Friday, June 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

You drive away from the theater after this film and you recognize a feeling you haven't had since you were a kid at the movies: the outside world seems strange, unreal, and/or you are in an altered state. Like Staff Sgt. William James (the symbolic significance of the name--the American who wrote about physiology, psychology, and philosophy, all of which this film addresses--does not seem accidental), you come back into a world that just doesn't seem real. And yes, one imagines that that is what it is like for someone coming back from war. Or any trauma, for that matter.

Staff Sgt. James is overwhelmed by the choices in a cereal aisle in the mega grocery mart at home in the end; he appears alone and lost (and it doesn't seem an accident of casting that the mother of his child is played by Evangeline Lilly of the TV series "Lost"). Having returned from war, James finds his home alien, quotidian. In the field, every moment is one in high gear. Even off duty the sergeants stage a fight; every moment is full of (or frought with) a passionate intensity in which mind, body, and soul become one; in which thoughts, emotions, and actions are all operating at the same heightened synchronous pitch.

And Kathryn Bigelow's film and her directing style are the objective correlatives of this theme: the film is relentless, one in which form is function, in which the action never stops, though I would argue that it is not an action film. Rather, it is a visceral character study. Nor is it a film about the war in Iraq, but rather, any war, or any experience that takes us out of the ordinary into the extraordinary. I'm reminded of Marlowe's and Kurtz's experiences in Heart of Darkness (or Apocalyse Now); watching this movie, I was also reminded of Coming Home and The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire. Bigelow's documentary style, the revelation of character and personality through behavior, sound design as opposed to music keyed to cue us how and when to feel (because we can't stop feeling here, just as Bravo company can't stop the enemy from planting another bomb for them to defuse)--everything is synchronous in this film.

A side note: the traditional leading men heroes here--actors Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes--two of the three die within minutes of their introductions. That's not accidental casting, either. Bigelow is making not so fine a point that this is not a story about extraordinary personalities; it is about how the event shapes and creates those personalities, how action defines and delineates character.

Another side note: James and his predecesssor (played by Guy Pearce) resemble astronauts in their defusing suits and helmets; James going back for another rotation of duty at the end is like a Neil Armstrong heading back to the moon for keeps. The trio brings to mind such disparate references as Apollo 13 and Buckaroo Banzai. But there are no heroes or jokes in this film.

Bigelow's work here as a director is a thing of beauty. She makes her much younger male action directors look like they're playing with toys. Well, they are. Leave the Transformers to the boys. This a movie for grown-ups.

I used to be acquainted with Bigelow in the early 80s (we are contemporaries, born in the same year), and I was always a huge fan and promoter of her writing and directing. So there's a part of me that's validated and thrilled by her accomplishment here. I'm sure this will be one of the ten films nominated for an Oscar this year, and I predict that Bigelow will be nominated for Best Director, and Jeremy Renner, who plays William James, for Best Actor.

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1 comment:

  1. Brava! Ultimately, I see Hurt Locker as a samurai film. There's not much character arc for the lead in the traditional sense that we understand character arcs. There is movement but it's very subtle. We know basically nothing about this man (save for the supermarket scene at the end) and we don't have to. The movie isn't a story about fighting inner psychic demons but about fighting the outer demon, the "thing", in this case, a bomb. I like that she chose this approach. She could have told the story in a more traditional sense but it would have cheapened it. I am so happy she was nominated. I think she's a lock to win best director. Hoping that the smurfs don't win best film but fear they might.