Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Locked in to the "Locker"

Kathryn Bigelow begins her Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker, with a quote comparing war to an addictive drug. This idea acts like a photo filter, coloring everything that happens throughout the film. Drawing on the real-life experiences of screenwriter and former embedded journalist Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker is hardly the first Iraq War story to appear on screen. Unlike most of these films, Locker does not attempt to moralize or criticize the decision to go to war. Neither does it take a apologist's stance. Rather, Locker takes advantage of Boal's first-hand knowledge, cast in the light of the opening quotation, to raise interesting questions about the nature of war and, more importantly, about what sort of person chooses to be a soldier.

Locker concerns the day-to-day struggles of a US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team. These men, perhaps more than any other section of the armed forces, must confront the changing face of modern warfare. They are responsible for the isolation, containment, and safe disposal of bombs and IEDs. Their safety depends on the ability to remain cool in a hostile, confusing environment where the omnipresent "bad guys" don't wear uniforms and are willing to resort to unspeakable tactics.

It is no surprise, then, that the chemistry of the team is shaken up when newly-arrived team leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) proves to be a headstrong adrenaline junkie. James is brilliant, having defused over 800 bombs, but his frank and reckless approach grates with his new teammates, the rigid Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and nervous Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). And who can blame them? The film's opening scene, detailing what became of the team's prior leader (Guy Pearce), clearly demonstrates the stakes of their situation: anyone, at any time, can die in unexpected and unpreventable ways.

And while Renner's James is the character most clearly embodying the film's "war is a drug" metaphor, each episodic vignette carries home another piece of the metaphor. War, like drugs, breeds confusion, as shown in several scenes where any of a hundred witnesses could be responsible for a bomb's detonation. War, like drugs, can be exhilarating; after each successful operation, James lights an obviously post-coital cigarette. And like drugs, war often leads to poor decisions, gruesome acts, and innocent people being harmed. The Hurt Locker shows us each of these things in surprising and often nerve-wracking ways.

Bigelow's scenes and set pieces are well-crafted and tense. Barry Ackroyd (best known for his work with Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass) brings a hyper-real, hyper mobile feel to his photography, as you might expect from his previous work. The heat of the desert, and the stress of life-or-death situations, really come through via smart camera setups and good editing. Realism is the key, here, with naturalistic dialog that, at times, seems improvised. Only on a few occasions do we get a more formalistic, typical "action" moment, and these all make sense in context.

At heart, Locker is a movie about men. With the exception of a few extras, one angry professor's wife, and a few brief scenes involving James's wife (Lost's Evangeline Lilly), there are no women on screen. This serves to highlight the locker-room like atmosphere of men at war. The men roughhouse and drink between engagements. They spar and compete exactly the way you'd expect men to do in a high-testosterone environment; this is as close as a non-documentary can get to what it's like to be on the ground in a foreign war. Ultimately, as the men learn to rely on and trust each other (for better or worse), each man's inner self emerges through the smart and surprisingly understated screenplay.

There is a lot of depth, here, and I'm sure that film scholars will be attempting to analyze the film on a symbolic level, looking for how this film describes (through Renner's character) America's role on the world stage. Fair play to them; this is a film that rewards careful reading. But, for my money, it works best as a drama about how specific characters negotiate a world of exaggerated highs and lows. The Hurt Locker succeeds by setting its premise, carefully thinking through its implications, and weaving it through a gripping story with real, understandable characters: Some get killed, some crack up, and others just can't kick the habit.

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