Wednesday, August 19, 2009

#136: The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released October 10, 2008 (Italy)

Anybody else out there used to watch the A&E show The It Factor? When I lived in Chicago with two of my best friends, we obsessively watched a season of the short lived reality/documentary show which followed nine unknown actors and actresses in their daily lives in Hollywood. While the program was chock full of weirdos and inflated egos, there was one stand-out performer whom seemed so dedicated and yet humble that you couldn't help but root for the guy every time he was called for an audition.

Ever since that show, I've had my fingers crossed for Jeremy Renner. Near the end of that series, he lands the lead role in a motion picture about serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Renner would occasionally pop onto my radar after that, most notably in midsize rolls in movies like S.W.A.T., The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and as the hero in 28 Weeks Later.

With his lead role as bomb defusing specialist Staff Sgt. William James in director Kathryn Bigelow's (Point Break, Strange Days) newest film, Renner has taken the next and biggest leap in his career: a near definite Oscar nomination. That's because Renner makes what could have been a typical action movie role -- the "wild man" soldier whose addiction to high stress situations puts those around him in danger -- and throws in layers of complexity (charisma, humor, anguish) that humanize what could have been an unsympathetic superhero.

Of course, Renner is not without help from a fine supporting cast that includes bigger names like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce, and lesser known talent like Anthony Mackie as Sgt. James's conflicted, by-the-book and utterly frightened next in command. While the movie follows Renner's company in the final days before its tour in Iraq is complete, the true focus of the movie is in following how everyone reacts to the presence of Renner's seemingly reckless bomb expert.

For Bigelow, who has made an entire career out of skewed takes on genre films (her Near Dark is an underrated classic vampire flick), The Hurt Locker is her masterpiece. In one sense it's an action movie, but it moves at a pace and level of constant tension that almost no action movie can pull off. Like an action movie, it revolves around a handful of setpieces, but unlike typical action movies these setpieces are not car chases or plane crashes, but rather isolated locations booby trapped with explosive devices. An action movie lets an audience live an adventure vicariously through its hero; by contrast, every time a character in Locker steps into a setpiece, we beg them to just walk away.

The other interesting element here that makes The Hurt Locker different from most other action or war movies is the fact that there is no conventional plot or story arc. There is no face you get to conveniently attach the "bad guy" moniker to, and no ratcheting up of the action to help us know that things are coming to a conclusion. No, in this war, every single day of this company's tour could be its last. Your fate remains the same on your final day as it did two months prior: wholly uncertain.

One of Bigelow's greatest achievements with the film is the fact that, unlike most movies covering the war in Iraq, its stance is apolitical. There's definitely a message here (highlighted and hammered home a bit obviously by a quote in the opening frames), but it's not what you'd call a "message movie." For the soldiers portrayed here, politics are irrelevant. A ticking time bomb does not take sides; it obliterates all with equal prejudice. That's not to say the film lacks depth, because it's absolutely no stretch to see this movie (especially the final 15 minutes) as an allegory for our country's addiction to war.

No female has ever won an Academy Award for directing. If any one has ever had a shot, it's Bigelow. (Special note must also be given to the sound editing and sound design here. Oscars for these categories are typically awarded to big budget, bloated action flicks, but I think this year The Hurt Locker is going to give tripe like Transformers a run for its money.)

For more on The Hurt Locker:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out movie clips and more at the official movie site.

The trailer:

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