I’m intrigued by the distribution strategy of The Hurt Locker. Despite the absence of big-name stars (the conventional marketing hook), it’s just a flat-out great movie that still should have gotten wide distribution – I suspect it’ll be re-released in late winter if it gets enough Oscar nods, but I’d argue there’s a good audience for it now, outside of the major cities. On the other hand, ‘summer’ movies on lots of screens that don’t completely rock the first two weekends financially are summarily shoved out altogether by the other incoming summer blockbusters; ‘Star Trek’ made a ton of money, but was seemingly gone after three or four weeks. So releasing it to the art-house / independent circuit means ‘The Hurt Locker’ has been around much longer than it would have been in the mall multiplexes. It’s speculation, of course, but I suspect the film’s distributors chose to develop a more modest audience over time, passing on the potential blockbuster money, rather than submit to the do-or-die vagaries of the big summer market. Either way, it’ll do very well on the DVD market. And if it isn’t showered with Oscar nominations, there’s no justice.
You can take two primary paths with war films. It’s either about The War, and its effects on the characters, or, as here, primarily, The Characters, and what they’re bringing into the war. Where the director’s choices lie in the huge range those boundaries define is what makes or breaks the film. This director, the always interesting Kathryn Bigelow, has been given a terrific screenplay that puts meticulously drawn individual characters in the context of a meticulously drawn environment. The actors, of course, have provided admirable and valuable context underneath it all, but there’s a real juggling act of military protocol, technology, foot-soldier gruntwork, the sociology / pathology of overarmed strangers-in-a-strange-land, and the mechanics that go into telling any story well. Bigelow never flinches, never missteps – her work here is as confident, commanding, and, dare I say, auteuristic, as anything Scorsese, Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, or their league has produced recently. That she got so many shots, so much coverage, so much spectacle, on an independent budget, without sacrificing intimacy and storytelling efficiency, is impressive. Needless to say, she’s helped immensely by superb editing (by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski).
“You know what this place needs?” says one soldier to another – “It needs grass.” Like ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ‘Full Metal Jacket’, the climate is a silent character – hot, bright, dry and urban. The film’s first scene presents a crack military bomb-disarming crew of three – they use robot drones to inspect the weapon from afar, and only put the bomb tech at personal risk as a last resort. Either way, a wide perimeter is enforced around the potential blast zone, while the bomb tech either detonates the device from a distance, or dons a huge and unwieldy protective suit and disarms the device up close. This is initially presented as more the exception than the rule – the bomb tech (here, Guy Pearce) looks stiff and restrained, almost robotic himself – like a turtle you’re praying doesn’t end up on its back. There’s constant communication by headset, while the remaining two police the perimeters looking for ‘unfriendlies’ or potential distractions. They’re an experienced and professionally familiar team who could practically finish sentences for each other.
Events transpire that lead to the acquisition of a new bomb tech for the team, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner). And he’s very different – at first, unnervingly so. He’s got no use for the robot drone; when they arrive at a bomb site, he wants to suit up now, walk up to the bomb, see it for himself, and deal with the device hands-on. He moves well in the suit, like Ellen Ripley in her ‘forklift’. The headset chatter just distracts him – at one point he yanks off the headset and tosses it away. “Yesterday wasn’t cool”, the crisply efficient but unhappy Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) tells James. James laconically replies, “Yeah, I know…You’ll get it, though.” He’s obviously very good, and bedrock self-confident in doing things his way.
James is a compelling character, and watching him in circumstances outside of the bomb work is just as uncomfortably fascinating. He befriends a young Iraqi street-hustling entrepreneur, and where their acquaintance takes James’ state-of-mind figures prominently. Despite their professional growing pains, he’s happy to get savagely drunk and rowdy with his fellow soldier teammates. And, we later learn, he has a fierce sense of loyalty and justice, sometimes admirable, sometimes misguided.
Despite the pervasive sense of potential danger, betrayal, and cruelty from the city’s own inhabitants, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal nonetheless take subtle but powerful steps to delineate the war’s put-upon bystanders from the actual bad guys. It’s a refreshing change from the usual The Brown People Are All Out To Get Us mentality that, inadvertently or deliberately, informs most of these kinds of films.
The Hurt Locker is the best kind of genre film. You could take these elements, these characters, these truths about the human condition in conflicted circumstances, and make an equally good police procedural, or western, or political thriller. Don’t let the fact that it’s a War Movie limit your inclinations to see this wonderful movie. It’s my favorite of the year so far.