Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #82: The Hurt Locker (2009)
Note: this post is modified from a previously published post
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
The objective is simple: stay alive from the beginning of the day until the end. Some days will be more eventful than others and not everyone will meet the objective. The film opens on Bravo Company, a month from the end of their current deployment. The EOD team has just lost its team leader and a replacement is sent in the form of Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). The other members of the team – Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) – are jerked out of their comfort zone by James’ style, as they are accustomed to working together collaboratively and James more or less works alone, allowing Sanborn and Eldridge to be little more than an audience for his exploits. His recklessness makes an enemy of Sanborn, though the two do occasionally find common ground.
The film is episodic in form and focuses on just a handful of days in which James, Sanborn and Eldridge work together. There isn’t really an arc to the story itself, but the three characters have individual arcs which carry over through the episodes. At home James has a young son and a marriage on the rocks. From the way that he describes his marriage – stating at one point that he thought they were divorced but his wife is still living in the house – it seems that he feels powerless on the domestic front. He doesn’t know what home life will bring, but work is much more cut and dried: he’ll either die or he won’t. He savours not just the fact that he is alive while so close to death, but that he’s in charge of the situation and he knows what he’s doing. His personal relationships are like bombs he has no idea how to disarm.
Sanborn is much the same way; somewhat adrift when it comes to relationships but much more confident when he’s working. The reason why Sanborn and James don’t get along is because James’ unpredictability shakes that usual confidence – in an already stressful situation, working with someone you can’t read makes the situation almost unbearable. However, having survived working with James puts him in a frame of mind where he feels that he can survive the travails of domesticity. As for Eldridge, he’s a character who is like an exposed nerve. He’s shaken by the death of his former team leader, for which he blames himself, and for a later death in the field. He lacks the confidence of James or Sanborn and wants so badly to do the right thing that he’s often paralyzed into doing nothing. Renner and Mackie received a lot of attention when the film was released for their performances (though only Renner received an Oscar nomination) – and rightly so – but Geraghty’s performance is deserving of mention as well. It’s difficult not to feel for Eldridge, who is so intensely vulnerable, particularly compared to James and Sanborn. The three central performances are fantastic with each actor bringing something different but essential to the table. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty give performances that stand out from each other while at the same time supporting and complementing each other.
The film would be worthy of recommendation based solely on those performances, but The Hurt Locker also boasts a strong script from Mark Boal and exquisite direction from Kathryn Bigelow. The action was shot with handheld cameras, giving it a realistic, pseudo-documentary feeling and a sense of intimacy that isn’t always at home in action films. The special effects are superb but, importantly, they aren’t the point of any given scene. Sometimes the bombs go off and there’s an explosion, but what you remember afterwards is the tension before the blast or the diffusion of the bomb, and the way that the film slowly builds upon the initial dilemma – the bomb itself – by adding several more to the scene. When the bombs are diffused, it’s usually done right out in the open, in the middle of the street. People stand at windows and on rooftops watching, perhaps out of simple curiosity but perhaps with a malicious objective. It’s up to Sanborn and Eldridge to assess these potential threats and hesitation can be the difference between life and death.
Many films have been made in the last few years about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, few of them any good. The Hurt Locker is constructed less as a war movie and more as a thriller and part of what makes it work so well is that it removes itself from the political aspect of the war on terror. There are no great speeches about “why we’re here” or “why we shouldn’t be here;” the simple fact is that they are there and they have a job to do. It’s this very simplicity that carries the film and the ordinariness with which life and death are treated which makes it so resonant.