“Best of the 2000’s” – #7: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

 

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Much like The Dark Knight, The Hurt Locker is a film I’d already written about in short measure – so, in deciding to write about it for the Project, I decided to go back and retroactively expand my original review – which was about 500-600 words – into what’s below.

***

They’ve been out here for hours, by now – in the desert, their heads poking up every so often over the crest of the crevice they’ve taken position in. The heat rises in waves from the ground, distorting their view of the building away and far off, a low-hanging and beaten concrete housing, the innards gutted. They sweat. Fingers press tightly on triggers, and their breath is caught in their throats.  Somebody – barely indecipherable – flits past the window of the building, and there’s a brief glint of light announcing a short hail of bullets. “You’re doing fine,” the cowboy says.

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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. Embodying this almost wholly is James, portrayed by relative new-comer Jeremy Renner – his face all lines of permanent stress mixed almost equally with the occasional devilish grin and steely gaze, like a new Paul Newman. And, like Paul Newman, he often seems to find himself in conflict with his superior officers – in this case, Anthony Mackie’s Sergeant JT Sanborn, who seems to find himself both fascinated and filled with disdain for this obstinate young man with the graceful hands.

Based on a screenplay by journalist Mark Boal who found himself caught in just such a situation in 2004, the film does seem to take an ostensibly objective eye to all that occurs – when we happen upon the body of a certain character lying cut open on a slab near the tail-end of the film, poignancy is conveyed slowly, creeping up on the back of the neck. And, then we see Renner’s face, with the color drained from it,  and it begins to all sink in.

The film begins with a simple white coda over black, “war is a drug,” from Chris Hedges 2004 anti-war bestseller, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 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, opting instead to move herself around in these scenes in the same way that another director might portray a chase sequence – which is startling, because the film is actually relatively still, even in it’s set-pieces. While there is the occasional burst of movement, here and there, it’s often slow and pondering, arduous and in a giant, puffy bomb-suit. No, Bigelow moves from one still shot to another so gracefully that the overall impression is one of movement – but, it’s all an illusion.

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. His attitude is his armor, and the most used tool in his trade-skill bag, outside of his wire-cutting picks and prods. When that attitude begins to falter, and break, James finds himself without a railing to hold on to – and, he lashes out with vivid right hooks at anyone who might have come too near, be they fellow team-mates or the bootleg video-peddler out in the street. He eventually finds himself breaking into civilian’s houses and holding them at gunpoint while he attempts to verify his own suspicions about the boy’s death – small cracks that build and become larger and larger, as water begins to trickle through. 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.

This may be the first and only really apolitical war movie that we’ve had in the last ten years – and, we’ve had a lot of war movies in the last two years alone, from the perfectly-coiffed Tom Cruise in Lions For Lambs to Kimberly Pierce’ Stop Loss that oddly reminded me of Varsity Blues more than anything else –  being as it is not so much about the impetus that’s pushed these men out into the desert (although it’s hinted that it has more to do with the field being a form of escape than it does any sort of political belief), but about what happens when they step off the plane and try to shrug it all away.  Really, this is a film that’s all about it’s final ten minutes – as James finds himself at home with his wife and young daughter, and tries to find anything familiar in the yawning shopping center aisles and the rows of carefully organised cereal boxes. When washing the dishes with his wife, he begins to tell her the bloody details of battle as if it were a common, almost every day thing, and she begins to pull away from him.

Bigelow has a real command of the mostly urban landscape of the film – hers is a browning, creaky and worried, not to mention increasingly lyrical, 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. In particular, one sequence in the middle of the film where James gets the chance to strut his legs – strap on the suit. As the scene builds, and becomes increasingly more and more frantic, every so often it’s interrupted almost casually by a quiet, jolting shot of James working his way down the deserted street, leg after leg, a moonwalker in uncertain shoes.

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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. Of note particularly is Bigelow’s innovative use of multiple, roaming handheld cameras at the same time, which allowed her to edit scenes not from different takes, but from different perspectives within the same takes, allowing those more visceral scenes a very fluid feel, which does occasionally become harried, but only a little – and, very rarely.  There is lyricism here, and it’s hard and fast.

And, then there’s this new face in the middle of it all – Jeremy Renner, who’s seemingly materialized out of thin air, all of the sudden. Almost immediately after the release of the film, rumors came from all sections – he was the new Mad Max, he was going to be in Michael Mann’s next movie after Public Enemies, he was running for president – and, they’ve yet to really subside. If he had been around before, he’d been quiet. With this, he hits the ground running, and now he’s just everywhere. And, with the announcement just earlier today that The Hurt Locker was entering into the 2009 Best Picture race, it seems a given that soon enough we’ll hear his name under the category for Best Actor.

This may be the shortest of my “Best of the Decade” essays, I’ll admit, but the virtues of this film are obvious, and it’s flaws nary a scratch or worthy of mention, in the great scheme of things. This is a terse picture, and it deserves a terse piece in turn. These are our modern warriors – traipsing back and forth over the grim and barren desert, smothered in their own self-doubt while being almost too sure of themselves, trying to avoid the weird stares of the civilians who back away, while allowing themselves to be taken in by a boy who’s found his way on the base with his soccer ball.

At the end of the film, the counter resets. James steps down off the plane and feels the familiar rumbling beneath him. And, he feels right at home.

 

***

Glenn Heath’s own pick for his #7 spot, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, can be found here.

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