A world of hurt, and the men who call it home ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, January 1, 2010

A world of hurt, and the men who call it home

The Hurt Locker
My rating:

I've mentioned this movie before as one of the best-reviewed of the year, and now at year's end that reputation has solidified; it's already won dozens of film festival awards and earned a place in several critics' Top 10 of the year lists. Look for it to pick up some Golden Globes, maybe even an Oscar or two, next year. But I also mentioned this as a movie that's not being screened in Malaysia, and that's a crying shame. The only reason I can think of for that is that our benevolent Lembaga Penapisan Filem doesn't want us watching a movie that sympathizes with the "tentera penceroboh". (Which is what our local news used to call the U.S. troops during their coverage of the Gulf War. I shit you not.)

The crying shame is that I would've probably loved this movie if I'd seen it on the big screen.

Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are two members of a three-man EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit under Bravo Company, serving in Iraq. After their team leader is killed in action, Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) joins them - and instantly earns their ire and suspicion for being cocky, reckless, and a possible danger to their lives as well as his own. Serving out the remaining thirty-nine days of their rotation will challenge both their safety and their sanity; especially when James' friendship with an Iraqi street urchin sets up a chain of events that lead him to take even rasher acts.

The movie starts off with a quote by New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." This is oddly on-the-nose, given that the rest of the movie makes practically no concessions to inattentive viewers. If you're ignorant about the guerilla war currently being fought between American troops and Iraqi insurgents, this movie isn't going to waste time explaining it to you. It has its own story to tell, and it isn't one that you've seen a dozen times before and can predict where it's going. I started off thinking that Sanborn is the hero, James is the antagonist, and the conflict between them would come to a head during the climax. I was wrong. James is the protagonist of the story, if not one you could call a "hero". And it isn't just an action thriller - it's a character drama.

It took me two viewings to really figure this out, because the first one somewhat puzzled me. I couldn't quite grasp the narrative through-line of this movie at first; most of it seemed pretty episodic, with the unit going on several missions and alternately bonding and bickering with each other in between. What really ties the movie together is the character of James. He does have a character arc, but it's subtle and unconventional, and extremely nuanced. He's reckless, but also supremely competent; cocky, but an excellent team player when necessary; annoying, but also thoughtful of his teammates; and when his hotheadedness gets him in over his head, he learns a harsh lesson. This is the most complex, grey-shaded characterization in any film I've seen this year.

Am I making this movie sound boring? It's not. Sweet zombie Saddam, this is one tense movie. Few things are as suspenseful as a bomb-defusing scene, and there are several here; and just for variety, there's also a firefight and sniper duel, and a chase down dark alleys. Kathryn Bigelow directs all of these in a gritty, realistic manner - and yes, "realistic" here means shaky hand-held cameras, but amazingly it never gets confusing or disorienting. Like Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, Bigelow allows her setpieces to stretch to white-knuckle lengths - the scenes of the EOD unit's missions may be slow and quiet, but never, never boring.

Make no mistake, this is no dull, documentary-ish indie flick. This is a thriller, and a supremely thrilling one. It was released around the same time as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and it's the perfect antidote to Michael Bay's crude and vulgar brand of action. Bigelow shoots the suspenseful scenes flawlessly, but she's ably supported by two things. The first is Mark Boal's screenplay, and its verisimillitude of real-life U.S. Army protocol and practices. There are no Hollywoodized contrivances here - this is as real as it gets, and it proves that realism is no obstacle to compelling filmmaking. The second are the characters, and the actors that inhabit them.

I first saw Jeremy Renner in 2003's S.W.A.T. (the one with Colin Farrell and Samuel Jackson), where he brought his brand of cocky swagger to a straightforward psychotic villain role. Will James is a far more difficult one to play, and Renner really pulls it off terrifically; his performance isn't flamboyant or show-offy, but it's every bit as subtle and nuanced as the character. Brian Geraghty's Eldridge is the youngest and most emotionally vulnerable of the unit, and Geraghty successfully wins our sympathy - a lot of the suspense comes from the anticipation that, out of the three main characters, tragedy is most likely to befall him. Anthony Mackie's Sanborn turns out to be the least well-developed of the three, which is a pity; I said that I thought him to be the hero of the film at first, because Mackie is that intense and charismatic. This film may be Renner's star-making turn, but Mackie deserves it as well.

Once again, it's a shame this movie didn't make it to Malaysian cinemas. I'm certain it would've made as big a splash as District 9 or (500) Days of Summer - both films that came with little to no anticipation, but went on to generate terrific buzz. As for me? I had to watch it twice before I fully appreciated it - and to be honest, after the first time I was only going to give it three stars. But see that quote on the poster up there? The one that says "A near-perfect movie"? It is. It really is, once you figure out where its story is taking you - and even if you don't, there are still all those incredibly suspenseful sequences. Definitely three and a half stars. And if I'd gotten to watch it on the big screen, could've been four.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.


McGarmott said...

So I saw the film, and the movie had zero tension for me, because it seemed to me like, well, your first impression of the film - episodic; and I didn't care for the James character, especially since he doesn't give a shit about his own life. I was trying REALLY hard to see why Jeremy Renner keeps getting Oscar pats, and I don't see it - he didn't go wrong anywhere, but it's not like it's hard to pull off. The shakycam work was amateur, as if Bigelow was trying to pull off a Greengrass (those smash zooms don't work like that, woman!) or a Berg (as in Peter Berg) but didn't have the right editor or didn't shoot enough takes. The problem was that many of the shots lasted a little too long ... so it's a bit wishy-washy and contributed to the no-tense-ness. About the only actor that made me feel was Brian Geraghty, so I would've wanted him to be nominated for supporting actor ... but that's it. Screenplay? Well, the film is nothing but amusing sequences with some pretty good lines ... structure is shite.

This is just not my Oscar year, I guess, considering how much everyone likes this one. Boo.

TMBF said...

I bet we could have a very intense conversation about this film. ;)

Yami said...

OMG you're like the 2nd person I know that loved this movie, aside from me.
I don't understand why I love it so much but I just loved it. :D