Oscarpalooza: The Hurt Locker

A few months ago, when The Hurt Locker was just a small, art-house movie with a limited release, and not an Oscar nominee, A.O. Scott, in his review for The New York Times, said, “If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car.” He did not mean to damn the film with small praise—he was only highlighting how strong the visceral elements of the movie are. A few weeks later, he wondered why the movie—which he called the best feature of the year—was not marketed as an action movie meant for a wide audience.

Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, only An Education has made less money than The Hurt Locker, whose $19 million worldwide gross is over $2.5 billion less than Avatar’s haul. And yet unlike films like An Education, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, and A Serious Man, which generally had to be sold on the prestige of its directors/cast or the emotional complexity of its story, I don’t see why The Hurt Locker could not have found a broader audience. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie is certainly one of the most taut, tightly-packed, suspenseful films of the year; it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t take long to make an impact on the audience.

The film opens with an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit led by Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) on-site near an abandoned package in the streets of Iraq. Thompson and his team of two—Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge—are remarkably casual about the whole thing, joking and laughing as they send a remote camera out to determine that the package is, in fact, an IED. And while Mark Boal’s script captures the camaraderie and business-like approach these soldiers have to their job, Bigelow’s camera brilliantly scans the details of every scene. Even as the film uses the handheld camera technique for most of the shots, Bigelow doesn’t allow that to make the film seem hectic or confusing at all. Quite the opposite, in fact: As the camera moves in and out of the scene, closing in on characters and then backing out for a wider scene, and then closing in on something new, the details of every scene gradually layer on one another until the tension builds to a breaking point.

These details, more than anything in the script or the characters, are the heart of the movie. A fly lands on a soldier’s eye. An Iraqi civilian wanders into the perimeter. A wire sticks out of the ground. Another Iraqi observes the soldiers and waves ominously. A wheel falls off a wagon. These small things become intensely magnified and significant. In that first scene, for example, the tone changes suddenly, when Eldridge observes an Iraqi with a cell phone. What had been a rather laid back affair, with Eldridge and Sanborn joking about opening their own Iraqi gardening business called “Sanborn and Son,” becomes a chaotic and frightening scene, as Eldridge and Sanborn rush over to determine if the cell phone is actually a detonator for the bomb their boss is currently trying to defuse.

While the action and suspense of The Hurt Locker are palpable in nearly every scene, I can understand why people have been reluctant to label it an “action movie.” For one, such a label seems to belittle the film. The film is not overtly, or even implicitly (aside from a few stray lines of dialogue), political, but it is remarkably illustrative about the War in Iraq. It might belie the importance of that topic to put it in the same genre as Transformers.

People also tend to think of action films as little more than violence porn—films where the “story” is really just an excuse to connect one violent sequence to another. In The Hurt Locker, however, the action flows necessarily from the situation, and every setpiece adds another dimension to the film’s depiction of the lives of its characters. This makes The Hurt Locker the best kind of action movie—one in which the action and suspense created are integral and necessary to the story being told.

The story and the characters themselves are not all that striking without the imagery Bigelow employs to bring them to life. The central character of the film is Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), who joins the EOD and replaces Thompson. James is reckless and cavalier and, of course, very good at his job. He doesn’t panic or get flustered in the field, and his lack of caution is a constant irritant for Eldridge and Sanborn. In truth, there is not much that separates James from the brash, cocky, fearless hero in practically every war movie. This is not to say that the character, or Renner’s portrayal of him, lacks nuance or depth*–just that it isn’t all that original.

*Renner’s portrayal of James has gotten the bulk of the attention—not to mention an Oscar nomination—given to the film’s acting performances. This is not to say that he doesn’t deserve it, since his role is so central to the film and reliant so much on body language and silence, but I thought the best performance of the film was Anthony Mackie’s as Sgt. Sanborn. As the voice of reason who has no patience for James’ bold and dangerous decisions, Mackie’s performance does a great job of balancing out the depiction of James as the courageous hero. Sanborn is tested and experienced too, if not as technically brilliant or cool under pressure as James, and he knows the SFC’s “bravery” is really recklessness, and is ultimately going to get someone killed.

Neither is the story itself original. James becomes fond of Beckham, a young Iraqi who sells DVDs on the streets. When he stumbles on the body of dead boy he believes to be Beckham, he sets off on his own to track down those who killed the boy. There are also stories involving Eldridge’s ability to deal with the realities of war and internal struggle within the unit—more typical war movie fare. None of these stories gets all that much screen time, and they mainly seem there to give a deeper portrait of the characters and the war.

Since these stories are not the engine of the movie and, as a result, their conventionality isn’t such a detriment. We are not watching, in other words, to see how any of these plots resolve themselves, but to see the world these characters inhabit. This world is mainly illustrated with every job the unit goes out on. Every time they try to defuse a bomb in the middle of a crowded street, we get a deeper sense of what this life is like. The best parts of The Hurt Locker are the parts with little or no dialogue at all, the parts in which Bigelow’s understated direction allows the details to speak for themselves, without ever really condescending to explain something or clarify things that don’t require explanation or clarification. It’s an exciting and visceral story, and Bigelow knows just how to tell it.

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