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.


Craig said...

We've talked about this one a little already, but your thoroughly excellent critique is worthy of another round.

First: "War is a drug." It's a powerful quote to begin a movie, but frankly I'm not sure it really fits the film insofar as most people are interpreting it. (It's meaning is so elusive that Armond White has separately praised and panned it within a span of a few weeks.) The Hurt Locker isn't a surrealist exercise; Bigelow shoots it like a documentary, and a pretty cool-headed one for most of its running-time. Your interpretation, on the other hand, is far more accurate: the idea that James is rendered calm and stable during combat. I can buy that more than the notion of some feverish addiction pulling James back in (though as an explanation for why he would leave his family for another go-round, it isn't entirely persuasive).

That's why, as you also pointed out, the final act where he runs around Baghdad to avenge a child's death rings false. Maybe if a connection had been more tightly drawn between James and his newborn son, and between James and the Iraqi kid, I'd buy it. As it stands, it feels unconvincing, unprepared for.

The extended shoot-out in the desert is masterful. As I mentioned in my review, it's virtually the only time the camera is still. I'm sick to death of shaky cameras in movies and got tired of watching this one.

Lastly, Ralph Fiennes's cameo is terrific. At first I wondered why he would agree to do it, until I remembered he'd starred in Bigelow's Strange Days. Enjoyed the experience, apparently.

Richard Bellamy said...

This is a fine analysis of the character of Sergeant James.

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. This says it for me in a nutshell - and you're a little better here at explaining what the film is missing than I am in my post.

Well done!

Richard Bellamy said...

I also want to jump in here with one other comment here I forgot to mention - and Craig jogged my memory. Your paragraph dissecting the desert shoot-out is superb.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

Craig: Full disclosure: it took a lot of reflecting for me to arrive at the realization that James isn't a thrill-seeker. That's how ingrained the adrenaline junkie character has become. Plus, those vigilante episodes at the end suggest that he's in need of a hit. But after thinking about it more, and then going to see the film a second time this weekend, I realized that the latter episodes stray from the norm. Throughout the film we see evidence that James struggles with the outside world -- when he calls home to the mother of his child, he can't even think of what to say. So war for him is Prozac. It's still a chemical fix. And thus his return to war at the end is still the result of addiction (combat, he comes out and tells us, is the one thing he loves). But James is not the reincarnation of Bodhi from Bigelow's Point Break. That much should be made clear.

On the shaky cam: Honestly, I hardly noticed it after the opening scene. On both viewings. I guess that means I'm becoming desensitized to it. I found the bobbling camera far more disorienting in Mann's Public Enemies, in large part because the camera shakes just to track Dillinger walking through the kitchen. (Why?) Anyway, the point here isn't to disagree with the overall idea that a fixed camera is usually better. But upon two viewings I always felt Bigelow had the camera in the right place. Just as important, I always knew where that place was. That's good enough for me.

Hokahey: Now I get to dive into your review in full! Looking forward to it. Thanks for the compliments. The shootout held up just as well the second time around. It's right up there with any battle depiction I've ever seen, actually. Alas, the parts that made me feel distanced the first time (the two gung-ho episodes) were even less compelling the second time around.

Daniel said...

Great review, and I can't add much here that I haven't said in my own review or in the comments following Hokahey's.

I guess I end up squarely in the middle of the two of you. Like you I appreciated that intensity of the war setting, but like Hokahey I found parts of the narrative (and the same flaws that you mention in the second half) somewhat significantly weakening to the overall structure. There's quite a lot to appreciate (and I like your note on the immediacy of the cameo performances), but at the end of the day I think THL is more of an exercise in suspense than anything else - or more substantive. It's a very successful "this is just how it is" portrayal, but then, like United 93 (which I considered the best of '06), you're still left with a lot of questions about why this situation developed and how we will deal with its aftereffects. To that extent THL is very thought-provoking, but you have to do a fair amount of interpretation (as we have) to squeeze the meaning out of it.

Fox said...

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....

I think James' intentions are also delicately addressed when he indirectly tells his wife he's going back to Iraq. Yes, there is addiction in his eyes there, but there is also a need to help. Perhaps it's because James thinks he's the best and that the EOD team needs him, but he's also honorable in his decision.

You also bring up a good point about the third part of the film where James goes on his vengeance missions. I hadn't thought about it until now - maybe because, as you said, Renner can convincingly distracts you from a down spot - but I think that's a fair criticism of James' character and the way Bigelow ultimately fleshed him out.

Tony Dayoub said...

"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."

I haven't yet heard this explanation for Renner's character. It's pretty accurate, and justifies some of his more elusive behavior in the film, such as why he won't speak to the Iraqi boy later in the movie, or why he feels so lost when he returns stateside.

Not an addiction to war exactly, as much as it an addiction to the clarity war provides for him.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, guys.

Fox: Perhaps it's because James thinks he's the best and that the EOD team needs him, but he's also honorable in his decision.

That could be true. But remember also in the scene with his son that James comes right out and says that he only really loves one thing. Is honor built into that? Maybe. That he knows he's the best at his job? Certainly. I think that's part of the reason he feels so at home in the chaos of combat. He belongs there. He doesn't feel like a domestic husband and father. He feels like a soldier.

Tony: Thanks. Without wanting to imply that I've got this film all figured out and everyone else doesn't, I think many have jumped to the thrill-seeker ID for James because it's such a genre cliche and (this is key) because James' behavior at the end suggests he could be an adrenaline addict. (Eldridge accuses him of as much at the helicopter.)

But I stand by the idea that those latter episodes are breaks from James' norm (which is I think why they ring untrue, at least for me). Instead I think of the scene where James goes to call home and can't even figure out how to say anything to the mother of his child. And I think of the fact that he can't even define their relationship (which means he hasn't asked). Life is messy. There are so many angles, so much to manage and interpret. In combat, everything for James is straightforward: survive or be killed.

grendelmcp said...

Jason - thank you for your insightful analysis of this film. Like you, I was left feeling a bit numb following the film, and reading your post had a grounding effect on my view of it.
I do have a differing opinion on James' two incidents of vigilantism, however. Please bear with me as I try to loft this out there, and I'll apologize in advance if I ramble a bit.
"War is a drug", says the spoon-fed preamble to the film. Like you, I agree that this is an overly simplistic view on the face of it, and further agree that the nature of such intoxication would differ from soldier to soldier. In James' case it does seem certain that it has a calming effect. It's as if James finds catharsis in the face of war's utter chaos.
Any soldier (and further, any human) finds his or her own coping mechanisms for the constant upheaval that life throws at us. In the context of addiction, it may be seen in the housewife addicted to painkillers, or the businessman addicted to cocaine. The housewife finds an ease to her life's upheaval, the businessman finds focus and drive to deal with the pace of his.
So the question in regards to James is, "What is it the chaos that drives him to seek his fix?" I would suggest that the chaos here is complexities of modern life. In your words: "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." This is James’s chaos, with its myriad of complex simple decisions that intricately make the framework and ultimate meaning of his (or anyone's) life. Faced with the daunting task of carving meaning out of such chaos, James instead chooses war.
War provides him with simplicity, and surely this is his fix. Out of a sea of inconsequential mundane decisions, war grants him a binary framework with which to live in. Defuse, or detonate. Live, or die. In this regard, "war as a drug" holds water for me. So - with this in mind, here's what I think of James' 2 acts of vigilantism:
During the final 38 days of his EOD team's rotation, he sees his team members struggling with the meaning of their task, and this on some subconscious level drives James to do the question his own. When he seeks out Beckham's killer, and later directs his team to seek out bombers in the night, I believe he is exploring the possibilities of coping with war in a less binary context. In his heart, James understands that life is not as simple as he endeavors to live it, but through these two actions finds that he simply cannot deal with the true complexity of life. His search for Beckham's killer results in hints of espionage he cannot fathom. Taking his team into the dark alleyways of Baghdad yield him further chaos. Ultimately, striving for this more complex and realistic view of life proves to be too much for him, and he returns to his coping mechanism / addiction by returning to Iraq for another rotation. It seems certain to me that he has fully returned to his simplistic coping mechanisms at the end of the film. This is the arc that the film tries to describe, and I feel that Kathryn Bigelow has done a superb job of telling it.

Thanks gain for your great review, Jason.

grendelmcp said...

Oh, seperatly - it might be worthy of note here that another great war film describes a similar character. Bridge Over the River Kwai shows us Alec Guinness' "Col. Nicholson", who endeavors to counter war's complexity with a kind of binary, moral absolutism. His addiction to this brand of coping mechanism ultimately proves to be his undoing.

Seven Oscars for that flick. Who knows? Maybe this bodes well for Kathryn Bigelow.

Jason Bellamy said...

Geoffrey: Good comments. I hadn't thought about the comparison to Kwai, but that's quite true, actually.

As for this portion of your analysis ...

During the final 38 days of his EOD team's rotation, he sees his team members struggling with the meaning of their task, and this on some subconscious level drives James to do the question his own.

I think I agree with you on the end result, but not on what drives him there. I think Beckham's "death" is the thing that sparks it. James lives his life as if he's invincible, as if he can't be touched. When he tears that car apart, for example, he doesn't hesitate. He's driven by his instincts and he trusts them because his instincts have kept him alive to that point. Why doubt them?

I don't see him as affected by what happens to the other two guys on his team. Instead, the Beckham body bomb forces him to face -- quite literally -- the human toll of war. He can no longer think of it as only an exercise or a puzzle or a game. And, given his binary nature, as you say, I think he snaps. And then eventually, yes, he returns to his default mode.

All of that said, though Beckham's death provides an "excuse," if you will, for James' behavior, it still rings false to me. And that traces back to the director, the screen writer or Renner (perhaps Renner is too successful at establishing James' binary nature?). Within the plot, yes, it can be explained. It just doesn't feel true to the character. At least not to me.

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughtful comments.

HAJ FROM BK said...

yo... this is on point... def gave me a better understanding of the characters and the entire film. good looks on that prozac and LSD metaphor about drugs too; it really distinguishes the calm that james is addicted to rather than the adrenaline fix. great review boss.

Kriti said...

What about Sanford?

Kriti said...

What about Sanford?

Sue said...

Thanks for this very insightful analysis. I saw "The Hurt Locker" when it originally came out on DVD last year and on the whole it left me rather cold. I think that the "out of character" vigilantism discussed here was just too much for me to consider this a great movie and I really couldn't identify emotionally with James on any level.

What drove me here today is that I have to watch "The Hurt Locker" again tonight during a film class. Dreading it, I searched the Internet hoping to find a good analysis. One that would give me something to watch for and help me to better appreciate the movie. Yours is the best I've found so far. Thanks!