Brief Thoughts on Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo.”

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Like Point Break before it, Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker continues her utter fascination with the dynamics of male bonding in extreme environments – this particular study is set in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit Bravo Company, during the first few months post-invasion in Iraq.  However, given the landscape, she also takes the opportunity to explore the after-effects of war – both the addictive adrenaline rush and the repulsiveness it provides.

The film begins with a simple white coda over black, “war is a drug,” from Chris Hedges 2004 anti-war speech, and it ends with the main character trapped in a cycle of dangerous repetition. Initially, he appears to be a character of derring-do, and of his own volition – he makes the first move, strapping on the padded protection suit and wading out toward the danger zone without a prior word, and certain scenes paint him as an artist at work, fingers nimbly flitting around this cable and that. Interestingly, Bigelow avoids any sort of tried-out “is it the red wire, is it the blue wire” routine.

But gradually, Bigelow reveals her character James as one who runs for this kind of thing the way a smoker does a pack of cigarettes in times of  emergency; we’re told he believes that his wife and he are divorced, but she won’t leave him. And, one wonders how many times the kind of relationship he’d developed with the young Iranian boy Beckham had run it’s course, before the opening credits. The title of the film comes from the box that Renner’s character James keeps under his bunk – a collection of “things that have almost killed me:” the used wiring of defused bombs, shrapnel and his wedding ring hanging from a tarnished chain. He can pick out the used wiring of a bomb and remember it’s context, as if it were a small trophy he’d attained from something or another.

Bigelow has a real command of the mostly urban landscape of the film – hers is a browning, creaky and worried mise-en-scene that almost reminds one of  a Western, in places – trash floats by quietly like tumbleweeds over the dusty, littered roads, and all of the set pieces seem to result in a stand-off of some sort – but in particular the first real sequence in the film, which actually feels a lot like High Noon between the man in the bomb-squad suit, and the bomb; the main character is even called “wild man,” and “cowboy” throughout the film by multiple characters. And, when her camera is still enough (which I’ll get to in a second), her sense of composition has shown itself to have grown considerably; her action sequences are staged as taut strings, plucked every so often, and pulled almost to the breaking point. She prolongs them, she delays reaction – taking time to confront the jamming of a gun or the suspicion of a shop-keeper far off from the action at hand – and, throughout, her characters seem to almost “drift about like balloons caught on a gust of wind” in the empty streets.

Her sense of suspense is disarmingly simple, in the best way – shots of eyes in the rear-view mirror of an unknown car, fleeting movements in the building just opposite. And, always her point-of-view shots, here placing us into the darkened back alleys and forests of the Jordanian city at night – making us watch for what’s around the corner. However, there are a few points in the film where her use of handheld technique becomes almost too harried. Often, it’s very effective, and conveys a sense of visceral reality that, apart from Blomkamp’s District 9, hasn’t really been done as well in quite a long time. But, there are times when it descends into almost Greengrass-esque levels of incomprehensibility – where it would’ve had more impact to hold the camera still. But, these moments are fleeting, luckily enough.

Jeremy Renner is an interesting figure; his face scored and lined, yet he doesn’t appear to be a day over 39 – and, this film appears to be the one that let’s him loose on the world, formally. Now he’s being rumored to be the second man to take up the mantle of Mad Max – which I can certainly get behind, although he seems to be an explicitly American actor, and Max is by now an Australian icon. We shall see what we shall see. And, he and Howard Mackie are a far better example of the straight man-wild man dynamic that Bigelow employs in most of her films than, say – well, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves.

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Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo is a film that spins out from a simple base premise: a chance meeting in a taxi between an older man, played by former Elvis bodyguard Red West, and his driver  Solo, played by newcomer Souléymane Sy Savané. West’s character tells Solo that he’ll pay him a thousand dollars up front to drive him to a spot Blowing Rock in the Blue Ridge Mountains in about a week and a half and leave him there, and this piques Solo’s concern – there’s no real mention said throughout the film of what it is that West’s character William intends to do, but the implication hangs in the air above the characters. The way the film starts is interesting – thrusting us mid-sentence into the moment when William offers the deal to Solo, and in a sense this epitomizes the approach the film takes to the characters. We really only know of them what they allow each other to know, and we know the relationship that develops between the two is a temporary one. They seem to acknowledge it, as well.

Solo actually reminds me a lot of the cab-drivers that have picked me up, over the past couple of years or so – he seems to be genuinely getting enjoyment out of his job, because he seems to just like people. Savané spent months riding around with the taxi-drivers in his area, and it was interesting to watch him talk with West’s character at the beginning of the film, just chatting back and forth – or trying to – just as so many I’ve paid fare to have done, and then to keep watching, as the film continues on and explores his life outside the driver’s seat, his relationship with his wife and step-daughter. And, even more so when he begins to involve William in his situation.

The title is never spoken aloud during the course of the film, but it underlines one of its more important scenes, near the tail-end.  Bahrani’s style is slow, and drawn out – in some places even pointedly so; here, for example the final moment between the two is a shared look that lasts over a minute. But, Bahrani invests in the eyes, and in this he has chosen his actors well.  It’s the eyes that give a lot of power to much of the quieter scenes – West’s hooded and full of regret, set in a face of rough-hewn leather from a similarly cast life. And, Solo’s – bright and observing, here and there watery.

Bahrani, being of this new “neo-neo-realist” (you see, because it’s not just neo-realist, it’s neo – neo realist. Blame A.O. Scott) aesthetic, seems to shy away from becoming consciously operatic. His films bear a lot of similarities to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy visually, and his is a style of slow, reined in movements and extremely naturalistic lighting.  But, his sense of composition is always evident, and here and there, images seem to creep their way in that, if they were held for a second or two longer, would become semi-iconic. He credits Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997  film Tastes of Cherry,  as one of the partial inspirations for the film – in terms of both the base mechanics of the plot and it’s look, here interspersed with almost kaleidoscopic shots of the colored leaves of the fall, “which may remind astute viewers of the director’s “Life and Nothing More.” But tazmin only demands of its practitioners to, as the director sees it, ‘make it your own and create something new.’ “*

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