Film: Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2009)

Bare minimum, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker finally moves contemporary war films beyond Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) – which for years, to my mind, appeared to have accomplished the most experiential perspective on modern warfare that Hollywood has the patience to display.  But war feels distinctly immune to rhapsodizing; whenever characters are required to spill their emotional guts in polished monologues about how ‘it’s about the man beside you’, or ‘I just can’t take it anymore, man’, something ineffable slips away.  I no longer feel the dirt and fear that must, must reside alongside armed combat.  I just feel screenwriting.  Black Hawk Down suffers from far too much of this, and Scott is a lazy director (he can’t shoot to edit, and he’s prone to excessive music) but he does sustain two solid hours of wearying, soul-eroding strain.

That’s the easiest level on which Bigelow’s film works well.  Building scenes with extraordinary tension seems second nature to her here, and she does it mostly with carefully modulated performances, as well as playing off our expectations.  Shots that seem to suggest impending onslaught lead nowhere; innocuous chitchat on the periphery of battle doesn’t necessarily foreshadow imminent attack.  People chatter under pressure, and distant phones do ring, and helicopters will fly overhead without effect.  A civilian watching from a balcony, filming with a videocamera, might be as curious about the outcome as the soldiers who have just spotted him through their weapons’ sights.  It seems silly to commend a director for not slathering music all over her film, but Bigelow is judicious with her score – it offers occasional mood, little more.  Moreover, she recognizes the effect of technical flukes, and moves beyond the standard shaky camerawork and jumpy editing to letting us hear mic rustle and the muffled canned quality of an unmastered lavalier, buried in clothing somewhere around an actor’s throat.  I felt I was inside a film in the sweaty, claustrophobic process of creating itself.

Having twice in my life been far too close to gunshots fired in anger at live human beings, by people who would consider themselves combatants, I can say with certainty that the experience offers no insight beyond its own foolish inadequacy as human behavior.  Men don’t charge courageously into the maw of live fire; they run or hide from it, because it’s fucking awful.  I can only imagine warfare carries a crushing moral load, and incites greater indignation, as a sustained conflict between men committed to killing each other, and Bigelow seems to agree.  Her team of three bomb disarmament specialists works in constant, multidirectional alertness, often disarming a car bomb and keeping track of the men watching them from the rooftops nearby, any of whom could be carrying an automatic weapon or merely a cell phone with which to remotely detonate.  But when offered the decision to kill – as opposed to a reaction to return fire – all of these men hesitate, looking for an alternative, hoping for a mistaken intention or an optical illusion in the blazing desert heat.  It’s possible Bigelow milks these moments for more than they’re worth, straining behavior for drama, but at least two of these scenes present enormous moral choice, rooted in oppressive physical environment and/or disorienting cultural miscommunication, between people who would rather not partake of death but aren’t sure how to proceed.  Threats seem to get the ball rolling.

I could be losing my patience with feature-length films in general, but I would almost have been happy if The Hurt Locker was only as long as its opening sequence, masterfully built of continuous subjective discovery and some profoundly impressive acting by Guy Pearce in particular.  Yes, it paves the way for the story (which revolves around Pearce’s replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, in what is easily the film’s most conventional element), and also for another aspect of The Hurt Locker that struck me as sort of wonderful.  Several known character actors play bit parts – almost throwaway roles, destined in other films for supporting-role performers only, but they don’t feel like gimmicks so much as counterweights to the film’s otherwise appropriately even-keeled casting.  Nothing detracts from performance quite so much as an actor’s persona, and in filling the film with recognizable but persona-less actors, she directs our attention toward what they do, not whether they survive.  And then she gives us faces we can name, who are no more impervious to war.  Bigelow is a fine director of actors rather than stars.

What she’s not is a master sculptor, ultimately.  The film has long, fluid sequences – the extended, static shootout in the desert, for example – that play well because of their duration, but I suspect Bigelow thinks too highly of Mark Boal’s script and her actors’ fine work to cut too harshly into their playtime.  Certain other sequences – the hypermasculine drunken bareknuckle fistfight in the barracks loses momentum quickly, and acquires no residual dimension – carry on for no particular reason, and I’m of two minds about this.  On one hand, my guess is that this is probably closer to the way warfare works: in fits and starts, and long, long periods of interrupted unease that gradually dissolve a person’s mental defenses.  But on the other, I’m not sure such dissolution is Bigelow’s point.  I think she just loves this material, and badly wants it to stretch beyond the limitations of less ambitious storytelling, of less chunky content.  I’m inclined to side with her, if only to resist the destructive tendencies of producers who fear extended running times…but then again, that opening scene might have been enough for me.

I realize, as I approach the end of this review, that I really ought to have savaged this film more, on principal.  It’s vulgar cinema, stymied by directionless writing and conventionally chaotic editing, and tries far too hard, in the end, to pinpoint its obvious message.  In spite of many of the reviews, it is not an artistic masterpiece.  But there is a scene in a bomb-making warehouse, involving the body of a young boy and the stitches holding his stomach closed, that illustrates just how committed Bigelow is to this film, as an experience for us and an apparent obsession of hers.  Her command of this film is as assured and relentless as Renner’s bomb specialist, as committed as Ralph Fiennes in his tiny cameo, as professionally illuminating as her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s range (he shot The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) on steady long lenses, in perfect control of lush color).  All of which, eventually, is what The Hurt Locker is about.

2 Responses to “Film: Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2009)”

  1. Sounds like a decent flick, but prob not as good as Petrie Jr’s. 1994 classic war epic. Guttural performances all around in what can only be described as the definitive work of modern cinema.

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