Monday, August 03, 2009

"The Hurt Locker" Sets New Standards for Tension

As “The Hurt Locker” begins, a bomb-defusing unit is investigating a suspicious pile of garbage sitting on a Baghdad street. A remote, robotic device is used to confirm that yes, the pile contains a bomb. Another remote device is sent to remove pieces of the pile, so that the bomb can be approached by a technician who will then proceed to defuse it. The remote device fails. The technician puts on his protective suit, and begins a slow walk towards the bomb. The other men in his unit are watchful, and tightly wound. People begin to watch from the rooftops. A man comes into sight. He is carrying what could be a detonator. It could be nothing more than a cell phone. The technician is now close to the bomb. The scene quickly descends into chaos as fear overtakes the men in the unit.

In most movies, that would be the climactic scene. In “The Hurt Locker,” it’s just the beginning. The tension ratchets up from there, and it never lets up for the next 130 minutes. By the end of the movie, regardless of what you think about U.S. involvement in Iraq, you feel an appreciation for what it’s like over there (or was like in 2004, when the movie is set). This is not a movie that has time for sentiment, or one that tries to steer the viewer into a rigid opinion about the war in question. It is a movie about men with a job to do, and then it is up to each individual viewer to decide whether they respect those men, or are appalled by their actions.

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another war movie that maintains the level of tension that is felt throughout the entirety of “The Hurt Locker.” The soldiers in this movie don’t spend their evenings in the bar or talking with each other about what their lives were like back in the states. No, they release their tension by hitting each other as hard as they possibly can – which may help them, but doesn’t do much for the person watching the movie who is wondering whether this is the scene where one of the main characters buys it.

Two scenes in particular stand out. The first occurs when the bomb unit meets up with a band of “contractors” (i.e. mercenaries) out in the desert. The scene begins tensely, as the two units try to figure out if the other is friendly. And then they come under fire from an Iraqi unit, which cannot even be seen at first. Where the scene becomes almost too tense to watch is when an Iraqi sniper and a member of the American unit find each other in their sights – but the shot is a long, difficult one. Whoever makes the shot first will live to tell the tale. The other one will be dead.

The second scene occurs when William James, the bomb technician played by Jeremy Renner, blunders into an Iraqi home where he believes he will learn something about an Iraqi boy who has been gruesomely mutilated and killed. When he comes into contact with an Iraqi man and his wife, the situation quickly descends into chaos, and as it does you feel totally helpless – you want desperately for things to calm down, but it’s far too late for that. Getting out alive is the best one can hope for.

The movie is directed brilliantly by Kathryn Bigelow, and the cast is superb. The men of the unit are played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. None are household names, but all should be after “The Hurt Locker.” Renner in particular is amazing – his performance comes with a brute force not unlike that which Russell Crowe demonstrated in “L.A. Confidential,” before anyone had heard of him. Also outstanding in supporting roles are David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, and Guy Pearce – even though I have to admit I didn’t realize it was Guy Pearce as I was watching.

It’s a great movie – but certainly not one for everybody. If it doesn’t receive an Best Picture nomination next year, with the number of nominees increased to 10, it will be a grave injustice.

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