Sunday, August 2, 2009
Running to Stand Still: The Hurt Locker
“War is a drug.” This is the boldface quote that precedes our journey into The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team working in Iraq in 2004. As generalizations about the psychological effects of combat go, this observation, from former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, might not be a truism exactly, but it’s close; it passes the sniff test even before Bigelow spends 130 minutes establishing its accuracy. Alas, tacked onto the end of Hedges’ larger analysis that “the rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction,” the comparison is perhaps misleading, suggestive that war is a singular drug – like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine – and thus creates a singular effect. It isn’t and it doesn’t. For one soldier, war is as psychedelic and disorienting as a hit of LSD. For another soldier, it’s as calming and stabilizing as Prozac.
Both effects are on display in The Hurt Locker, but it takes careful examination to spot the difference. The film’s key figure is Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sergeant James, a Michelangelo of bomb defusing who could be easily mistaken for the war genre’s archetypal adrenaline junkie. Wouldn’t that explain why James prefers to dismantle IEDs by hand instead of by remote-controlled robot? Wouldn’t that explain why he sheds his bulky semi-protective blast suit when trying to find the switch on a car bomb? Wouldn’t that explain why he continues to work tirelessly and obsessively even when he’s been given the all-clear to leave the scene? Sure, it could. But look closer. James doesn’t go on missions with the itchy, maniacal cravings of a tweaker in need of a fix. Nor does he seem to have a death wish. Risking his life is just a job requirement in a field in which fear is counterproductive and in which suits of armor provide nothing more than the illusion of security. By accepting that each mission will result in either survival or death, James boils his life down to its essence. War doesn’t give him thrills. It gives him simplicity and clarity.
If this makes James sound different than any character you’ve ever come across in a war movie, that’s because he is, both in action and personality. He’s an enigma. His cocksure I’ll-handle-it swagger at a bomb scene contrasts with his team spirit when his company is pinned down by sniper fire, while his “wild man” reputation suggests a thrill-seeker persona that belies his cool indifference. Fittingly enough, this expert in dismantling bombs turns out to be wired differently than the rest of us, and even James can’t explain what makes him tick. And so it is that The Hurt Locker is never more compelling than when it offers up James for examination. Renner’s performance is appropriately elusive and yet fully formed. We don’t understand James so much as we feel his energy. Renner’s performance lacks the circus style antics (think: Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman) and the highlight reel monologue (think: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull) that usually draws Oscar consideration, but his performance is so unwaveringly captivating that for now he’s the frontrunner in the still developing race for Best Actor.
Renner isn’t without strong support. Anthony Mackie, whose performance in Half Nelson defied all the drug-dealer stereotypes, is once again solid as Sergeant Sanborn, the by-the-book soldier irritated by James’ lack of caution. Brian Geraghty, who in Jarhead played a sensitive soldier not cut out for the emotional trauma of combat, plays a similar role here as Specialist Eldridge. (It’s Eldridge who trips on war like it’s a psychedelic, coming away both terrified and, eventually, aroused.) Mixed throughout are some fantastic cameo performances by Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes; each of them delivering as a cameo should, capitalizing on the audience’s understanding of the actor’s fame to give their character immediate weight. But there’s no question that this is Renner’s movie. Recognizable as a bit player from films like The Assassination of Jesse James and North Country, Renner takes the reins and handles them with the confidence of John Wayne. Like his character, he doesn’t blink at the magnitude of his assignment.
Equally self-assured is Bigelow’s filmmaking. Her steadicam compositions wobble and sway (less in the stomach-turning style of Paul Greengrass than in the increasingly ungrounded manner of Michael Mann), and yet they result in scenes that are strangely serene and focused. The Hurt Locker scores an A for cinematic geography. We always know exactly where the bomb is in relation to the soldiers, allowing us to understand who is in harm’s way and who is protected. The film’s most gripping scene, a standoff with far-away snipers, is remarkable precisely because of our sense of the surroundings; it’s the rare shootout in which we can tell our heroes are being flanked without someone coming right out and saying so. In the scene, which is notable for its patience, Bigelow establishes both the great distance between the shooters (bullets arrive faster than the sounds of gunfire) and the intimacy of the duel (armed with powerful rifles and scopes, the combatants might as well be standing 10 paces apart). More than any film yet about the war in Iraq, this one provides the sharpest sense of “being there,” evoking the relentless heat of the desert, the peril of IED-camouflaging litter and the paranoia of being videotaped by strangers.
But The Hurt Locker isn’t an Iraq War Movie, not in a political sense. There’s no talk here about how these men got to Iraq or whether they should still be there. The film’s focus, like the soldier’s, is on survival alone. This is a personal tale, not an ideological or historical one. Thus, in the final third of the film, when James, driven by rage, goes on two vigilante missions that defy his character’s professionalism, it feels like a betrayal of the film’s very essence. Renner is so assured as James that he makes the scenes work well enough that they are momentarily convincing, but in the big picture they don’t fit, and the film’s otherwise powerful authenticity takes an unnecessary hit as a result. One could reason, of course, that James’ out-of-character behavior is a sign that he’s lost himself to his combat addiction, but that generous reading ignores that James always gets his adrenaline fix in dependable supply. He never has time to develop an itch that needs scratching.
Instead, the drug-like effect of combat explains why James would want to go back to Iraq after his tour is complete. Within the war, James is a “wild man” living by a simple code: to try and dismantle bombs in the way that doesn’t lead to his death. Outside of the war he is anonymous and listless, faced with mundane tasks like shopping for breakfast cereal that provide more complicated arithmetic than the yellow-or-green wire-cutting choices of defusing a bomb, albeit with less consequential results. It’s a credit to Bigelow and Renner that we understand that James finds comfort in the blast zone and chaos outside of it. Alas, this atypical makeup makes it difficult to truly identify with James. If taking the emotion out of his work is the thing that allows James to cozy up to danger, it’s also the thing that makes this film difficult to wrap one’s arms around. Suspenseful, action-packed and thought-provoking, The Hurt Locker is an excellently crafted film that is unfailingly intriguing but somehow a little hollow at the core. War is a drug. I believe that. And this one left me feeling inexplicably numb.