Saturday, August 15, 2009
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 clichéd 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 drug – The 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.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:49 PM