Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review - The Hurt Locker

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

The above quote, from Christopher Hedges, opens Kathryn Bigelow's
The Hurt Locker, and it's a maxim that certainly holds true for the film's central character. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the captain of a three-man bomb disposal unit working in Iraq, and his approach to defusing the various explosive devices his team are asked to handle is unconventional, to say the least. Throwing caution to the wind, James charges into each scenario with a devil-may-care attitude that stuns and angers his colleagues. He's reckless and obsessive, but he's also brilliant at what he does, proudly telling an impressed superior that he has successfully defused 873 explosive devices. "What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?" the Colonel asks him, "The way you don't die, sir." James replies.

What kind of personality does it take to face this sort of danger head-on; knowing that one snip of the wrong wire could blast you and your unit to pieces?
The Hurt Locker centres on three very different individuals, and explores the way they cope with the pressure and are transformed by the incredible demands of their role. Backing James up as he goes to work are Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book soldier who is consistently infuriated by his fellow soldier's lone wolf tactics, and a nervous young recruit named Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who fears that death stalks around every corner. It would have been easy to play The Hurt Locker as a straight conflict between James and Sanborn – the good soldier against the eccentric one – but their relationship is more complicated and interesting than that: a mixture of suspicion, resentment and macho posturing that gradually develops into a respect and camaraderie, and a shared determination to get the job done. The Hurt Locker puts us right in there alongside these men as they do that job, a task that must surely be one of the most emotionally and psychologically harrowing imaginable.

The Hurt Locker is the latest in a long line of films about the Iraq war, but what separates this picture – and perhaps elevates it – from its generally underwhelming forbearers, is the filmmakers' decision to shun any debate about the rights and wrongs of America's presence in the region, and to simply focus on the experiences of those involved in the fight. The screenplay was developed from Mark Boal's experience as a reporter embedded with an EOD unit in Baghdad, and it has the feel of something closely observed, the accumulation of details adding up to a realistic, immersive portrait of young men at war. His narrative is built around a series of set-pieces, as James tackles a number of explosive devices while Sanborn and Eldridge cover him, keeping watch for any suspicious activity in the area surrounding the bomb. In Iraq, danger the threat isn't posed by a single source, and The Hurt Locker allows us to feel the sense of ever-present danger that dominates these soldiers' lives out there. A man holding a mobile phone, a pile of rubbish by the side of the road, a crowd forming, a car travelling towards you; all of these things could be completely innocuous, or they could pose an immediate threat, and they require life-or-death decisions to be made in an instant.

That tension is superbly developed by Kathryn Bigelow, who takes control of this material and plays it out it in a masterly fashion. Her direction gets us as close as possible to the action, but it's frequently too close for comfort, and I found myself gripping the side of my chair or flinching involuntarily as the various bomb-dismantling scenes progressed. The film has a vice-like grip at times, and its set-pieces are aided by Bigelow's ability to maintain a constant sense of spatial awareness, and to ensure we always know where the characters are in relation to each other, to the blast zone, and to the surrounding threat. This is most brilliantly exemplified in a scene that requires James to work on a car bomb, while Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep track of the growing groups of bystanders on nearby roofs. It's a supreme achievement of both direction and editing, as is the later sequence, in which James' unit and a group of British contractors find themselves pinned down by snipers. The tense standoff continues as day turns to dusk, and the scene is extended to an agonising length, while never losing its focus or grip.

The sniper sequence features one of
The Hurt Locker's cameos - appearances that are initially distracting but are quickly integrated into the fabric of the film - but the bulk of the film is carried on the shoulders of three less well-known performers. All three are a perfect fit for their characters, and they play off each other in interesting ways, but Renner is inarguably the standout. His Staff Sergeant James is introduced to us as an all-American cowboy, akin to Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kilgore, whose brash approach to warfare seemingly makes him impervious to the danger that surrounds them all. But through his frequent brushes with death and his relationship with an Iraqi boy who hangs around their base, he reveals a variety of previously unsuspected layers and aspects to his character, and hints at the psychological toll his career choice is taking underneath the ballsy fa├žade. The thing is, James still needs the adrenalin charge of taking on a bomb and winning, nothing else in his life can possibly match it, and we last see him marching once more into the breach, to tackle some unseen threat, to live or die doing the one thing that defines his life and gives it meaning. In sharing with us the experiences of the characters at the centre of this magnificent film, Bigelow and Boal seem to have honed in on an essential and fascinating truth of armed combat. Each man fights his own war; some crumble under the strain, some develop a fatalistic attitude, some lose their sense of purpose and morality, but for some it's an unmatchable rush, and they simply can't get enough.