REVIEW: “The Hurt Locker” (****)

Posted by · 9:08 am · June 17th, 2009

The Hurt Locker(Edinburgh International Film Festival)

Put in the most glib possible terms, the longstanding industry perception of Kathryn Bigelow is that she’s something of an artistic tomboy: the girl who likes to play in the boys’ sandbox — and play roughly, at that. While true to a large extent, it’s a reputation that is rooted in the belief that genre filmmaking is principally a male preoccupation.

Never mind that a number of her films — from vampire tale “Near Dark” to female-fronted cop thriller “Blue Steel” (to say nothing of the curious anomaly that was the brooding Elizabeth Hurley drama “The Weight of Water”) — aren’t exactly testosterone-fests; the fact that she frequently foregrounds the physical ahead of the emotional is enough to qualify her as a male-centric storyteller in most viewers’ eyes.

So it’s somewhat surprising, upon closer inspection, to note that Bigelow has heretofore never made a film explicitly about masculinity. Yes, “Point Break” and her misfiring last feature, “K-19: The Widowmaker,” may have revolved exclusively around men, but the characters in these films were mere facilitators of action, not freestanding psychological subjects. For a woman who purportedly makes movies for men, Bigelow has never seemed particularly interested in the male experience.

All that has changed spectacularly with “The Hurt Locker,” a formally simple but startlingly layered, savage war film that, in localizing its conflict to the internal battles between three unmoored soldiers, marries her dazzling staging abilities with a newfound level of human interest and compassion.

At once high-octane actioner and subtle character study, technically precision-tooled and narratively loose, this unusual dichotomy between form and execution affords Bigelow more time than she’s ever allowed herself to spend with her characters, probing the crippling insecurities of men living in a heightened emotional limbo where a punch to the gut is as honest an expression of love as an embrace.

The result is easily the director’s most emotionally engaged (and engaging) film to date, as well as one of her most technically assertive and accomplished; it’s no exaggeration to label it her masterpiece. Meanwhile, it may sound like damning the film with faint praise to call it the most persuasive (yet simultaneously lacking in rhetoric) film to date concerning the U.S. involvement in Iraq, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to advocate that this immediately enter the canon of modern American war cinema as one of its most stimulating entries.

Ralph Fiennes in The Hurt LockerBigelow doesn’t shy away from the visceral thrill of battle – indeed, the intention of her hyped-up visuals and relentless sound design in certain sequences, most notably a brilliantly sustained and suspenseful gun battle in the desert, appears to be to give conflict the human disconnect and immediate gratification of a video game, thereby supporting the film’s blunt thesis that “war is a drug.” Not since David O. Russell’s undervalued “Three Kings” has an anti-war film made its point with quite such brazen ambiguity.

Some critics have complained that the narrowness of the film’s character focus, as well as its avoidance of political specificities within the context of the Iraq war, lessens its immediate impact, though I would argue that it broadens it; “The Hurt Locker” may lack the poetry of Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” but like that film, it emerges more as an impressionistic portrait of war as a continuous process, rather than a linear evocation of a particular time and place in history.

The circularity of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s narrative structure – which ultimately amounts to a strikingly disparate arrangement of nominally linked set pieces — compounds this sense of universality. Though they wrong-foot the audience for most the running time with the appearance of an outcome-oriented quest, complete with a counting-down-the-days timeline, the final twist (which is perhaps a little pat in its setup) reimposes an audacious sense of formlessness onto the proceedings. With no discernible beginning or end, we get the sense this war could be any other.

Perhaps fittingly, then, the characters feel to some extent like recurrent soldier archetypes. Our ostensible hero, James (Jeremy Renner), is the loose canon who works for himself rather than his army; flanking him are by-the-book everyman Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and increasingly disillusioned naif Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).

(from left) Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner in The Hurt LockerThat their characterizations feel so nervy and malleable to the end is partly to the credit of Boal’s writing, which never quite allows them to cohere as a unit, maintaining surface and subliminal tensions throughout, even as they are forced to depend on each other; but it’s also due to a perceptive, well-attuned trio of actors, of whom Renner is the searing standout.

In the first truly great male performance of 2009, Renner channels the easy swagger of a Steve McQueen type while simultaneously evoking the stateless uncertainty of 21st century masculinity; in a brilliant collection of scenes placing James in an unfamiliar civilian context, the levels of masking and disguising in Renner’s performance are thrown into sharp relief. This is a man so conditioned by the terse personal constraints necessitated by the war zone that unguarded “normal” life has become the more challenging balancing act; that he makes us understand, and perhaps even support, his decision at the film’s conclusion is a measure of how adroitly he overlaps the personae of man and soldier.

It’s this kind of observational detail that sets “The Hurt Locker” apart from the director’s previous work. It should be said that even with cruder story material, in filmmaking terms alone, this would still rank as top-drawer Bigelow. She’s found an ideal collaborator in DP Barry Ackroyd (clearly drawing upon, but actually excelling, his work with Paul Greengrass), who gives the film jagged, spontaneous visual rhythms and textures that neatly counterpoint Bigelow’s near-fetishistic eye for environmental and physical detail (the attention paid to dust and smoke swirls following an explosion in the bravura opening sequence is a case in point).

As an exercise in action cinema, then, “The Hurt Locker” is Bigelow’s most robust, most fully realized, most masculine work to date. What’s so remarkable, however, thanks to its intricacies of characterization and performance, is that it also manages to be her most delicate. The sandbox is all hers now.

→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

14 responses so far

  • 1 6-17-2009 at 9:29 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Hard to argue with the majority of this. Stellar accomplishment.

  • 2 6-17-2009 at 10:52 am

    Kokushi said...

    Great review and i will see th movie soon.

  • 3 6-17-2009 at 11:03 am

    Joshua said...

    Yea, this film needs to be watched. It’s great.

  • 4 6-17-2009 at 11:26 am

    drbenway said...

    All this movie needed was Ice Man. “You guys are dangerous…”

  • 5 6-17-2009 at 11:46 am

    Jamieson said...

    Great review. I’m beating the drum loudly for this film everywhere I can. Its power and brilliance can’t be denied. I can’t wait to see it again.

    Bigelow and Renner in particular should not be forgotten at the end of the year.

    If anyone ever doubted Renner was a star in the making before…you will change your mind soon.

  • 6 6-17-2009 at 12:44 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Full agreement Guy — brilliant, scalding film, her best since ‘Near Dark” — should get North American audiences into watching films about the war (s) in the Middle East — hopefully the Academy notices, be nice to see Bigelow nominated for best director.

  • 7 6-17-2009 at 1:12 pm

    P-Dawg said...

    I definitely want to check this film out. I’ve enjoyed the majority of Bigelow’s films but my favorite is still “Strange Days”, which is often overlooked.

  • 8 6-17-2009 at 1:24 pm

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    Can’t wait for this. What about its Oscar prospects?

  • 9 6-17-2009 at 1:52 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Gustavo: I’m worried it’ll still be too action-oriented for Academy members who won’t be tempted to dig into its subtleties. In a perfect world, Bigelow, Renner and Ackroyd would be slam-dunks.

  • 10 6-17-2009 at 7:49 pm

    katie said...

    Nice. Can’t wait, this is my #2 most anticipated film, second to Where the Wild Things Are.

  • 11 6-18-2009 at 9:27 am

    rosengje said...

    Did you gasp when you saw the image in the poster?

    I really love this movie.

  • 12 6-18-2009 at 11:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Rosengje: Unfortunately, the trailer had already revealed the image, so the shock was little bit dulled. Still a hell of a moment, though.

  • 13 6-21-2009 at 3:08 pm

    Ian said...

    I think the industry’s perception of Bigelow is that she’s James Cameron’s ex. This is her best movie, and while it’s exciting, there’s not much of a plot. However, it’s far and away better than her other films, and it deserves to be a hit. I’d say Oscar prospects are slim to none.

  • 14 7-28-2009 at 4:43 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I just saw it and I’m not ready to call it a masterpiece. Some really great and effective stuff but the staging of a few of the scenes seemed dictated more by building suspense than logic and Bigelow seems to think I’m unable to grasp the theme of the film unless she hammers it home. If somehow I missed it from watching the film, I get Renner literally verbalizing it in an unnecessary epilogue but I couldn’t possibly have missed it during the film because it’s presented as a title card before it even starts.