Monday, August 31, 2009

The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino (Part I)

It is with great, well, trepidation that I announce that the (first part) of the eighth edition of The Conversations is live at The House Next Door. Why trepidation? Because the subject this time around is Quentin Tarantino. Given that movie fans have spent the past week-plus binging on Tarantino content across the blogosphere, I fear that yet another QT piece will be as welcome as a turkey dinner a week after Thanksgiving. But we’ll find out. Tarantino has a way of sparking interest long after fatigue has set in, so I’m hopeful.

In Part I, Ed Howard and I look back over Tarantino’s career in the final moments before Inglourious Basterds became part of the permanent record with its national release August 21. At some point we discuss Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003) and Vol 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007). We also discuss Tarantino’s chapter of Four Rooms (1995). That said, we don’t take a strict film-by-film approach, often sticking to larger themes rather than dissecting the films as individual entities. In Part II, which will post Wednesday, we discuss Inglourious Basterds.

As always, Ed and I hope that our conversation is the starting point for a larger discussion. I realize many of you have Tarantino fatigue, but I hope you’ll give our latest effort a read. Please leave any comments at The House Next Door.

Previous Editions of The Conversations:

David Fincher (January 2009)
Mulholland Dr. (February 2009)
Overlooked - Part I: Undertow (March 2009)
Overlooked - Part II: Solaris (March 2009)
Star Trek (May 2009)
Werner Herzog (May 2009)
Errol Morris (July 2009)
Michael Mann (August 2009)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Boys Will Be Boys: Grindhouse

[With Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds hitting theaters, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

The double-feature experience Grindhouse, made up of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, is a celebration of 1970s exploitation cinema and an era when B-movies thrived. The film’s target audience is made up of those who cheer excess and misogyny, who find joy in depravity and vulgarity, and who react to films not so much from the head or the heart but from somewhere near the groin. Moviegoers who fit that description will undoubtedly be thrilled by Grindhouse, which is masterfully crafted by a pair of filmmakers who are experts in their chosen genres. But those distant from the edges of Grindhouse’s decidedly fringy fringe entertainment should expect to be uninspired and possibly offended. When dealing with a film that intentionally bucks convention and heartily embraces the taboo, there’s the rub.

Thus determining whether Grindhouse is excellent or excrement depends entirely on one’s point of view. Certainly to the point that its two films capture the unseemly, politically-incorrect spirit of the movies they’re modeled after, Grindhouse is an outright triumph. Rodriguez and Tarantino direct their pictures with a horny reverence that’s sure to titillate like-minded fanboys (and fangirls). With a running time of over 3 hours, Grindhouse is designed to be an adrenaline-overloaded, rousing (and arousing) crowd-pleaser. And it is, if you share the directors’ turnons. But to be a true success, Grindhouse would need to be so thrilling that it couldn’t be refused. So thrilling that, perhaps against our better judgment, the directors’ fantasies would become our own.

In that regard, Grindhouse fails. Even using this double-feature experiment as our sole reference point, Rodriguez and Tarantino demonstrate themselves to be turned on by gross-out humor, extreme violence, gore and boobies. They are not alone in this, of course, as any two of those ingredients have been recipe enough for innumerable hit movies over the years. Yet only once during this 191-minute double-feature – while watching the exhilarating climax to Death Proof, to be exact – did I have the sense that I might be enjoying this experience even half as much as the directors. Otherwise, Grindhouse is such an excessive exercise in directorial self-gratification that to watch is to play the role of Peeping Tom.

That might not be entirely by accident, at least as far as Tarantino is concerned. The celebrated writer/director has the talent to entertain the masses but the ego to put his own enjoyment first. His frequent and always painful acting performances (he has two in Grindhouse) are nothing short of selfish. And yet his time in front of the camera isn’t the problem. Tarantino’s downfall as a storyteller is that he personalizes his films to a fault. Though inarguably creative, Tarantino trusts his own instincts and tastes to the point of forgetting that others have them, too.

The unfortunate result is that the Tarantino characters once lauded for their originality and uniqueness have fast become redundant. In Death Proof, Tarantino shapes a tale about a sadistic stunt driver (played by an impressive Kurt Russell) and two gaggles of chat-happy girls. The ladies’ breathless banter is quintessential QT – full of fuck-yous and obscure pop culture references. But swap the dialogue of Sydney Poitier’s Jungle Julia with that of Rosario Dawson’s Abernathy and you’d detect nothing astray. Tarantino doesn’t actually create characters, it’s becoming clearer by the movie, he just changes settings, conversation topics and costumes.

That might sound like the same thing, but it isn’t. One of the most famous segments of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction follows hitmen Jules and Vincent as they talk about European fast food and the sexual significance of a foot massage in a lively tête-à-tête that remains as casual as a drive through the countryside right up to the point that they bust into an apartment with guns blazing. When Pulp Fiction was released in 1994, scenes like that one were praised for the witty juxtaposition of two tonal opposites – detritus and death. But most recently, in the Kill Bill pictures and Death Proof, Tarantino is undermining his own legacy. There are only a handful of signature phrases in Tarantino’s previous films that couldn’t work in Death Proof. In Tarantino’s world, the only real character is the screenwriter himself.

And so it has come to be that Tarantino’s dialogue, brilliant as it sometimes is, is now more formulaic than Woody Allen’s. Characters swear, discuss entirely random songs/bands/movies and, in general, take as long as possible to establish the obvious. Toss in Tarantino’s obsession with his Red Apple cigarettes (a visual running gag) and style becomes his films’ only dependable substance. Tarantino might take that as a compliment. Since his initial hit, Reservoir Dogs, the writer/director has been getting drunk on his own Kool-Aid and seems to have morphed into Mr. Orange, convinced that all he needs to establish truth is a shitload of details.

And so Tarantino’s movies are filled with words, words, words and details, details, details, but with the exception of a few moments in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill they lack heart and soul. QT’s characters are little more than the sum of their quirky interests. But they’re Tarantino’s interests. In Death Proof, for instance, when stunt chick Zoe Bell talks excitedly about a movie called Vanishing Point, it’s impossible not to wonder how a twentysomething from New Zealand ever managed to see a mostly obscure 1971 flick. Perhaps sensing this, Tarantino backtracks a bit by having two of Bell’s friends profess to be unfamiliar with the movie. Yet just as quickly as Tarantino saves his bacon, he cooks it, having Dawson’s Abernathy refer to Pretty In Pink as a “John Hughes film.” That might be the way he would have said it, but it’s not the way she would have. Women who talk like this exist solely in Tarantino’s imagination.

And it was there, somewhere within the twisted brain of a director so amused with himself that he reportedly keeps the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill parked in his driveway, that Grindhouse was born. Rodriguez and Tarantino, who according to legend regularly gather with friends to watch old B-movies, decided to pay homage to film’s raunchier and less-polished past. And so in the zombie flick Planet Terror and in Death Proof, Rodriguez and Tarantino go so far as to build their stories around “missing” film reels. Grindhouse also includes campy trailers by Eli Roth and Rob Zombie. And, to look aged and inexpensive, Grindhouse’s film stock has been made to include blips and scratches throughout.

Well, almost throughout. See, it’s no accident that when Tarantino decides to stop bullshitting and send us on a white-knuckle car-chase climax, the blips and scratches mysteriously go away. Paying tribute is one thing, but Tarantino wants nothing to distract from his exhilarating set piece, which – without giving anything away – includes some jaw-dropping stunt work by Bell, who was Uma Thurman’s double in the Kill Bill movies and plays herself here. The automobile antics might run on a bit too long, but a car chase hasn’t gripped me like this since I was a first-grader following the exploits of the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s tremendous!

The rest of Grindhouse? Less so. Planet Terror includes all the trademark zombie-movie conventions, but the only way Rodriguez makes it unique is by making it grotesque. So we get up-close-and-personal with stabbing syringes. We get a character who preserves the testicles of his enemies in a jar. And we get sicko shots of rapidly decomposing male genitalia. But we don’t get any added entertainment, and Death Proof, minus the climax, is the same. Instead of nonstop violence, it’s endless chatter, continuing conversations that seem to have started about 15 years ago among jewel thieves in black suits.

All of this is capable of bringing down the house, of course, but that doesn’t make it impressive. I know this from experience. In 1995, Rodriguez and Tarantino wrote and directed half the vignettes of the outrageous four-part comedy Four Rooms. I happened to see the movie opening night, sitting in the front row of a theater packed with rowdy college students. And though I spent the first half wanting to rip off my fingernails in boredom, by the time the Rodriguez and Tarantino chapters came to an end I was providing full-throated cheers along with the masses. That viewing of Four Rooms goes down as one of my favorite trips to the theater, but it’s a painful experience on DVD.

Given the right audience and the correct frame of mind, any film can be a riot. Mystery Science Theater 3000 built a TV show around that concept. But Grindhouse is too good to be hilariously awful and not good enough to be irrefutably great. If Rodriguez and Tarantino really wanted to do this right, they should have actually made these movies low-budget, and eschewed the CGI. Instead, this retro recapturing is a cop-out, a convenient way for two filmmakers capable of more to get by with less. There will always be some kind of audience for this stuff, but the geek boys who stunned Sundance in the 90s might want to wake up and leave their comfort zone. The armpit noises and spitwads have been perfected. It’s time to graduate.

Addendum: I had a long debate about posting this review given that, with time and repeated Tarantino viewings, I now completely disagree with a few of my above arguments. However, the rest I stand by. I post this now as an honest reflection of my immediate reaction to the material. As for how my opinions have changed, you’ll get a sense of that in the upcoming edition of The Conversations, in which Ed Howard and I debate Tarantino. To date, we have Inglorious Basterds yet to discuss, but I’m guessing that piece will be ready for posting at The House Next Door sometime next week. In the meantime, feel free to point out flaws in the above in responding to this piece.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Look, Old News: District 9

There are few things more maddening than feeling let down by a movie you didn’t have particularly high hopes for. Alas, that was my experience with District 9. A sci-fi yarn set – gasp – right here on a mostly modern-looking Earth, District 9 looks atypical enough for just long enough to seem almost original. But this is a tease. Once we get over the (refreshing) snubbing of New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, for use as a backdrop for this tale’s apocalyptic action in favor of some gritty shantytowns in Johannesburg, South Africa – begging the question, “What would Roland Emmerich blow up?” – the thrill is gone. District 9 hints at serious political and sociological allegory but never quite commits to it. It entices us with cerebral come-ons and then leaves us hanging. It is, in short, heaping with premise but lacking in payoff, unless of course you count the “explosive” final act. Oh, yes, make no mistake about it, District 9 is an all too familiar action flick.

If only it were an effective one, then it would be worth celebrating, but District 9 suffers from some of the sloppiest plot construction since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Like that Steven Spielberg snoozer, written by David Koepp, District 9, by director Neill Blomkamp with Terri Tatchell, doesn’t demonstrate that its creators appreciate the difference between doing exhilarating things and actually being exhilarating. For example, do you know what’s twice as gripping as two narrow escapes from certain doom? It’s one narrow escape from certain doom! District 9, subscribing to the Michael Bay rule of more-is-more, thinks it’s four, and then some. The film’s latter half charges through narrow escapes like Indy IV plunged over waterfalls, lazily recycling a structurally breathtaking device until it becomes ordinary, predictable and boring. District 9 doesn’t even need a sequel to fill us with the sense that we’ve been there, done that.

This void of fulfilling drama and suspense isn’t something that can be filled by having a main character dropping f-bombs like a Martin Scorsese lead in an effort to transform him from a feeble geek into an untamable action-hero, but that pretty much describes the evolution of Sharlto Copley’s Wikus Van De Merwe. Likewise, no amount of camera jiggling can distract from the plot’s aimless momentum, though Blomkamp goes positively Paul Greengrass on us over the film’s final half. (Aside: Anyone who griped about the now wildly exaggerated shaky-cam in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which is actually only disorienting over its first-opinion-forming opening 15 minutes, had better take District 9 to task for being doubly more discombobulating.) And, just so we’re clear, it’s never a good idea to have the main character’s actions directly contradict his utmost motivations in the name of temporarily goosing the action. (Again, the sins of Indy IV resurface.)

Let’s go into more detail on that last part. (Warning: Nothing But Spoilers Ahead!) Tell me, if you’re a paper-shuffling bureaucrat who has begun to transform into an alien “prawn,” and you have no idea how to reverse this devolution, and you have no friends who are willing to help, and you are being hunted down by men with guns under the order of your father-in-law, and you are suffering from an infection that was caused by your ignorance of alien technology, would you attack the one person who says he can end your Kafka-esque metamorphosis simply because you don’t like his timeline? Furthermore, would you bet that you stood a better chance of getting back to normal by attempting to fly alien spacecraft that you’ve never seen before in an effort to dock at the giant mother ship hovering above, which presumably you’ve never been on before, so that you can then begin searching for the antidote that you wouldn’t recognize to cure the infection that you don’t understand? Seriously, would you?

There are other questions, too. Like, why wouldn’t you kill the arms dealer turned arms mealer who first wanted to chop off your alien appendage and eat it in front of you and then, after one of your many avoiding-certain-doom-getaways, swore he’d track you down and kill you? And why is it that the aliens’ armored suit – inspired by Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane, or maybe Transformers – fits a human so well? And why do the prawns show no interest in using their own advanced weaponry to demand their cat-food smack, rather than trading it away? And why is it that a metal door is capable of stopping all manner of bullets when held up as a shield while running through a war zone? And does that explain why an alien would make a run to safety before his buddy provided him with cover-fire?

In regard to another film, this would be unfair nitpicking, but not with District 9. The very premise of the film suggests that it’s something more, calls on us to look closer, suckers us into believing that it has something meaningful to say with its historical allusions to apartheid, the Holocaust, Guantanamo Bay, Halliburton and whatever else. But it’s difficult to look deeper when everything is exploding around us, including the notion that District 9 has more in common with a mind-teaser like Moon than with a mind-number like Transformers 2. I concede that District 9 delivers more political commentary than the average summer blockbuster, but that’s like praising Nicolas Cage for delivering a performance that’s only somewhat unintentionally hilarious Knowing. Replace Johannesburg with New York and District 9’s potency would evaporate instantly, along with any African-bred indie chic mystique. The bad news for sci-fi fanboys is that District 9 isn’t as thoughtful as it pretends. The good news is that The Dark Knight’s political commentary – intentional or not – now seems all the more trenchant.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Falling Out of Love at the Movies

It was Say Anything that taught me that stalking a woman could be romantic, and it was Nine and 1/2 Weeks that taught me that the refrigerator is an erotic treasure chest and it was Jerry Maguire that taught me that you can get the pretty girl just by saying “Hello” (which is damn convenient when talking longer would only reveal that you’re a soulless prick who is so clueless about love that your attempts at sincerity require you to recycle lines you stole from a deaf guy in an elevator, but never mind). But when I tell you that every serious relationship I’ve ever had has been influenced by the movies, I’m not referring to those onscreen lessons in romance. Instead I’m talking about what happens offscreen, when by discussing a movie over dinner one falls in love with the person across the table. It’s happened to me a few times. Discussing movies has a wonderful way of revealing someone’s interests, passions and even morals. It’s a great way to figure out what someone is all about. Of course, what one finds behind the curtain isn’t always pleasant.

If one can fall in love talking about movies, one can certainly fall out of love that way, too. Just ask Craig from The Man From Porlock. This week in the comments section of the latest edition of The Conversations over at The House Next Door, Craig added this anecdote to some philosophizing on Michael Mann: “I wish I didn't have the memory of taking a date to see Last of the Mohicans upon its original release, and listening to her spend the rest of the evening complaining that Daniel Day-Lewis didn't look like a Mohican.” Indeed. Over the years, I’ve been in love with women who adored movies that I hated (and vice versa), and I’ve fallen for women who thought my affection for cinema is, you know, maybe a little excessive. But complaining that Day-Lewis isn’t Mohican enough (when the film makes it clear that his Hawkeye is English by birth)? Well, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

So, in honor of Craig, here’s a random list of 13 unlucky movie-related comments that would stop a relationship in its tracks*:

1) “When did Al Pacino become so understated?”

2) “I can’t believe The Lord of the Rings movies won only 17 Oscars!”

3) “When is someone going to remake Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Nicolas Cage and Keanu Reeves?”

4) “M Night Shyamalan just keeps getting better.”

5) “It’s such bullshit that these Saw movies come out only once a year.”

6) “I might have liked The Man Who Wasn’t There … if it had been in color!”

7) “Tony Leung is okay, I guess. But he’ll never be as good of an actor as that Asian dude who played the landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

8) “I know who could have made No Country For Old Men interesting. Paul Greengrass!”

9) “I wish that Quidditch scene would have gone on longer.”

10) “I always wanted a Matrix-themed wedding.”

11) “Kevin Costner’s accent was sooooo gooooood!”

12) “Hitchcock sucks.”

13) “You know who you look like? John Merrick from … what was that movie called?”

*All these things would be perfectly acceptable, of course, if the woman uttering them was Diane Lane. Just saying.

OK, movie lovers and lovers at movies: now I want your list. Make your entries in the comments section, or you can consider this post an unofficial meme and give a link back to The Cooler. Bonus points if you can use any real lines from your dating history.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Notebook: Whatever & Twitter

Whatever Works
Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, which I only recently got around to seeing, doesn’t offer much to get excited about. With its (occasional) sharp wit injected into a plot about a cantankerous old guy whining about life in the presence of a beautiful much younger woman, it is dependably Woodman. And, as such, it’s pretty boringly Woodman, too. Its humor and themes are almost tediously familiar. But then so are these criticisms. So rather than continue the annual reassessment of Allen’s career, let me take a moment to mention what I found to be the film’s greatest weakness and greatest strength.

The weakness is Larry David. And, paradoxically, the problem with Larry David is that he’s too strong. Too tall, too vital, too menacing, too consequential. His Boris Yellnikoff rants and cracks wise like the typical Woody Allen lead. He’s familiarly neurotic and opinionated. He’s typically inflexible. But for all the ways David seems like a natural to fill Allen’s shoes, the fact remains that his feet are too big. Boris isn’t small, meek and unintimidating. He isn’t so awkward that he’s endearing. He doesn’t seem jaded but ultimately harmless. To the contrary, Boris packs a wallop. To Alvy Singer’s ankle-biter, Boris is a Rottweiler who might have rabies. When he barks, we pay attention. After spending 15 minutes listening to Boris growling, I was ready to call animal control. Even at their worst, Allen’s incarnations – like the Seinfeld cast, actually – are fun to be around. Boris is just a jerk who makes time in his presence a chore.

And that’s what makes Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, the film’s greatest asset, all the more remarkable. She plays Melodie St. Ann Celestine, a character even more preposterous than her name. Melodie is capital-S Southern and Stupid. The notion that she would be attracted to Boris, and he to her, is as ridiculous as … as … well, as about any of the hookups that Allen-played characters have had over the past 20 years. But, wouldn’t you know it, Wood finds a way to make it all seem plausible (or as plausible as the film requires). She embraces Melodie’s twangy accent and ditsy personality and plays them surprisingly straight. Melodie is a cartoon character, yes, but Wood’s performance isn’t cartoonish. (What’s the difference? Think of a scenery-chewing performance by Bette Midler. That’s the difference.) This isn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed Wood. She impressed me in Thirteen, Down in the Valley, Running With Scissors and The Wrestler, to name a few. But, one way or another, all of that is pretty dark material. It’s refreshing to see Wood play a character who is so light and loveable. Her portrayal in Whatever Works joins Maya Rudolph’s turn in Away We Go among the most impressive female performances unlikely to get a sniff of year-end awards hype. Too bad.

The Cooler is now on Twitter. How long that will last, we’ll see. If you’d like to follow movie-related tweets from this twit, just go to If not, no problem. If you’re not down with Twitter, I’m not here to convert you. (I’m hardly its biggest champion.) I’ve decided to experiment with the annoyingly popular social media tool for two reasons: first, to have further interaction with other movie fans at a more immediate (and, yes, micro) level; second, to create another way to perhaps expand The Cooler’s audience. CoolerCinema tweets won’t be anything earth shattering, believe me. Mostly I’ll be using Twitter to link to articles when I post them (if you’re a regular visitor to The Cooler or use RSS to stay in touch, this won’t help you). I’ll also toss off pithy observations on movies – the kind of stuff you might find in the Etcetera section below – when the mood strikes. Just to be clear, the Twitter feed is secondary to (and hopefully supportive of) this blog. I simply want to make it easier for readers to stay in touch given my irregular posting schedule. (Note to Twitter virgins: You don't need to have tweets sent to your phone to be involved on Twitter. You can do it all online. You can even follow tweets through your RSS reader, if you'd prefer.)

Another step I've taken to make it easier to keep in touch with The Cooler is adding Blogger’s follower feature to the sidebar. It’s a move I’d resisted up to this point because, frankly, I thought it was going to be a fast-dying fad. I was wrong. My impression is that its popularity is growing – I use Google Reader myself, and it saves me hours of time each week. So, if you’d like, become a follower of The Cooler.

Etcetera (aka Tweet-type Stuff)
Here’s how enchanting I find Rachel McAdams: Whenever I see trailers for The Time Traveler’s Wife, I try to convince myself that it looks really, really good. … Leave it to Matt Zoller Seitz to write what I think might be the line of the year. It comes in his review of the latest Harry Potter film. Give it a read and look out for his parenthetical reference to one of the movie’s early scenes. Matt coins a term so slyly clever that at first I doubted its intent. I’m still chuckling. … In other good writing news, Will Pfeifer nails the absurdity of Steven Spielberg’s rumored remake of Harvey. I listed the link in my Sharin’ the Love section, but it was worth an additional plug. … I had to laugh the other day when, flipping through TV, I pulled up the guide for the five or so Encore channels that I get as part of my rather modest Comcast package. Listed in order were the following films: Missionary Man, Odd Man Out and Toy Soldiers. For a moment I thought it was a roundup of Best Picture nominees for the AVN Awards. ... A plug for Tony Dayoub's De Palma Blog-a-thon coming up in September.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Conversations: Michael Mann

I'm pumped to announce that the seventh edition of The Conversations is live at The House Next Door. In this installment, Ed Howard and I discuss the nine signature films of Michael Mann: Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009). We exclude 1983's The Keep for reasons mentioned in the discussion.

If you've read any of the Conversations pieces to this point, you know they're not the kind of thing you can easily digest in the 15 minutes when your boss leaves to go get Starbucks. So, fair warning, this is the longest conversation yet. (Sorry!) However, since we go through Mann's career film by film, it's the kind of thing you should be able to enjoy in installments. I realize we're testing the limits of how much people will read online, but I hope you'll take the time to go through the entire piece, or at least read about the films that interest you. I think it's worth it.

As always, Ed and I hope that our conversation at The House Next Door is the starting point for a larger discussion. So please check out our Michael Mann piece and add to the conversation by leaving comments at The House Next Door. Tell us what we missed.

Previous Editions of The Conversations:

David Fincher (January 2009)
Mulholland Dr. (February 2009)
Overlooked - Part I: Undertow (March 2009)
Overlooked - Part II: Solaris (March 2009)
Star Trek (May 2009)
Werner Herzog (May 2009)
Errol Morris (July 2009)

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.