Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009): A Dissent

So, there's this movie The Hurt Locker that everyone seems to be enjoying. I mean, really enjoying. I don't get it. From my admittedly myopic perspective, Kathryin Bigelow's latest is a thuddingly conventional war movie with a tiresome visual scheme. The cliches start early on, with Bigelow helpfully stating the theme in the epigraph, "...war is a drug." The rest of the film pummels this threadbare idea into the ground.

The characters are unelaborated stock types, allowed one characteristic each. The lead is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a reckless Southerner who runs on adrenaline (he's a cowboy!). And that's it. He ignores protocol, punches his underlings, and sneaks off base on a personal whim. He's never disciplined, even when he shuts off his radio and leaves his team exposed to snipers. Or there's the time he leads his Explosives Ordnance Team on a mission into town without orders, and allows his team member Specialist Eldridge to get kidnapped. Whoops! He's never disciplined or even questioned for his idiotic actions. Needless to say, he would have been demoted many times over in the real Army, as Captain Robert Busseau told the Army News Service.

Renner is essentially playing Patrick Swayze's role in the infinitely superior Point Break, self-destructively looking for the next high. But what made sense in the overheated action operatics of Point Break looks even more ridiculous in a sober war film (the low point is when Eldridge yells, "you're an adernaline junkie!"to James. You know, in case we didn't get it yet). Within the limits of the character, though, Renner excels, imbuing James with a buzzing intensity that almost lifts him out of cliche. But not quite.

Anthony Mackie plays James' no-nonsense Sergeant JT Sanborn. He's the gritty veteran who twists his face into a scowl a lot at the antics of his superior. Think James Whitmore in Battleground, except with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the callow, cowardly youth, and nothing more. He consults an unbelievably caricatured combat trauma counselor for his stress. The Ivy League counselor with his obsequious manner hasn't seen combat, you see, and will thus be blown up. Tom Ricks, who has written the definitive history of the Iraq War thus far, also takes exception to this, along with numerous other inaccuracies. Both Ricks and the soldiers interviewed by the Army News Service said they enjoyed it as entertainment, but that it in no way reflects the reality of the war.

Unfortunately, I can't even hand The Hurt Locker that backhanded compliment. For its style is just as bland as its characters. Opting for multiple handheld cameras for the kind of shorthand intimacy so de rigeur these days, Bigelow goes for maximum coverage, which she cuisinarts in the editing process. The DP Barry Ackryod told American Cinematographer that "we had up to four cameras running on a single scene..." This is the same style popularized by Paul Greengrass, who Ackroyd was the DP for on United 93 and the upcoming Green Zone. So it's in the Greengrass style that intensifies "intensified continuity", but with more combat photography zooms, a more measured pace, and a few gratuitous bits of slow motion (the shells dropping at the end of the sniper sequence was especially unnecessary). It's a visual mess for the sake of "realism", but as Sam Fuller once said (I'm paraphasing), the only way to get realism in a war movie is to have somebody shoot a gun over the audience's head. So what are we left with? A factually inaccurate war movie, riddled with cliches, and shot in a tired visual style. Bring on the Oscars!

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Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

I guess that puts me in the slightly unexpected position of dissenting on the dissent. I can't help but agree with your assertions that this film provides a very skewed picture of military reality (no question) and that it does delve into the realm of cliche - particularly noxious in Bigelow's needless inclusions of slow-motion - but I for one still found the film, largely riding on the back of Jeremy Renner's excellent performance, never less than engaging. As a Katherine Bigelow film, it works; as a lucid picture of the Iraqi War, no, but since when can Hollywood be trusted to get complicated global-political issues right? I would say it can't, and that a visceral, meta-masculine auteur film is as close as it might come. For me, I think my position reflects my desire to be consistent - for the very few war films I actually like, my criteria has next to nothing to do with accuracy or depth of thinking - and admitting that I really did enjoy The Hurt Locker.

P.S. Totally unrelated, but I posted my favorite Eastwood films over at Ten Best Films and wouldn't mind hearing your opinion.

4:24 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

You sonofabitch. Renner's performance is truly excellent, but the cliches of plot and style overwhelmed it for me.

Thinking of Eastwoodiana as I type.

12:18 PM  

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