Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel
Vitriolic, vehement, and undeniably exhilarating, The Hurt Locker may turn out to be the least talked about but most well-fashioned and provocatively sculpted major studio release of the summer season. It’s bracingly directed—a popular movie driven by a truly cohesive directorial vision—and it delivers its framework of action with a particularly fine-tuned frisson, rock and rolling with balls and intelligence, shooting out the lights with an unsettling but mesmerizing friction. It also, after some cult success and a relatively steady career, finally announces filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow as directorial force to be reckoned with.
Ostensibly another in a long line of recent Iraq war movies, The Hurt Locker focuses on a unique three-man U.S. Army bomb squad, the not-so-lucky guys whose day job it is to defuse and dispose of IEDs, which typically account for 50 percent of the causalities in Iraq. The make-up of the team is just this side of predictable, with the nervous youth and designated sniper Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the tough and wary intelligence officer Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and their newly arrived bull goose loony Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), whose say he has (so far) disarmed 878 of the suckers. The former two are in the final 38 days of their rotation and outside of desiring no more sand in their teeth alongside days and nights of playing duck and cover, they clearly want no part of the latter, the newest team member who seems part soldier/part ninja and keeps re-upping his hitch.
What distinguishes The Hurt Locker from checking in as a moral-parading exploration of our current Middle Eastern engagement, or simply another pop and crackle action ride covered up in a war movie uniform, is Bigelow’s acutely unique overview and her more-than-scrupulous technique. The movie really isn’t about Iraq, nor is it an excuse to trot out a newfangled formula for contempo action; it delves into the grace (and devastation) of heroism in war, and it rolls out like a kinetic art piece replete with spatial distancing and a visceral flair. Essentially divided in a half dozen missions, each choreographed with sinuous hand-held camerawork and accented with off-balance tilts, full speed zooms, and nervous editing that doesn’t echo the MTV-styled cutting that usually substitutes for filmmaking acumen within Hollywood product, Bigelow’s movie arches into a rigorous self-propellant, with style flash pointing into substance. Stripped bare, the movie contains no story arc, no character development, and no big or resounding (aka meaningful) finale. It’s a potent dip into the adrenaline of recklessness and disorientation of cinematic action, and not in the usual manner which is usually merely meant to artificially simulate so-called real life action.
Bigelow, an ex-artist, has long carved out two distinct filmic reps: As a woman director who inexplicably makes macho movies, and as a filmmaker who delivers atypical action movies, i.e. ones that somehow manage to contain both smarts and catchy visual pay-offs, films in the style of populist masters like Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, The Big Red One) or Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix, Kiss Me Deadly), movies that don’t trip up in their own stylization but deliver with the accretion of detail and the dynamism of style and movement, wholly chalking up their respective action markings by crafting time and space in an effective cinematic manner. Near Dark (1987) was a punk rock vampire trip, high on adrenaline and cough syrup funny. Blue Steel (1989) was an over-the-top Dirty Harry riff, with Jamie Lee Curtis, her legs, and her gun virtually imploding through the pulpy screen. Point Blank (1991) is a Zen-nihilist-heist-undercover-surfer offering, the kind of movie which it’s ever growing aficionados watch again and again as it flickers across the cable menu. Even the slightly off kilter Strange Days (1995) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and the seemingly out-of-character The Weight of Water (2000) easily boast a number of merits, signifying the actual presence of a legit authorial voice.
The Hurt Locker wallows in intensity, while never inching an iota towards the standard videogame cinema. Its three principles (especially the bay-faced Renner) turn in blunt and vividly etched turns, echoed by the passing-through up-the-macho-ante appearances of David Morse, Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce. A war movie that avoids politics, the film also functions as a highly-drawn examination of a rather throwback notion, that of a job (and that truly mans any job) well done. Combustible, unpredictable, and dazzling, over brimming with a jangly immediacy, it deserves to be sought out by those filmgoers who can actually take their popcorn served straight up, no chaser.