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.