Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Hurt Locker

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

With a film as culturally significant as Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker it can be difficult to identify a critical starting point, especially at this late hour. I begin this way because after its sweep of the Oscars, its feted run at the major international film festivals and the editorial press it has received from nearly every film magazine in print not to mention the publicity it has accrued through American political journals, it is difficult to imagine a time when The Hurt Locker did not exist on such a broad plane. Had I written this review while the film was still in theaters or even upon my first viewing several months ago this introduction would have never crossed my mind, never mind this page. Nevertheless, here we are. As a budding critic I feel the push to add my personal perceptions to the insurmountable melting pot of analysis that surrounds the film. However, as a young cinephile for whom great films often take on an untouchable, transcendent quality I struggle with reconciling my intrinsic and often contradictory desire to be both an objective spectator and enthralled participant. Fortunately, I found a cinematic outlet for this internal conflict in the landscape of struggle that defines The Hurt Locker.

Though The Hurt Locker is indisputably greater than the sum of its parts, its ten minute opening set piece nevertheless sets the hyper-kinetic and fragmented tone of the narrative. Captured under the tyranny of the relentless sun, the film instantly makes psychic connections to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Albert Camus' The Stranger, works driven by that celestial malevolence whose unforgiving intensity can shatter the soul of man. This scene, as with all other major set pieces in the film, is intensely calculated to produce a specific effect: the tension-release of drug addiction. The impatient POV shooting combined with the extra-diegetic sound of jets screaming overhead and confrontational babble readily assert the intensity of the fear we immediately recognize in ourselves and the relief we feel when the bomb finally does explode. This technique invariably lays the framework for painful self-actualization in the viewer and the infinitely more complex sense of guilt that will arise when we realize our self-indulgent proclivity for immediate resolution over long term suspense. Barry Ackroyd's masterful cinéma vérité camerawork, a distant relative of Emmanuel Lubezki's more phantasmal work with Alfonso Cuaron, immediately interpolates the viewer into the position of voyeur. This placement puts us alongside the crowd of Iraqi civilians who watch casually from their balconies as the film's bomb squad protagonists go to work. The conclusion of this powerful opener casts an ominous influence on the way the bomb diffusers view these detached witnesses. Not only that, their paranoid gaze implicates our own displaced pleasure at watching personal and political drama unfold.

These themes (voyeurism and addiction), for which Ackroyd's jittery camera and Sergeant William James' (the brilliant Jeremy Renner) cigarette are the respective symbols, maintain a ripeness of meaning throughout the film. The film's self-declared agenda, to elucidate the “war as drug” metaphor, is thankfully proved in context rather than in exposition. Not unlike Apocalypse Now!'s hallucinatory realization of the Vietnam War as a personal battle of remote morality versus conditioned madness, The Hurt Locker supposes that a radical shift must take place within any man at war in order for him to either thrive in his environment or flee the face of horror. At first, Sergeant James seems an archetype, a Pragmatic Nihilist, but spoils this simplicity in his questionable attachment to (and ultimate obsession with) the Iraqi boy he befriends. My personal favorite reading of James' character is the modern Leviathan: a composite of America's contradictory desires and misplaced trust, a comparison that takes on a level of superficial believability whenever James' dons his Man-God bombsuit. He is at once Pontius Pilate washing his hands (or body) of the blood of an innocent and Jesus Christ the self-sacrificing savior of mankind. In the end, of course, Bigelow does all these reductive types one better by proving that James' is just a man with one love: life in the crosshairs of death.

James' presence is the catalyst for the painful catharsis' of his fellow team members. Sergeant J.T. Sanbourne (Anthony Mackie), the dogmatically conservative member of the group, discovers in himself an acute jealousy at being outperformed by the new maverick. After a near death experience in the film's final set piece, Sanbourne drops his facade of machismo and flaunts an unwavering affection for both James and the world he has left behind. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is troubled from the start, hoisting on himself the blame for the death of his former team leader. A reappearing Army therapist adds an introspective and revealing quality to Eldridge's suffering, while simultaneously offering him the emotional support soldiers often deny themselves in the face of wishing to appear unbreakable. It is of course a purposeful irony that said therapist's untimely death in the field would be the impetus for Eldridge's immediately-repressed nervous breakdown. While Sanbourne initially outwardly despises James and then comes to love him, Eldridge goes from expected ambivalence to indignant hatred after a frenzied and ill-conceived mission results in an injury which hospitalizes him.

With an appropriate if melodramatic epilogue leading into the film's much needed metaphysical 'release', The Hurt Locker concludes by being nothing short of outstanding. A feverish travelogue through the dark night of the soul, the film bridges a thirty year gap with the greatest of hyper-realist war films: Apocalypse Now! While that film was a hazily beautiful piece of deconstructionist filmmaking and despite the great number of obvious differences, The Hurt Locker is truly its cinematic complement. Here the drug of choice is not a psychedelic which distorts reality and detaches the participants from the grotesque realities of war, but a narcotic which brings the immediacy and visceral intensity of combat to an almost intolerable closeness. The Hurt Locker is, in short, the most complete and intense staring contest any lover of cinema could ever hope for. You blink, you die. So, how did you do?

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