The press has fallen in love with The Hurt Locker. For those of us who came of age during the combat-movie drought that wars like Iraq tend to engender—and who are typically disinclined to browse that genre at Blockbuster, besides—The Hurt Locker is like a first kiss. But I hesitate to stretch the metaphor, a.) As to not detract from the seriousness that is the movie’s desert, and b.) Because it is not quite so good as to extend to the proverbial loss of my virginity.
There’s a sense of inevitability that permeates The Hurt Locker, and though it affects us on a deeper level than most procedurals do by virtue of both skill and discretion, the film stays true to that limited form. I don’t wish to be unfair; the way the filmmakers follow the procedural lockstep is integral to their conception, and part of the movie’s power stems from the singular, sensuous way they underplay the suspense scenes—poeticizing the horrors that are, for these characters, routine. The flesh is thick, and there’s a heart beating beneath it, but we can still detect that skeleton with clichés in its marrow: the trailer-park individualist who gets the job done but puts others at risk in the process; the by-the-book black soldier whose respect the lone wolf earns; and the younger, more impressionable lad who comes to idolize the loner. There’s familiarity in all this, as well as in the lone wolf’s relationship with a young local boy (Christopher Sayegh)—an Iraqi Shia LaBoeuf who, in a nice touch, endears himself to Americans by way of curse words. (It sounds as if Lil Wayne was his English teacher.)
But the director, Kathryn Bigelow, is a pro in both the banal sense and the positive one; she knows the ropes, but knows how to tug them, too. Her focus is narrow and her methods are austere, but her targets are well embodied, and pregnant with echoes of their grander context. It’s as if she made a war film in the style of The Wrestler. She stages combat effectively, appositely—the complexity of her images is almost subliminal. Rich in its invocation of atmosphere, The Hurt Locker coats the sun-baked sands of arid Iraq with a cool iridescent gel. It’s not the kind of star-glamour antifreeze required for a bland, exploitive movie like The Kingdom (2007)—a lemon; it’s more like the psychological analgesics that professional soldiers mask their anxieties with. We aren’t given babes in the woods like Charlie Sheen in Platoon; unformed baby-men whose innocence is despoiled by war are a dramatic shortcut, as easy to sympathize with as puppies under Jack the Ripper’s knife. Bigelow lets us under her guarded soldiers’ skins with a vision that’s neither tawdry nor ironic.
These troopers constitute a bomb squad in its final weeks of deployment in Baghdad: cocksure SSgt. James (Jeremy Renner), prim Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and sensitive Sgt. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is something of a legend for having disarmed 800-something I.E.D.s in his day, and approaches each new one with an aloofness that drives his teammates batty. This is pure procedural—vindicating the competent badass (and we’re cued in immediately that he’s a badass because he smokes cigarettes) who doesn’t follow the rules but gets the job done is old-bag Hollywood heroism. But the more we see James in action, the more his strut seems abreast of a fresher truth; back on the home front, he’s either a father or some woman’s baby-daddy—his ex-wife still lives with him, so he’s not sure. He’s graceful under pressure, and in the heat of combat, he’s coolly maternal to his men; yet, as Eldridge tells him, he’s one hell of a leader, but lackluster as a people person. He needs the specter of death barking up his leg like a rabid dog; without it, he can’t be all that he can be. His ravenous addiction to war is the tragedy of war.
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