Sunday, August 23, 2009

"The Hurt Locker"

Kathryn Bigelow's unusual, masterful war movie will almost certainly end up on my list of this year's top 10 films. (The others so far: Adventureland, Up, and Humpday.) From the opening scene, in which the director shows us simply and memorably how a military bomb disabler does his job, to an exquisitely rendered duel between snipers -- American and Iraqi -- across a barren desert landscape, The Hurt Locker is a film in total control of its tone. It's a stripped-down vision of war that communicates familiar messages (we and the enemy aren't so different; behind the stoic mask of a soldier lies untold psychological tumult) in ways that seem utterly fresh.

Take that sniper duel. A soldier played by Anthony Mackie is taking aim at an Iraqi shooter a long, long way away. Both men have partial cover and are partially exposed. Either could hit the other, but neither has an easy shot. As each man prepares his weapon, we see a fly climb down to the eyelashes of the Iraqi fighter before he shoos it away. A moment later, we see another fly do the same to Mackie. This is a film that treats Americans and Iraqis, adults and children, with a fundamental respect that can be hard to find in war films. Its main character, Staff Sergeant William James (played with Oscar-worthy integrity by Jeremy Renner), is a man doing his job; it just so happens that it's one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable. At one point in the film, a superior asks him how many bombs he's disabled. His answer: 837, including today's.

Starting with an opening quote from journalist Chris Hedges, this is a film that sees war as a drug, and it soon becomes evident that it's James' drug of choice. The first half of The Hurt Locker is a fairly methodical depiction of James' work life that's riveting in its documentary-like realism. In the second half, the screenplay by journalist Mark Boal (whose writing inspired Paul Haggis' underrated In the Valley of Elah) starts taking risks, exposing layers of James' character that we didn't think existed. We already know he takes unnecessary risks, but when he lets emotion cloud his usually excellent judgment, he emerges as a truly three-dimensional protagonist -- something not enough war movies have provided.

The film avoids clich├ęs without being showy about it. My friend Reed observed that after the sniper duel, we get to see something few other movies have shown us: the slow, unsettling period of waiting, waiting, to see if the fight is really over. Most films about combat end the scene when the bad guys have been eliminated; this one stays with the American soldiers as they wonder if anybody else will emerge to take a shot at them. Eventually, as sunset approaches, James calls it. Cut to a scene of the three main characters back at the barracks, roughhousing in what seems like typical tough-guy style. But even this scene plays out in an understated way. As a result, we're forced to examine its elements rather than being spoon-fed a message about what war can do to men.

Throughout the film, Boal and Bigelow keep the interpersonal drama low-key; their focus is on the everyday tussles that can put all involved at greater risk during combat. I've rarely seen a movie about war that so devastatingly communicates its toll on a soldier's mind. The film's workmanlike ethic recalls last year's The Wrestler -- another superb character study with a bare-bones, quasi-documentary aesthetic. The Hurt Locker isn't the easiest movie to sit through, but it's captivating, and its use of violence is the opposite of gratuitous. Roger Ebert called it "the best American film of the summer," which might end up being an understatement. Even if you don't like most war movies, I urge you to see it.

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