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Monday, April 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

8. The Hurt Locker

For quite a few years, Kathryn Bigelow was known as a director who made movies that were well-liked by critics but didn't make any money. The reviews weren't even that good for her last two movies. If she had stayed on that path, we probably wouldn't be talking about her now. Instead, Bigelow collected enough funds to independently produce her next film. “The Hurt Locker,” a small movie that was seen by very few in its initial theatrical release, would receive universally positive reviews. It would ride a wave of hype all the way to the Oscars, where it won Best Picture. Perhaps even more impressive, Kathryn Bigelow would win the Academy Award for Best Director, making her the first and thus far only woman to ever grab that honor. It was a comeback film in the truest sense.

In the depths of the Iraq War, the leader of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team is killed by an improvised bomb. Sergeant Will James is brought in as the replacement. James likes to diffuse the bombs by hand, often foregoing protective gear. He's good at it too, which is the only thing that let's him get away with this self-endangering behavior. As his adrenaline addiction pushes him to perform more dangerous acts, his team wonder about his sanity. James wonders about it too, as the days pile up in Iraq, people around him die, and his life is on the line every hour.

Over her long career, Kathryn Bigelow has often employed an on-the-ground style of action direction. In “Point Break,” handheld camera rigs allowed the filmmaker to get right into the tight corridors and winding paths her actors ran through. The director pushes this style as far as it'll go in “The Hurt Locker.” From the opening minutes, the film is characterized by a shaky, point-of-view perspective. The camera often swings wildly around the dusty streets of Baghdad, mirroring the frantic lives of the soldiers who are always on the lookout for danger. Bigelow stays just on the right side of incoherent, lending the movie a frenzied tone.

“The Hurt Locker” was written by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent two weeks in Iraq with a bomb disposal team. Subsequently, the film is based off the experiences he had while embedded in the war. Fitting this fact-based origin, “The Hurt Locker” is a loosely plotted movie. The script is largely episodic, detailing a number of different bombing and encounters James has to get out of. The setting, characters, and themes tie the film together into a cohesive narrative. This captures a more true-to-life approach. The real world doesn't have a three act structure. Some days, things just happen. This helps further establish the gritty, realistic approach the entire movie is built upon.

“The Hurt Locker” opens with a quote from Chris Hedges, describing how the rush of war can become a drug. That same phrase would become the movie's tagline. Sergeant James is a self-admitted adrenaline junkie. He often directly disobeys orders so he can get up-close and personal with the bombs he disables. The character himself wonders about the motivation behind his actions. He doesn't seem to be suicidal, as he takes measures to protect himself throughout the film. He talks about his ex-wife and infant son in a way that suggests he hopes to see them again. He's largely puzzled by his own behavior. Eventually, “The Hurt Locker' comes around to this point: James has developed an addiction to danger as a survival tactics. The other soldiers are increasingly shaken by their experience. Because he longs to see action again, it pushes him forward.

Just as an act of film making, “The Hurt Locker” is an impressive achievement. The bomb diffusing sequences are a master class in suspense. The scenes are deliberately paced, slowly pushing up the intensity. James' first bomb sequence has him uncovering a series of wires under the dirt, realizing the bomb is far more complex than he initially assumed. The second bomb sequence escalates similarly, James uncovering an entire trunk full of bombs. Each bomb dismantling sequence tops the previous one in terms of suspense. The film's proper climax involves an especially convoluted bomb, involving a timer and elaborate locks. This scene really makes the audience sweat, James' abilities pushed to the edge.

All of Kathryn Bigelow's films are united by their treatment of violence. Even in her pulpiest, campiest films, there's a weight and seriousness to the violence. This is especially true in “The Hurt Locker,” a movie even more grounded than her previous output. The violence in “The Hurt Locker” comes suddenly. A newly introduced character, played by a name actor, is killed only minutes after first appearing. A bullet suddenly, quickly rips into his body. He falls to the ground, dead. The explosions are massive, tossing debris high into the air. Bigelow focuses on the noise, the rippling ground, the flying shrapnel. It's not just a cool boom. It's a startling event. We see the bloody, grisly remains of bodies, blown to bits by blasts. “The Hurt Locker” is determined to impose the weight of its violence on the viewer.

The film captures another, more overlooked aspect of combat. Sometimes, its sort of mundane. When not diffusing bombs, James and his team members have to find ways to unwind. Sometimes they listen to death metal or play video games. Other times, they homoerotically wrestle and punch each other. Yet it's not just the downtime the film portrays. A shoot-out with a sniper is stretched out as long as possible. It's a waiting game, both men watching for the other to make a mistake. Sweat drips in their eyes. One soldier has trouble reloading his gun. It's nerve wrecking not because what's happening but because of what's not happening. Details like that further ground “The Hurt Locker.”

Aside from his team members, James only bounds with one other person while in Iraq. A spunky boy, probably in his early teens, attempts to sell him bootleg DVDs. Later, James messes around with the kid, disparaging the quality of the disc he was sold. He finds out the boy likes soccer and that he calls himself Beckham. Their scenes together are cute, easily the film's most light-hearted moments. This all comes crashing to a halt, when he discovers the dead body of a boy he believes to be Beckham. This is when the consequences of his actions begin to weigh on James' mind and when “The Hurt Locker's” story solidifies into something more concrete. In an odd decision, we later discover that Beckham is alive. This draws further attention to the irresponsibility of James' actions but is an odd choice, from a narrative perspective. The script never clarifies why James made this mistake.

By 2008, Jeremy Renner had been kicking around Hollywood for about a decade. He had appeared in a few major films, such as “S.W.A.T.” or “28 Weeks Later,” and garnered decent reviews for indie fair, like “Dahmer” or “Neo Ned.” After appearing in this film, Renner would be launched onto the A-list, soon enough showing up in Marvel movies. Jeremy Renner's performance in “The Hurt Locker” is stoic. He plays Will James as a man who keeps his feelings close to his chest. Even during the heat combat, he doesn't reveal too much. Instead, Renner hints at the turmoil and conflict the character feels inside. When those emotions pile up, he explodes in cathartic rage.

As a small production, “The Hurt Locker” doesn't have too many other big names in its cast. At least one other actor would find himself in Marvel superhero movies later on. Anthony Mackie, our future Falcon, plays Sergeant Sanborn. Mackie is more outwardly emotional than Renner. He gets more agitated more quickly. A sobering moment occurs late in the film, where Mackie expresses a desire to survive, to start a family. Also among the cast is Ralph Finnes, in his second  collaboration with Bigelow. Finnes appears briefly but makes an impression as a foul mouthed fellow soldier. Guy Pierce, rather brilliantly, appears in the opening scene as a fake-out protagonist. A name actor like that, you'd expect him to be the main character. He, uh, isn't.

“The Hurt Locker” is already a little too long, running eleven minutes over two hours. Some scenes probably could've been trimmed but that extended run time does allow for an interesting epilogue. We follow Will James as he returns home. He reunites with his ex-wife, who still lives in the same house. He plays with his infant son, having a cryptic one-sided dialogue with him. The film concludes with James returning to the Middle East, once again diffusing improvised explosives. It's an interesting ending that maintains the ambiguity of Renner's character. He really does love the rush more than anything and the consequences of that attitude will continue to haunt him.

I'm not sure “The Hurt Locker” deserved the absolute praise it received, that took it all the way to the Best Picture prize. It's a very good film, well directed and acted. However, the pacing is a little off. The script makes some odd decisions. Bigelow's handheld aesthetic is slightly disappointing, considering how smooth her other films looked. Still, that it would emerge as one of the most popular films about the War in Iraq speaks to its quality. It was also the critical and financial hit Bigelow needed to relaunch her career. She had been toiling on lackluster projects for too long. After winning that Oscar, A-list material will remain within her grasp. So that makes “The Hurt Locker” okay in my book. [Grade: B]

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