Billy Gray

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The Hurt Locker

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm

The Hurt Locker is the greatest video game movie ever made. This is not a slight. It’s an acknowledgment of how director Katherine Bigelow’s film distills the action movie to its pulsing, suspenseful basics.

Bigelow deposits the viewer right in the middle of the action. A US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal team patrols a deserted street in downtown Baghdad. There’s no exposition, but the roles are clear. The levelheaded Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) calmly gives orders to the cocksure Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) as he approaches a bomb in need of diffusing. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) nervously eyes the streets, each scattered civilian a cause for potentially fatal concern.

The tense opening sequence only lasts a few minutes. So it gives little away to reveal that the mission fails, with a passerby detonating the bomb via cell phone. Thompson is killed, despite the heavy, almost astronautic protective armor he wears.

This is an unsentimental movie; Sanborn and Eldridge’s reaction to Thompson’s death consists only of muted anger. Thompson is replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and the soldiers have no choice but to wearily welcome him into the fold.

Bigelow replaces any pathos the audience expects from these characters with a tireless regard for routine. The film is little more than a series of vignettes that observe the bomb squad at work. These sequences veer from hushed and clinical to suspenseful and adrenalized, but, like the men they showcase, never lose their finesse.

And the movie audience does not watch them alone. Iraqi citizens are always on the periphery of the crew. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s handheld camera frequently cuts to their street level or birds eye view. This technique alternately humanizes the locals and makes them suspect. Ironically, it’s the civilians outfitted with the most Western accessories that stir alarm among the Americans. A cell phone prompts a raised gun. A camcorder results in crosshairs. (“What’s this guy doing, putting me on YouTube?” screams Eldridge.)

The framing device implicates the viewer as well. The Hurt Locker has no political agenda and refuses to glamorize what little violence it shows. But the audience I saw it with hooted and applauded at the conclusion of one lengthy sequence when the squad, reduced to sitting ducks under fire in the middle of the desert, shot and killed its last enemy at long range. It was odd—a very blockbuster reaction to such a smart, clinical and topical film. The blood and killings and explosions in The Hurt Locker are muted relative to standard summer fare. But brought back down to earth, they resonate.

Subtlety extends to the lead performances. Renner resembles a young, downhome  Russell Crowe and, like Crowe, possesses a simmering intensity that tempers James’s battlefield bravado. Mackie makes exasperation a fine art as the cerebral Sanborn attempts to constrict, and then just tolerate, James’s swagger.  And the babyfaced Geraghty nails Eldridge’s rage and constant panic—he seems on the verge of a breakdown for the entire film.  

James’s bluster cracks twice in the movie, both times when he is in domestic situations far from IEDs. The first finds him in the home of an Iraqi family whose son he fears dead. His glimpse into their familiar home life—modest furniture clustered around the TV, a courteous host insisting James makes himself comfortable—provokes his sole jolt of terrified outsider alienation.

The other finds him stateside with his own wife and son, lost in a gleaming supermarket with miles of neon cereal boxes. Grocery shopping is a routine that is far more disorienting for James than bomb-diffusion. “War is a drug,” says the movie’s opening quote. And James is hooked, unable to extract himself from the rush of battle and enjoy the freedoms he ostensibly fights for.

The Hurt Locker is a restrained, human-scale action movie in a season of Transformers-style CGI bombast. For once, the prevention of loud explosions is more thrilling than their wanton detonation.