There’s a moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie, The Hurt Locker, which is predictably tragic and tragically predictable. A military man who’s stationed in Iraq, but largely unversed on the dangers that exist on those sun-scorched streets, tags along on a mission. His ignorance proves costly. The scene is expertly set up, everyone involved in it is completely in character, and it isn’t overly dramatized. And yet it rings false. This is less because of the scene itself and more because of what surrounds it. The rest of Bigelow’s film is so thunderously real, so appropriately disconcerting, so visceral that the movie moment feel of that scene is comparatively disappointing.
I lead by talking about the weakest piece of the film not because it’s characteristic of the whole, but because it serves to illustrate why the rest is such a resounding success. The film follows a small team in Iraq that is charged with defusing IEDs and other bombs. For much of the film the team is led by a fearless, brilliant bomb specialist played by Jeremy Renner. Bigelow presents his story, and the story of the soldiers around him, with a straightforwardness that adds to the potency. She doesn’t try to push in with anguished scenes or heavy-hearted monologues. She simply follows his journey, concentrating on the small moments that shape him, the tiny reactions that reveal his own turmoil, confusion and instinctive need to solve the mind-boggling problems that this war-ravaged landscape throws at him. He takes on his job with a gutsy bravado laced with pragmatism that is absolutely fascinating. The character is a little bit of a cipher, not because of any lack of rigor on the part of Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal, but because he is so clearly defined by the job he does and excels at. He is stranded in this danger and it seems that extricating himself from it is the one dilemma beyond his ingenuity.
The Hurt Locker rattles the nerves. Bigelow builds tension simply but effectively. There’s a bracing dynamism to most of the scenes, a sense that anything can happen, any of these characters is vulnerable. She cues the audience early on that the usual algebra of determining which characters will survive doesn’t apply here. This is war, and anyone can be standing in the wrong place when the explosive detonates or the bullet is fired. Bigelow does her best to replicate the staggering uncertainty of the environment with rumbling camerawork and rapid editing. She also maintains clarity. Through it all, it’s never difficult to discern what’s happening. Bigelow demonstrates that pushing the editing bays to their limits doesn’t automatically mean a illegible hash will result. Sometimes true artistry emerges. The Hurt Locker is vital filmmaking.
(Posted simultaneous to “Jelly-Town!”)