Wednesday, 30 December 2009

War Is A Drug.

Glad I got Borat out of the way, now I can move onto something I really liked.

I'd heard nothing, absolutely nothing about The Hurt Locker on its initial theatrical release. Not a word. Then it started popping up at In Contention as an awards contender. Then the US critics awards started coming through, and it was every.where. Literally. LA, NYC, NBR, dozens of other wins and nominations. Everywhere. Three Golden Globe nods. Truly. If critics awards meant anything to Oscar (which they don't - re: The Dark Knight) then The Hurt Locker would be the one to beat. It's definitely a lock in the 10 film Best Picture category (and would also be in the old five film system) but I think Avatar is looking to be the whirlwind at the moment. Precious is gone.

Anyway, this isn't an Oscar entry. This is all about The Hurt Locker.

Kathryn Bigelow is an interesting director, in that she is a female director making, for all intents and purposes, male films. War movies. Action pictures. Surfing films. I can't think of another woman like her. But, what I love about women directors, and what comes through in The Hurt Locker, is that she isn't a man. She doesn't follow that testosterone-only format. Within the brutality and staunch masculinity of war (and remember, this is her portrayal here. Yes, a man wrote the film, but she is showing an army of men - it may not be 100% accurate to reality, there are females on the frontline, but that's what is on our screens) there is a gentleness and masculinity that most male directors don't care to explore. The guys are out there on their own day after day shooting at people and witnessing death and destruction - they're going to get fucked up by it somehow. If they don't, well, they were fucked up to begin with. Male directors have a tendency to clog it up with emotion during limited episodes within the broader film (Saving Private Ryan) or just put in bigger and better explosions to mask emotion or provide for an outlet for revenge (I don't have to feel bad anymore because look at how big that explosion is! We got them good!) What Bigelow does is much more subtle. Without once ever compromising the military masculinity of her characters, she allows them their moments of weakness. Without needing them to burst into tears and cry for their mothers, she lets us look inside and see that, beneath the bravado, they are afraid. And this is what makes this film so damn powerful.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is a bomb technician, sent into Irag to join a division who have recently lost their leader (played briefly but brilliant by Guy Pearce). James is all gung-ho and live for the moment, outwardly afraid of nothing, seemingly invincible - or incredibly lucky. Coming across a huge bomb in the back of a car, he takes off his protective suit (which has been shown to do nothing at much further distances anyway), saying if he's going to die, he's going to be comfortable. At the beginning, this doesn't sit well with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who is below him in the unit. Sanborn wants to get out alive, and he wants everyone he is with to get out alive, and James' reckless behaviour from the moment he joins the unit imperils that. Sanborn is counting down the days until he gets to go home - James is counting up the bombs he has disposed of.

Their relationship (which is the core of the film) changes, however, and quickly, as the film goes on. Sanborn discovers a box under James' bed, filled with bits and pieces of bomb equipment - this is the 'hurt locker' of the title. James is collecting bits and pieces of bombs. The locker is full of things that could have killed him. And then, when the unit stumbles across an undercover unit in the desert (lead by Ralph Fiennes) they are forced to fight for their lives under a hot sun, exposed, wounded and scared. James proves himself a damn good leader, a compassionate soldier, extremely good under the pressure dealt to them. The delicacy of collecting bomb parts and the simplicity of passing juice boxes under the hot desert sun combine with so many other nods and nuances to create this extremely well rounded character, played to absolute perfection by the hitherto little-known Renner.

Supports are excellent, primarily from Mackie, his second in the last three films I have watched (with Half Nelson the other day.) It's never made as simple as Sanborn hating James - Sanborn has to follow James as his superior, and respects James for his obvious talents and bravery. And Mackie has to deliver these conflicting emotions under the cover of respect for command, not stepping out of line, and not going too far when hair is allowed to be let down. It is, again, the little flashes, the moments, that are pitch-perfect and, in a split second, tell you so much. Here's hoping people start to sit up and realise that he holds his own against the formidable lead performance.

As for the rest of it, it's all pretty much perfect. I can't think of a thing to fault. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd (who's responsible for a hell of a lot of Ken Loach work) is sublime. It's not showy, it doesn't do anything it doesn't need to do, but when it does show you something it shows you everything you need to now. Like the performances, it is subtle, but the flashes are instants of immediate clarity. And the script, well, after all else that has been said if you need me to praise the script you need your head read. Mark Boal has done extraordinary things here to create a tight script without any real sense of artifice or superfluity. Score? Check. Editing? Double-check. Design? Check check check. All of it terrific.

Really, why don't films like this come along more often? And when they do come along, why don't they create more of a wave? It's the second film relating to war (though this one is directly about war, rather than the impacts at home) after Stop-Loss that I have liked and has been directed by a woman. Maybe this is what is missing here. More women talking about war.

5 stars. Excellent. Very highly recommended. The more I think about it, the more I'm liking it.

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