Friday, July 10, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Owen Eldrigde
Written by Mark Boal

The Hurt Locker is one of the most intense movie watching experiences I have ever had. If it weren't such a cliche' I would use a metaphor about explosives to describe this film about a United States bomb squad working in Iraq during the current conflict. Director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates extraordinary film making ability as she adds more and more tension to this film while firmly grounding it in reality.  She slowly increases the tension through out certain scenes which only serves to build an almost unbearable amount of tension. She takes her time and doesn't rely on action movie cliches. The situations in which the characters find themselves become more intense and more emotionally complicated as they go on.  

This film might have all the elements of an action film, and by all rights it is an action film, but it relies on character rather than spectacle to tell the story. The main character Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is an expert bomb technician and he is addicted to it. He actually craves  it and not because he is suicidal or anything like that, it's all that he knows.  He flat out disrespects death. He refuses to even acknowledge that it is a part of the equation of what he does. He knows it's a possibility but he just doesn't deal with it at all. He is a very compassionate character and shows great deal of respect and adoration to his fellow soldiers and some of the Iraqis, but none to death. Everything he does is to disrespect death right down to the fact that he is a chain smoker.

Jeremy Renner is fantastic in this role. He brings such personality and warmth to this disturbed individual. He is introduce while sitting in a dark room, listening to  heavy metal, and smoking a cigarette and from that moment on I knew the character. All it took was that one scene to bring him to life. It would have been easy for Renner to play this character as a closed off insensitive action hero but he makes him real. 

His fellow actors are just as great. Anthony Mackie plays Sergeant JT Sanborn and he is the voice of reason in the squad. He is just trying to keep James and fellow soldier Specialist Owen Eldrigde, played by Brian Geraghty, alive. Eldridge is a younger version of James. He is new to war and at the open of the film has his first exposure to the dark side of it. It shakes him to the core and the through out the film you wonder is he going to end up like Sanborn, a sane and rational person, or like James. 

Director Bigelow sets her film in reality. All the situations seem possible because of everything that she puts into it. As mentioned the characters are real and fully fleshed out. She wisely chooses to use handheld cameras but is able to do it in such a way that it feels natural. Everything she does is to make the audience feel like they are embedded with this squad. Which is appropriate given the fact that screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded with an actual bomb squad in Iraq to research this story.

One detail of this film that I consider to be a master stroke is that Bigelow uses four cameo appearance to great effect. Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pierce, Evangeline Lily, and David Morse all appear in this film. Usually when a recognizable face appears in a film as an audience member you more or less assume that they will be okay. Bigelow understands the audience will feel this way and as result they are not all safe. I'm not going to say what happens to whom but I will say that some make it and some aren't as lucky. This is slightly jarring for the audience and played  to great effect, like everything else in this film. 

In many ways this is the polar opposite of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Where Michael Bay uses explosions  to amuse, Bigelow uses them to tell her story. Where the characters in Bay's film are flat and their personalities are nearly non existent, the characters in this story are real. When Bay uses handheld cameras it is chaotic and frustrating. When Bigelow uses handheld cameras it is clear and engaging. 

In a summer in which most of the films that have been released are adequate at best and mundane at worse, The Hurt Locker stands out as a fantastic film. I would be surprised if this film is not on my top ten list come the end of the year.  

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