Friday, July 24, 2009

The Hurt Locker


The more I read about The Hurt Locker the more I feel like I’m the only person who left the theatre disappointed. My disappointment turns into confusion when I read about people praising Kathryn Bigelow’s film as “a near perfect movie.” I just don't get it. God knows that when I first saw the trailer, I wanted this film to be near perfect. I wanted it to be the summer gem that you remember for all the right reasons. I’ll remember The Hurt Locker for a long time, but not for its cinematography or fresh angle on the modern war experience. I’m going to remember a frustratingly one dimensional protagonist, an out of focus narrative, and too many key moments lacking realism in a film that's strongest when grounded in reality.

The Hurt Locker follows a three man bomb squad operating during the Iraq War. Jeremy Renner plays William James, the “new guy” on the team and the one who gets to put his hands on the dreaded IEDs that litter the streets of Iraq. I really enjoyed seeing the war through the eyes of a bomb technician. It wasn’t that this fresh perspective shed new insight on the war (the Iraq War still sucks here) but more that it provided a new vehicle to show us how the war is terrible and how it puts an awful mental and physical strain on the men and women who participate in it. Every soldier has a role in the field, some more exciting than others, and some more suspenseful than others. You might think that bomb squad technician gives you a healthy combination of the two, but I found that it was heavy on suspense, leaving the film searching for excitement in other ways.

In the beginning of the movie somebody other than Jeremy Renner is wearing the protective bomb suit, and seeing that Renner is nowhere to be found everyone knows that the film is going to start with a bang. You know exactly what’s coming, yet Bigelow and company manage to create one of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in recent memory. The very nature of a bomb is suspenseful. They’re relatively small inanimate objects, but in the blink of an eye they can literally change the face of the world around them. You know what will happen, but you ask yourself when and how will it come to be. It’s equally impressive in later scenes when the suspense is maintained in moments where you know the bomb won’t detonate. If the bomb that can take out a city block goes off in front of William James, movie over, but we never lose that fear. I personally think it would have been excellent to have a dream sequence where the entire team gets annihilated. It’s a curveball nobody would have seen coming.


In order to keep its excitement on par with its suspense, The Hurt Locker abandons what it does best and floats off into the realm of unrealistic and illogical action scenes. One sequence has James sneaking away from the safety of his base to track down answers in the middle of Iraq, completely alone and armed only with a pistol. On another occasion the three man bomb squad decides to turn into an assault force and go hunt down terrorists in the middle of the night and without back up. All of this happens on a hunch, and why even bother with the other 100,000 soldiers that are there to help you get the job done? Moments like this find the film stretching for the sort of Hollywood action that betrays the nature of the film.

I’d be curious to see what real soldiers think of William James. He’s a rebel, a man who needs the adrenaline from having a bomb in his face much more than he needs authority. William James doesn’t care about his life and he continuously demonstrates that he doesn’t care about the lives of those surrounding him. In one scene his teammates toil with the idea of killing him and having it look like an accident. It’s the most realistic scene in my mind, because all I could think about is how terrible a soldier James is. But that’s his character and some would say that the film nailed that. Sure, but how are we supposed to care about this guy? I found that I cared about his teammates much more, and any tension I was feeling was out of concern for their safety and not James’. It’s possible that I might accept someone like James for a protagonist, but he has to be well developed and we have to understand him. The film’s lack of an antagonist makes it episodic and we often lose the sense of building action. This all makes deep characters that much more important, but the film gives you no depth and no way to understand James. In one of the scenes James’ teammate openly asks him why he was wired the way he was. Why does he take so many risks? Why is he not afraid? My ears perked up at the prospect of understanding this guy, but all he does is shrug and say something along the lines of “I don’t know, I just don’t think about it.” Great, thanks Mark Boal.

I’d say the film is a good presentation of the Iraq War. It's consistent with the theory that it sucks big time over there. Soldiers plod along, mission after mission, often not knowing who the enemy is, never truly knowing how to win. That’s exactly how The Hurt Locker felt, chapter after chapter of men struggling to survive and stay sane, but never really working towards anything. If a clear, traditional narrative isn’t that important to you, The Hurt Locker will be far more tolerable. Last I checked though, everyone needs well developed, likeable characters. I’m still trying to understand how the film managed to satisfy so many viewers (or movie critics at least) in that regard.

9 comments:

Chris said...

Everyone needs clearly developed, likeable characters? What Screenwriting for Dummies book did you get that little gem from? Did you ever consider that so many people liked this film and you did not because, well, you just didn't get it? Sgt. James loves doing what he does because he's good at it and it gives him a rush. What more do you need to know about the guy? Should he have delivered a 3-minute soliloquy about how defusing bombs satisfies some deep-seated existential need: "Well, guys, it all has roots deep in my childhood...", thus spelling it out for you and taking away all mystery? He's a great character precisely because he refuses to be explained. People just are the way they are.

Cake Man said...

This movie's on my list of things to see, ideally this weekend. I've heard a lot of good about it, but will admit that part of me thinks that labeling something a "near perfect movie" is almost a chellange to find something wrong with it. That said, I don't think Onyx's point is that we have to like the characters - there are plenty of characters in films we're not supposed to like at all. Feeling that a character didn't come off as real or developed, though, is another thing. Chris is dead on that people are the way they are. If they are a certain way to suit a film, with no real reasoning beyond that, though, problems could arise. At any rate, I look forward to seeing the movie and judging for myself.

Onyx said...

Thanks for your thoughts Chris. Yes, I did consider that there was perhaps something about this film that I just didn't get. I was exploring this when I mentioned a few sentences in that "I just don't get it."

My frustration with the film isn't that I think it's a bad movie. It's not a bad movie. It's more that I'm trying to understand why it has gotten such consistently stellar reviews when my instinct tells me it has weak character work.

I personally needed more out of Sgt. James. If all there is to him is that he loves his job and gets a rush from it, I could do just as well seeing his first scene and none of the others. Why bother with two hours plus of scene after scene of seeing a character stay in the same place without any change? It was tiresome to me and I'm surprised that I can't find another person who felt the same way. Looking forward to your thoughts Cake Man.

karl said...

Onyx: Maybe you dont think James was a well-developed character because, simply put, you dont identify with him. Some people just dont understand how someone could love something like defusing bombs. I hate to sound cheesy, but perhaps you're out of touch with your masculine side. the guy loves the challenge and the rush. what more do you need to know? we see some of his backstory: he's a redneck who fell into a husband/father role he didnt plan. he's nobody back in the states. but out in the bomb squad, he's lauded by the colonel as an amazing "wild man". his answer to sanborn, "i just dont think about it" strikes me as realistic. guys like that rarely give revealing, self-analytical answers to anything. and yet, we're shown "why he does it", not through his words, but through his actions. his excitement during the job, and his alienation from his home life. perhaps he's a simple man, and so there is no more character depth. to me, this film reflects real life, where people arent always so complicated.

Jem said...

"I personally needed more out of Sgt. James. If all there is to him is that he loves his job and gets a rush from it, I could do just as well seeing his first scene and none of the others. Why bother with two hours plus of scene after scene of seeing a character stay in the same place without any change? It was tiresome to me and I'm surprised that I can't find another person who felt the same way.
No change? I'm sorry but I really think you should watch this film again. The character develops quite superbly; we learn he's a loose cannon, he's extremely good at what he does, he's not your typical macho army man, he's dedicated, he looks out for his team despite ignoring them ( the first bomb he defuses then the sniper battle) and when Sgt. James returns to the states I felt it was an extremely poignant moment. I think throughout the film we are dripped more and more information about his character. Weak? I don't think so. A Perfect film? Definitely not. Very good? Certainly. One of the best films of 2009 and definitely one of the best films to tackle the war in Iraq.

Bob Shaw said...

Great movie, well written and directed but I feel the casting was off. Jeremey Renner did a good job but I think Guy Pearce should have played the lead. His five minute contribution to the film was amazing.

KM said...

I liked this movie, but thought that it got built up as the ultimate no-name underrated movie, I saw this before the oscars but after the name was big and although I again do think it was good (and deserved best director, and perhaps best movie) I do not think it deserved best screenplay due to the simplicity of the message. I can't say that I wasn't moved by seeing a character I empathized with through much of the movie end up with an addiction to adrenaline being his sole drive in life. Taking an audience through a journey which allows us to see how reasonable and accurate the words "war is a drug" may be, however, was a pretty one dimensional journey. But maybe I'm placing to much emphasis on the importance of complexity of messages conveyed rather than the force with which one is.

As for "People just are the way they are". Like wtf? I do infact think sgt. James was decently developed (but not at all "perfect-movie"-esque) but you can't just use that phrase to counter someone who thinks a protagonist was not developed in any form of writing (unless its a sort of pop art writing and your point is that very message). This character is clearly the person through whom we come to understand the truth in the words "war is a drug" and so we have to be able to understand him atleast to a decent extent inorder to be moved by how he came to be so addicted to it. I'm not saying he's not very stoic at times but that does not at all translate into "He's a great character precisely because he refuses to be explained." That just sounds like something ridiculous you tell a teacher when you haven't read the assigned book.

Also, as a side point, I thought the scene in which at the last minute, he realizes he left his gloves down where they're setting off explosions, was pretty forced and unrealistic (in actual chance of occurring sense, not in the dialogue of the two soldiers)

Matthew said...

Simplified review of "The Hurt Locker":
Copy and paste review of "Jarhead" replacing "Marine" with "Soldier" and "infantryman" with "bomb squad technician". This movie was one of the most pointless movies in recent memory. No plot; tired, cliche characters (none of which I liked and therefore had no sympathy for); and a rambling, often extraordinarily unrealistic screenplay. How does this movie win 6 Oscars? In particular best original screenplay, the last one I expected it to win. That being said, the movie does shine in certain regards. The first two scenes are remarkable. Suspenseful and intriguing, with good cinematography, but it seems every scene is worse than the one before it. By the time the movie was over, I was wondering why i bothered to sit through the whole ordeal.

chris said...

James wanted to commit suicide. Why else would he act in such a loose cannon matter? He risked his life when he didn't need to countless times, preferring to be right next to the bomb when he could have stayed in safety and used a robot. THis is clearly explained at the end of the movie, when he explains to his baby his motivations– "sometimes you learn there's only a couple things you like left." referring to life. He's disenchanted. So I thought that was the motivation and reason behind his behavior. Honestly, i was very struck with this character after I noticed the disenchanted aspect of his character, and have an extreme respect for Mark Boal in creating this character