The Hurt Locker

Pain is the Game

         
 

26 June 2009| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

Tough and full of hair-triggering suspense. The Hurt Locker was so remarkable in its directing and its lead performance that it was not that big of a surprise that it overcame tepid box office to resurface at the end of the year awards season. Here is a war film that situates itself in current day Iraq that sidesteps any viewpoint on politics, instead centering on an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team that defuses bombs clandestinely spread out through the city of Baghdad. The three characters walk the line of death on a daily basis. Oscar wins include Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

The bomb disposal expert in the crew is played by Jeremy Renner, the best actor of the year despite the Oscar going to Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”). The actor starred previously as the conscious-minded soldier in “28 Weeks Later,” the exciting zombies on the loose in London picture that was singularly enhanced by his strong performance. Renner has outdone himself with his performance as Staff Sergeant William James, but it’s a carefully modulated performance that takes time for the audience to get under his layers.  He doesn’t provide easy answers to the reasons behind his behavior. Instead it is up to the audience to chip away at his layers. Because of Renner’s performance, he makes it a different kind of war film that it possibly would have been without him. Which is good because with so many cinema goes to war entries, we need something unique to impress at this point.

His outline behavior is unusual because he seems to readily draw himself to danger – extra precautions be damned. This is alarming to the other two members in his squad, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who just want to do their job carefully and practically, as well as stay unharmed in the process. Sergeant James takes on the risks and hazards head-on, sometimes removing his radio walkie-talkie gear and bomb suit if it means getting the job done less safely but more efficiently.

The film’s Oscar-winning director is Kathryn Bigelow whose “Near Dark” (1987) is a gory-fun vampires kill rednecks flick, the trash rob-banks-and-surf Keanu Reeves flick “Point Break” (1991) still retains cult followers as well as the grim sci-fi mixed bag “Strange Days” (1995). Bigelow has finally made a film that is a total success in terms of action, drama, suspense, war study and overall craftsmanship. She filmed in the Arab country of Jordan and at the three-mile distance from the borders of Iraq to capture as much shrapnel-littered authenticity as possible.

What’s amazing is that we get to know the characters almost entirely in drawn-out action and suspense scenes of the men on duty. The brilliantly thought-out scenarios were conceived by screenwriter Mark Boal who also wrote the story treatment of the underrated film “In the Valley of Elah.” Bigelow’s camerawork seems influenced a little too much of Ridley Scott at his most jittery, but the sequences themselves create a slowly riddled and apprehensive suspense comparable to Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” a top-tier war film.

The third bomb disposal scenario is best (although this is a film bursting with memorable incidents), with Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge scoping out Iraqi on-lookers perched on high-top buildings who might be civilians or perhaps trigger men ready to set off a bomb by remote control. It is set in a public setting that is very difficult to surround and secure the area, and Bigelow’s command of the scene is impeccable, depicting the confusion and disorientation of the men while informing her audience of the perimeters. The suspense is heart-stopping: You never know what direction lethal harm might strike.

Also a stand-out is a startling firefight in the dessert where the EOD squad teams up with British armed forces led by actor Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “The Reader”). But it is important to mention that the film does break away from the battlefield, featuring key scenes that take place at base. One brief segment revealing why “Hurt Locker” is a symbolic title as Sgt. James shows the others “mementos” of his past assignments.  Smaller moments reverberate as well when you look back at them, such as a simple scene of Sgt. James cleaning out leaves from a roof gutter and playing joylessly with a tin jack-and-the-box, although it is due to Renner’s superb implosion acting that makes these moments resonate. And finally, the final image of the movie will haunt you for days.

Note: This review has revisions following the six Oscar wins.

131 Minutes. Rated R.

WAR / MOODY CHARACTER STUDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME

Film Cousins: “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” (1997); “Jarhead” (2005); “Home of the Brave” (2006); “In the Valley of Elah” (2007).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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