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Hurt Locker, The
The Hurt Locker is an intense war picture that balances gripping suspense with thoughtful character development while eschewing the politics of the highly divisive war that it documents. As with most great war movies, this is one of its biggest strengths. There was a time when it was understood that war was simply hell - and that relative considerations of a war's justness or legitimacy paled beside that naked, raw reality. The Iraq War has been the subject of nonstop politicized abstraction - but The Hurt Locker does us the service of bringing the hellishness back to the surface.
The film follows a three-man bomb disposal unit (technically an EOD, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit) with the Army's Bravo Company in Baghdad circa 2004. After the unit's leader is killed, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) joins the group. The others, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are put off by James' reckless methods. Tensions mount as James insists upon suiting up and approaching ordinance in person, manhandling explosives and placing himself unnecessarily in harm's way, instead of sending in a sophisticated bomb disposal robot. The stakes are ratcheted up when James comes to believe that a young boy who sells DVDs at the base has been killed by insurgents; this leads to an increasingly risky series of events that results in Eldridge sustaining a leg wound and being shipped out. As Sanborn and especially Eldridge show increasing signs of having been broken down by the war, James remains resolutely enthusiastic about his work.
The film begins with a quotation from Chris Hedges' book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning that addresses the seductive qualities of wartime: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." This makes for an excellent jumping-off point for a look at James' character. Yes, he appears to feel a great rush and a counterintuitive ability to focus in the midst of grim life-or-death situations, but is he just a war junkie? To what degree are his impulses self-destructive? Does he have a death wish? Or is he simply good at his "job" and at a loss as to what else he could ever excel at in the world? These questions are not easily or simply answered by The Hurt Locker, to its great credit. James is a complex character, whose motivations are plausibly opaque and inscrutable. It helps that Renner's performance is incredibly skilled. This relatively young actor delivers a natural portrayal marked by an extraordinarily mature sense of subtlety. I must admit that I have not seen Renner's work before this, but I will certainly not fail to follow it from here on out.
Renner's deft lead receives very able support from Mackie and Geraghty. Geraghty in particular looks and sounds like someone who has served in the Army; his brokenness is quite moving at times. Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes appear in well-cast cameo roles.
The script by Mark Boal is alternately patient and punchy. Dialogue is appropriately sparse yet effective. Character development is parceled out in tiny pinpointed doses. Director Kathryn Bigelow - whose sense of the military is both more charitable and more realistic than her ex-husband's bizarre, fetishistic mistrust of the armed forces - allows the longer set-pieces to develop slowly, downplaying unexpected moments, rendering them far more effective. I'm thinking specifically of sequences in which James pulls a pistol on an errant taxi cab driver who finds himself in the middle of a disposal perimeter, and the scene in which James carefully directs Sanborn as he picks off snipers miles across the desert floor. Patience and restraint of the type Bigelow displays here is exactly what make suspense play on film, and is in direct opposition to the offensively overblown carnival of horseshit thrown in our faces by the likes of Michael Bay.
The success of truly interesting movies often lies with the things that are most difficult to describe, and that is certainly true of The Hurt Locker. On one hand, I'm not willing to say that it is an outright masterpiece, as many have branded it. I say this because, thematically, I don't think it offers anything truly new. My other chief criticism comes out of a suspicion - but not direct knowledge - that the movie's scenario is far from realistic. I just don't buy that bomb squads behave like this EOD. Almost everything that happens in The Hurt Locker is deep within court-martial territory, but these kinds of consequences are never mentioned. On the other hand, it's an expertly-crafted and brilliantly acted movie that, more often than not, succeeds in suspending viewers' disbelief. The lack of a straightforward psychological attribution of James' character and behavior is a finely-tuned risk taken by the filmmakers that will resonate timelessly with viewers. James is memorable for reasons that are elusive, and that is the main reason The Hurt Locker is one of the best movies of 2009.
The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is excellent. Bright daytime scenes are vividly detailed and darker sequences feature heavy blacks. The dusty, dried out look of the production design is just saturated enough to look realistic and unfiltered. The photography retains a documentary feel while avoiding the headache-making jerkiness of more self-conscious filmmakers.
Both the 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo tracks are deeply engaging, utilizing broad, ambient soundstages. Surrounds are both subtle and, when appropriate, quite literally bombastic. Both tracks are well-mixed and very immersive. It's worth noting that dialogue is never lost amid the many sound effects.
There are only a few extras here, but this film is a likely candidate for the Criterion treatment, so I hope a more generous selection of bonuses with attend a future DVD and Blu-Ray edition. First, there is an engaging full-length audio commentary by Bigelow and Boal. Their discussion of story development and the technical aspects of the production are particularly enlightening. There is a short and forgettable making-of featurette, and a still gallery.
The Hurt Locker is a hard-to-find thing: a character-driven action drama that is both thrilling and astutely-scripted. Kathryn Bigelow's directorial mastery deserves an Oscar, at least. It's certainly the best film set during the Iraq War. Highly recommended.