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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Hurt Locker: A War Story for Our Time

The last time I was so floored by a “war” film was David O. Russell’s brilliant Three Kings. The reason I put “war” in quotation is because both films use a particular war as a background for moral and ethical dilemmas.

In Three Kings, it was about whether or not one should risk potential wealth when faced with a situation where lives could be saved — but perhaps not for very long; in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, it’s a question of how a person could put himself directly in harm’s war to defuse bombs. Take the “war” aspect out of the films and Three Kings is about how painful and rewarding selflessness can be, and The Hurt Locker is about how damaged one must be in order to be willing to be a hero.

The idea of “adrenaline junkies” is something familiar to most followers of Bigelow’s work, most notably in Point Break where a crew of surfers loved to ride big waves, skydive and rob banks.  Even in Strange Days, the plot hinges on a “drug” where you wear a device that lets you live vicariously through someone else’s exciting existence, which is an interesting allegory for the act of movie-going.  In The Hurt Locker, we are presented with Staff Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner), who is both heroic and borderline insane; the idea of the film is that these two things are inextricably linked.  It’s like volunteer firefighters who willingly run burning buildings; what makes them tick?  How are they able to forgo their own well-being for the sake of others?

Sergeant James is a bomb technician, the guy who disarms explosive devices that are usually rigged somewhat haphazardly.  Every time he goes out into the field to disarm a device, there’s a good chance that he will die from detaching the wrong wire or someone nearby will trigger the device upon seeing him attempt to disarm it.  The other two men in his small unit, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are still a bit shell-shocked from seeing the last leader of their unit die running away from a bomb that could not be deactivated.  Then, in comes Sergeant James who seems to have absolutely no value for his own life, which scares Sanborn and Eldridge into wondering whether he values the lives of those around him or if he’s just an adrenaline junkie.

The plot of the film concerns this trio going out to defuse different sorts of bombs in different areas of Baghdad. This is not a “message” film about whether or not what we’re doing in Iraq is right or wrong, but about the reality of the current conflict and what these soldiers could potentially see there. The film is neutral enough that when the audience sees certain characters and situations, they will be able to impress their own point of view on what happens. But truthfully, I don’t think there’s a real message there at all besides the Kubrickian theme of dehumanization and how war can turn us all into zombies and junkies.  But as for whether or not James is a hero, that’s up to the individual viewer to decide; he does a lot of good things, but is he doing them for the right reasons?  Does that even matter?

It is certainly not hyperbole to say that Jeremy Renner gives the best performance I have seen so far this year with his bravura turn as Sergeant James. To compare it to another “adrenaline junkie” in a Kathryn Bigelow film, constrast Renner’s character with Patrick Swayze’s in Point Break.  There are so many opportunities for Renner to go over the top and scream at the top of his lungs and ad-lib “what a rush, man!” but he doesn’t do it. Instead Renner is remarkably subtle and his voice is reassuring, his demeanor comforting, which makes it that much more confusing when he does something crazy or refuses to leave a dangerous situation; because he seems so reasonable, it ratchets up the tension even more.

Renner is able to tell so much about who his character is by the subtle changes in his voice and the way he narrows his eyes, allowing Bigelow’s fluid camera to pick up the intricacies of his body language rather than forcing it down your throat.  This is a showy role, but Renner doesn’t have a single showy moment; it would be so easy for him to chew the scenery, but instead he just is. I really can’t say enough about how incredible he is, to the point where I wish the Academy would increase their Best Actor nominees to ten to assure Renner a nod that he probably won’t get since he’s too good, too subtle for the Academy to notice.

Anthony Mackie is excellent too, as the man who feels threatened by Sergeant James at first, but grows to have a begrudging respect for him. Mackie has been putting in strong work for a while now, in films as disparate as Half Nelson and Manchurian Candidate and Spike Lee’s misfire She Hate Me, but it’s nice to see him putting in great work in a film truly worthy of his talents. Brian Geraghty is given the thankless role as the soldier prone to anxiety, but he makes it something deeper than that. Both actors, however, owe a huge debt to Renner’s high-wire act, which makes it easier for both of them to play off him.

Bigelow has long had a wonderful eye for shooting action sequences and creating tension, but hasn’t been given a script which she could really sink her teeth into since Near Dark (no pun intended). And what a job she does. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this is the most suspenseful film that I have seen since Clouzot’s Wages of Fear. That’s the only other film that had me digging my nails into my armrest, making my stomach turn in anticipation, where I truly had no idea what to expect from moment to moment. Mark Boal’s brilliant script sets up the possibility for anybody’s death from the opening moments, making it possible for anything to happen at anytime and that ratchets up the tension like you wouldn’t believe.

And now that I’ve seen what Bigelow can do with this kind of material, I want to see her push herself even further because with this film she has thrown her hat into the ring with some of the best filmmakers working today. Michael Bay, eat your heart out, he wishes he could do what Bigelow accomplishes in The Hurt Locker.  And Transformers wishes it had half the excitement.

– Noah Forrest
July 6, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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