Thursday, August 06, 2009
The Hurt Locker
There are sequences of sustained tension in Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker that are as remarkable as anything I've seen at the movies in a great while. The filmmaking on display is so assured that I'm gradually warming to the idea of 10 Best Picture nominees if it means some recognition for Bigelow's skilled direction of the story of a American bomb disposal technician (Jeremy Renner in a starmaking performance) and the two soldiers Sanborn and Eldridge (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) charged with keeping him safe while he works.
After a prologue involving Sanborn, Eldridge, and another bomb tech (Guy Pearce) that establishes the movie's alternating moods of white-knuckle tension and gruff male-on-male joshing Renner's Staff Sgt. James arrives for his new assignment just a few weeks before the company is due to rotate out of Iraq. James is a brash risk-taker whose disdain for protocol and apparent disregard for his own safety offend the cautious Sanborn; James refuses to use the robotic bomb disposal device and instead prefers to investigate all ordinance firsthand. Almost all of the bomb disposal scenes in The Hurt Locker take place on public streets and are witnessed by Iraqis. It's Sanborn and Eldridge's job to judge which of the onlookers are innocent and which could be threats, resistance fighters ready to stage a remote detonation. Bigelow (working with editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski) cuts these urban nightmares to the point of squirm-in-your-seat terror with the tension only exacerbated by James's apparent heedlessness. A quote on the poster compares Renner to a young Russell Crowe; I'm not going there since Renner plays James with a dry wit and lack of smugness that I've never seen Crowe possess. This is, literally, all in a day's work for Sgt. James. When questioned about his success record by a superior officer (David Morse) James goes quiet and claims not to be able to remember the number of bombs he has defused. The #1 movie last week was Funny People, in which (I gather) men talk profanely and at great length about their shortcomings. James's lack of ego and self-knowledge is the exception these days and all the more refreshing for it.
James barely stops to think about where his attitudes toward his job come from, and that's a slight problem in The Hurt Locker's second half. James becomes obsessed with discovering the fate of Beckham (Christopher Sayegh), a young Iraqi "base rat:" with whom he'd formed a bond. James had to care about something, but Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are only interested in the Iraqis to the degree they threaten the Americans. The scenes involving James and his reactions to Beckham feel a little underdone, and instead of probing James's psyche we get scenes of Eldridge and a doctor that are too lightly written to add much. These are minor quibbles; Bigelow's control over the material is masterful (a desert confrontation with a sniper is the scene of the year) and Renner and Mackie are an ideal pair of mismatched colleagues. Refreshingly non-political, The Hurt Locker proves out its opening quote from Chris Hedges: "War is a drug."