' Cinema Romantico: The Hurt Locker

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Hurt Locker

At one point during "The Hurt Locker" I almost left the theater for fear that I was honestly going to throw up. This is not to suggest "The Hurt Locker" is not a quality film, because it is, or to suggest my queasiness was a result of the herky jerky camerawork, of which there is plenty, but to tell you how relentless and intense this film truly is.

The movie's focus is squarely on an elite bomb diffusing team stationed in Iraq and it wastes little time dropping us right in the middle of of an extreme life and death situation as one of the men, draped in a gigantic specialized suit, strides off toward a particular bomb's "kill area", the ordeal calling to mind a modern-day astronaut bounding around in some strange, desolate, terrifying place.

This team is comprised of three men: Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and their new commanding officer - who takes charge for a reason I won't reveal - Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner, getting all sorts of deserved hoopla for his work). At the start the three characters may feel a bit familiar. Eldridge frets over what feels like inevitable death. Sanborn might be termed a By The Book sort of officer who balks at Sgt. James when on his first day with the team he heedlessly and needlessly wades into harm's way. Later, James will switch off his headset against Sanborn's advice and even remove his entire suit when facing a carload of bombs because he'd rather "die comfortable".

Yet director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal will slowly peel back other layers to this trio without ever letting the suspense suffer. They confront bomb after bomb, no two are ever the same, and at one point find themselves in a mentally and physically exhausting standoff with some enemy snipers in the middle of nowhere which is what nearly led to my fleeing of the theater. It is among the most grueling war movie passages I have ever witnessed. Many critics and filmmakers will tell you that even anti-war movies can be considered recruitment films and while there is definitely a percentage of the population that would view some of the more testosterone-fueled portions (Baghdad's version of Fight Club, for instance) in that manner I can only speak for myself and these moments of James and Sanborn in the dirt just trying to hang on re-confirmed for me what I already knew - I'd last about 4 seconds in Iraq.

"The Hurt Locker" never really takes the time to ask "why are we here?" and this is refreshing. Day to day survival is the main topic. Certainly the adage that "war is a drug" is also addressed in Sgt. James' endless bravura actions and in Sanborn and Eldridge's questioning of them but you sense a whole lot more lurking beneath this idea.

The need for detachment felt key, removing yourself from anything that even in the slightest way can affect your focus. We see this in an unlikely friendship that Sgt. James forms which ultimately leads to some highly questionable decisions down the road. And even though no one ever stops to ponder just what they are doing in Iraq the film still makes quite a profound statement in this regard.

Again and again Bigelow returns to shots of Sgt. James in that frightening suit, trudging through empty streets with rubble and upturned cars, random citizens watching these events leisurely from rooftops and balconies, one of them even videotaping for who knows what reason, a place that is unsettling and unknowable.

Late in the film when Sgt. James sends he and his two men hurtling into the darkness against everyone's better judgement for reasons he never makes specifically clear it transforms into one of those transcendent moments that becomes more than just what it's about. You feel helpless, wanting to scream, "What the hell are they doing?" It's a good question in more ways than one.

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