Saturday, August 15, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime: 131 min.
Verdict: A gripping visceral actioner, but I’ve several issues. Not the masterpiece everyone’s hailing it as.
Genre: Action, War

        In the disorientation of its opening frames, and the intense white knuckle bomb-diffuse sequence, The Hurt Locker serves as a correction on Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t tender us to the tones of melodrama, as Spielberg’s war masterpiece does in its opening few moments, serving to act as a contrast – a verifiable lull before the storm – to the visceral impact of the Omaha beach landing. I think Spielberg greatly diluted the greatness of his film, with the quite needless pandering of the present sequences. Ms. Bigelow doesn’t commit such an obviously horrendous mistake, and instead places us dead smack in the middle of the Iraqi war-zone.
        We open to the fuzzy flickering images of gravel, transmitted by the US Explosive Ordinance Depot (EOD) bomb defusing tool “Wheelbarrow”, or commonly referred to as the bot (for robot), as it sniffs its way onto explosives placed right besides a high-traffic Baghdad road. Lined by shops, and surrounded by houses. US Army personnel are creating a safety perimeter. Citizens are running helter-skelter. We even manage to catch a glimpse of the burnt remains of a car, indicating this isn’t necessarily the first time. Ms. Bigelow, aided by her DP Mr. Barry Ackroyd (United-93, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) and the jumpy editing of Mr. Chris Innis and Mr. Bob Murawski, creates an entirely visual exercise of visceral tension. The sounds are carefully designed. We hear the screams, we hear the horns, we hear the goats and we hear the heavy breathing of bomb-defusing expert Sergeant Matt Thompson (Mr. Pearce), as he walks to the bomb. Mr. Ackroyd’s work is stupendous, an accomplishment much in the same vein as of Mr. Janusz Kaminski’s effort in Saving Private Ryan. In most movies guilty of the amateurish and exceedingly annoying shaky-cam-syndrome, like for instance Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, the filmmakers actually go about shaking their camera with little idea that the purpose isn’t being served at all, i.e. the audience just isn’t getting hold of any image to stay long enough to make any sort of impression. But here, that it moves a whole lot is just an illusion. It actually doesn’t, not that much at least, and instead provides you a whole lot of imagery burning really fast on the hard disk of your memory. This is just the right amount of quick, where images don’t stay long enough for us to actually sit and savor it, but long enough for it to stay imprinted in our mind, and serve as some kind of impression when the next image comes along. And in between the editing skips a beat, or two, or three, and stays on a scene, and the tension rises up a notch. This serves as an improvisation on the whole idea of montage.
        The sequence is exceedingly well done, acting as a perfect example of the brilliance of what is to come. Sudden surge of sounds. The unpredictability of the surroundings. Nothing around can be trusted. These soldiers have to live with it. They see faces, peeking from behind windows, peeking from behind lines of hanging clothes and they do not know what to make of it. They do not have much time to sit and ponder. Action. Quick action. The opening few moments do what any movie is supposed to do – make us experience and feel the perspective of the narration. We feel the fear, and we search in every image a possible source for danger. You see, there is no fear greater than the fear of the unknown. I know, it is a clich├ęd line, but it sure as hell is true. We look around, and we catch a glimpse of a butcher with a mobile in his hand. Our fears are allayed, and we feel now is tension. Can we diffuse the bomb before the idiot blows it up?
        And then, the film commits the first of its many glaring detours into mediocrity. The idiot detonates the bomb, the bomb explodes, and instead of the film continuing its exercise in relentless tension, it brings out a super-slow-mo bomb explosion and chooses to show it from every angle. The Hurt Locker, for some reason, consciously makes it a money shot, and it feels really weird and horribly out-of-place and out-of-tone. I understand, what we see is not real, and nothing in movie-making is supposed to be real. But what it is supposed be is a source of illusion, and right there, that sequence in slow-mo, ruins the film a great deal more than what is obvious. It is almost criminal, and I say that because, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and as an audience we actually notice it. And we don’t just notice it, we remember it, and remember the implications. That it all is just a movie. With that notion in mind, we seem to progress and view every other ensuing sequence.
        The first hour or so is, save the brief moments of disappointing erroneous choices, is a superb exhibition of taut filmmaking. We follow the EOD team, from one bomb-diffusion to another, all in a day’s work. The movies have long derived their thrills by working their narration towards ticking bombs, now a ridiculous plot device. The Hurt Locker is all about these bombs, and these men. And in these moments, it serves as one of the finest war films by superbly assuming the perspective of the U.S. soldier finding himself under the high noon, in this completely alien land, with a ticking bomb before him. Trouble is, most times, it is not even ticking.
        And here is where Ms. Bigelow dilutes the tension of these sequences, momentarily so, by switching perspectives and showing the Iraqi terrorists who have been assigned the task of detonating the bombs. Staff Sergeant William James (Mr. Renner), the maverick new bomb specialist with over 800 bombs to his name, finds himself in the middle of a Baghdad street, with a set of bombs surrounding him. Buildings and houses surround him. People peek. He doesn’t mind. We again have no idea what is supposed to happen. That is tension for you. Just then, Ms. Bigelow chooses to show the perspective of an Iraqi from within the confines of one of the houses, looking towards James. He comes down the stairs, looks James has already defused the bomb, and he walks away, dropping the detonator. It is a needless and more importantly a wrong shot, because (a) We do not learn anything about the Iraqi other than the little fact what his role is in the episode and (b) We are no longer gripped by the fear of the unknown, and now we are reduced to a little game of who’s going to get there first.
        There’s another such instance, two rather, where this kind of perspective-switch completely skims away one layer of the tension, and relies only on the obsession of William James to make the sequence intriguing. The scene is the U.N. building, and the device is a car bomb, with carefully concealed wiring. No one knows what the source of detonation is going to be. The army, having created a safety perimeter, is now looking every where around. And just then, The Hurt Locker switches to the perspective shot of an Iraqi from atop a nearby building trying to fire at the car set it on fire. I agree, the primary source of the tension in this scene is not where the detonating bullet is going to come from, but the time James has on his hand before he can find the detonator amidst the wiring and defuse it before the fire melts it and the stuff explodes. Yet, this shot does two things – (a) Give us prior knowledge of where and when the bullet is going to come from, when there’s absolutely no need to. If, Ms, Bigelow would have edited out the shot, and instead chose to show us only the bullet coming out of nowhere, the panic would have been that much more intense. (b) It doesn’t even show the face of the terrorist, and so the guy is no more than a mere device in the framework of the scene.
        The second of them is much more than a mere error, and in fact becomes a problem. In the middle of the desert we encounter a sequence of sniping warfare. Now reader, you would have surely read some wonderful books on sniping, or would have played some video games and would have always dreamt of having a rifle in your hand aiming at a distant target. So you would agree with me when I say the tension in sniping encounter is all about perspective. The unknown, and the unreliable. Sergeant William James assumes the role of the spotter, while his team member Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Mr. Mackie) is the shooter, aiming at the fire coming from an unknown source.
        Now, let me invoke the brilliant scene from Stanley Kubrick’s war masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, and see how timely it switches perspectives, and why. As the soldiers get gunned down, we do not know the source, yet gradually we see only the rifle. Not the person behind. As audiences we subconsciously picture the face of the marksman, only to be later shocked by who it turns out to be. Kubrick had an agenda there.
        Here, for no particular reason, Ms. Bigelow chooses to show the hideout of the Iraqi snipers aiming at this group of US soldiers and private ones. The tension is completely diluted, and drained out, because we know the number of Iraqis sniping from the hideout. The scene is quite interesting in the way a sniping scene ought to be filmed, yet it doesn’t go the full distance of flat-out brilliance. When the Iraqis are dead, we know they are all dead, and we do not share the perspective of the U.S. guys, and so do not feel the tension they must be through.
        All this in the first hour or so, from where the film takes a disappointing detour from the fascinating what-has-been and what-it-could-have-been, to another film that feels the need to have a three-act structure, a story and something that serves to humanize and emotionalize these group of men. William James meets a boy, and stuff happens with that arc that I don’t find interesting enough to discuss. It is just a meaningless thread serving to bloat the film for no particular reason.
        But what it spoils completely is the brilliant narrative structure of the first hour. Yes, there is not much realism in these scenes. I wouldn’t know, but some of these sequences have moments that are contrived to induce a stressful reaction from us. A cab driver manages to break a high security cordon to detonate a bomb, and doesn’t manage to get shot. It is a completely idiotic moment. Yes, I agree, it might be implausible, but what it serves is to provide an emotional truth about the characters. You shall learn when you shall see the film. The point is, the film dispenses away this fascinating episodic structure that neatly chips away at these men-of-action in moment of action, and instead gives them one of those generic stories. In its extremely disappointing final act, that serves to highlight William James’ predicament – War is a drugThe Hurt Locker does it most obviously and most artificially. One would be reminded of the ineffective third act of Cast Away, and the shots that capture William James’ state of mind as he returns to his country and to his wife are guided less by an emotional truth, and more by an aim to provide some kind of contrast to the world back in Iraq. The shots are still, and they lack heart. They lack life, and they feel perfunctory. Had there been no dialog explaining William James’ nature, had it all been a silent montage, I think it would have been a whole lot better.
        Nevertheless, The Hurt Locker is how a war film ought to be. Stripped down to the bare-bones. A volatile experience. A jolt of energy. Ms. Bigelow takes two of our stars – Mr. Pearce and Mr. Fiennes – and kills them within moments of their appearance. That is the kind of out-of-the-blue shock audiences should feel, the kind they felt when Janet Leigh was maimed in Psycho, when John Travolta was shot in Pulp Fiction. You got to play around with the image of a star, and how the audience perceives them. How I wish it had taken its brevity and courage to its final destination, this probably might have been a war masterpiece.

9 comments:

Samir said...

A gripping visceral actioner, but I’ve several issues. Not the masterpiece everyone’s hailing it as.
Now thats more like it..
finally doing away with the Star rating :-)
Still i am dying to chk out how many stars u wud have givent to this movie...

Just Another Film Buff said...

I, too, felt that this was a movie with a fantastic script and very ordinary direction by Bigelow. I'll vomit random observations here:

1. This is a film where war is a fact and not a sensation. I believe, a steady detached cam should have beeen used.
2. Those scenes of HD slo mo were crap. Just crap.
3. Man times she cuts to a distance view of an explosion/gunshot, though it seems novel, it is so hypocritical. She wants sensation she cuts to a ling distance shot forcefully to evoke a response. She could have rather gone for the noise in those cases.
4. When the title says war is a drug, you kn, you know the final image of the film - some heavy metal music playing as our man walks in slo mo.

This film's lead character reminded me of Randy Robinson of The Wrestler - a man whose identity is ironically surfaces only when he wears the mask. When he walks the dirty streets of Iraq, he is like a gladiator in an arena. This drug is so powerful that he tries to imitate himself too much. The romanticism associated with war heroism is what drives him more than anything I believe.
Every one says that this film is so apolitical with no agenda and all But when James goes into a prof's house trying to be his projected self and comes to senses, I felt that the writer was trying to slip in a few messages there.

One thing, You see that Bigelow kills all the "stars" who come in the movie, Is she making some sort of a liberal statement? Whaddayathink?

man in the iron mask said...

Srinivas, for Ms. Bigelow, I do not think any film is a fact. Her films intend to evoke an emotion, and for that, they tend to be packaged as experiences. So, I think, she does work in the “a film is a sensation” mode, as opposed to Michael Mann who was working with “this is all fact versus fiction” in Public Enemies

Oh yeah, the slow-mo were horribly out of place.

And, Pearce and Fiennes being wasted? I think, more than a political statement, she is trying to score a genre point. You know, like Janet Leigh was off-ed in Psycho. To the surprise of the audience.

I think what Ms. Bigelow is working towards are the exclamation emotions – shock, surprise and tension. Every step of the way. She is a forceful emotional evoker, as in a wholly manipulative filmmaker, much like Hitchcock.

If someone were to say there is truth in her filmmaking, and emotions being earned, I wouldn’t necessarily agree.

Amar said...

Much like Hitchcock ??? Please elaborate...

man in the iron mask said...

Amar, much of modern films and modern filmmakers are directly influenced by Hitchcock, and his great slogan that wholly defined his filmmaking - It is all a moooovie (In his trademark style)

In essence, one might say, there are two kinds of cinema – (a) One represented by Hitchcock, by Spielberg, by De Palma, by Godard, by Welles, by Manckiewicz where, if one were to resort to the broadest of strokes, one would observe a certain kind of filmmaking that is consciously lending itself to artifice – artifice as in the shot speaks a visual language yet is quite obvious, and often calls attention to itself. For example the dolly shot used extensively in Vertigo (A film with a ridiculous plot, and overt usage of symbolism). Or the sudden staccato the camera experiences in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. The former would be used extensively in films, like in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The Coens now use such kind of filmmaking. In here, the objective is the same as that of a vaudeville trying to keep his audience entertained and guessing. Hitchcock was a master, and in his best films, he was an innovator of such tricks. Look how he throws audiences off the hook. Look how The Birds starts, as a story between a woman who is trying to give it back to a dude. And where it leads to. Or for that matter Psycho. From a moral act to a completely psychological thriller. In Notorious remember the extended kissing scene between Grant and Bergman and how sublimely erotic it is. And his precise use of lighting to shadow her.

The key here is that such filmmaking is often defined by the editing, and the camerawork. Manipulative completely, as only cinema can. These filmmakers can be clubbed as craftsmen.

There is another school, of Dreyer, of Bergman, of Tarkovsky and of Terence Malick. Of Satyajit Ray. These filmmakers, through their camera, kind of strive to arrive at an emotional truth. They are not concerned about manipulating the audience. These are artists, who speak their truth, who lay bare their hearts, and in the process make profound statements. These filmmakers are often spiritual in nature, and it reflects in their films. Look how fondly Tarkovsky frames the nature, or even Terence Malick.

There are then the modern filmmakers, like Scorsese and Lynch, like Anderson and all, who basically are amalgamations. They often try to speak an emotional truth, but indulge in craftsmanship. Scorsese was at his most truthful in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, where every shot and every dialog and every edit was guided from the heart. In The Color of Money, in Goodfellas, you see Scorsese the craftsman.

As for Bigelow, she is much like Hitchcock, in that she believes in giving the audience a visceral emotional experience, uses symbolism and that maybe at the expense of truth. Hitchcock was intelligent enough never to make his film seem real, he would never betray his audience, he would only take them for a willing ride. Bigelow and co. are trying to dupe audiences. I hope you get my point.

And I hope I have been able to elaborate to your satisfaction.

wedding car said...

I don't like its review..

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Now whre does Apatow stand, Satish? Craftsman, isn't it?

Trippman said...

must you be so over my head!? I don't know if because my nihilistic personality has such a grip on me or because of the movie, but I was very cold towards this film. Will's nonchalance didn't help either as it just irked my own. I found the camera WAY too jittery. I mean there's even a shot where we're following a soldier from behind as he's running, and you can see that his head isn't whipping about like the camera that's following him. More than tension or suspense I felt annoyance. It seems like the film wanted to show a "truth", but only every now and then when it is pointless(like when they remove the elements of suspense like you pointed out) does it exude that feeling. Otherwise it works on its suspense, and I don't know why I just didn't care for that either.

Amar said...

Thanks Satish for the elabortion. I considered it in the negative sense initially.

Anyway, I found this film quite gripping notwithstanding Iraqi terrorists' POV. I think this movie belongs to Sgt Willam James and Ms Bigslow is quite clear about it from the start. She shows the initial developments which were responsible for James coming into the picture, the job he does, the life he leads, family he has, restlessness he feels back at home and/due to the addiction he has for his amazing skill of diffusing a bomb.