forward views of Sanborn staring through the rifle's sight. The men are so intent they barely notice the sweat or the flies crawling across their faces. It's a compelling, tense sequence, and Bigelow hits each beat perfectly, with an attention to detail that allows each moment to have an enormous impact.
To the extent that the film simply stitches together several such set pieces, The Hurt Locker is a successful portrayal of the tight focusing effect of war, the way the immediacy of a moment in which a soldier might die overcomes any hint of context. The reasons for the war never enter the picture; no preaching here, from either side, since politics are as far from the everyday life of the soldier as Washington, D.C. itself is from Iraq. Likewise, the personal lives of the soldiers only sporadically come up, as in the coda in which James returns to his family and finds that, despite his love for his child, he doesn't really know what to do with himself outside of a war zone (a tired cliché that demonstrates, perhaps, the film's weakness whenever it's not concerned directly with warfare).
More often, The Hurt Locker is about the moment to moment struggle for survival and the effort of getting the job done. There is an brief stretch towards the end of the film when it initially looks like the narrative is going to cohere into something more conventional, as the hints of a broader plot start coming together. James is moved when he finds the corpse of a young Iraqi boy who'd been selling DVDs on the military base, and goes rogue trying to get revenge, but this winds up being a diversion from the less showy routine of the day-to-day bomb defusing job. It's a nod to action movie conventions, the hero who has to go off nobly seeking revenge, and in that sense it's interesting that Bigelow ultimately portrays James' action movie impulses as betrayals of his military professionalism, misguided and ineffectual. When he tries to be an action movie spy, sneaking through the streets of Baghdad in civilian clothes with a pistol, breaking into random houses looking for information, he's shown up as out of his depth, unable to perform the way he does when he's in his blast suit, facing down a deadly explosive device. James might be the film's "cowboy," who's praised by the higher-ups for his bold but reckless manner, but in the end he has to face that he's most effective when he maintains a more grounded view of his job, rooted in professionalism and procedures.
The Hurt Locker is a strong film, narrowly focused as it is; it takes as its subject these three men and their tension-filled daily tasks, and probes the sensory and emotional textures of this job. The film is formally rigorous, with a powerful feel for sound: both the explosive bursts of a bomb going off and the hushed, expectant silence that precedes it. If Bigelow doesn't aim much higher than crafting an especially visceral, affecting action movie set in our most current war zone, that's perhaps a shame, but it doesn't invalidate her achievement by any means. Indeed, there's no mistake: this is a fantastic action movie with some real flames of substance flickering at its core.