July 16, 2009

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The Hurt Locker (R)
War happens not just on the battlefield but in the mind of the warrior, as shown in The Hurt Locker, a fascinating movie about a bomb squad in Iraq.

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit is some 40 days out from the end of its rotation in Baghdad, Iraq, 2004. Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are part of the team that explodes, defuses or otherwise makes non-lethal the roadside bombs killing both soldiers and civilians. As though defusing without detonating a bomb weren’t hard enough, there are the bystanders (some innocent, some not-so) to consider and the possibility than any situation, every situation, can go from bad to so very much worse very quickly. Sanborn and Eldridge are desperate to make it to their last day alive, and become increasingly worried at each call that their luck will run out, particularly with Staff Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) leading them on increasingly cowboyish missions. “You’re a wild man,” an upper officer tells James appreciatively as nearby Eldridge seems frustrated with rage that James’ wildness just could have gotten them killed. And, of course, James isn’t a wild man — he’s perhaps a broken man, so used to the danger of having a bomb in his hands that he grows increasingly incapable of dealing with any situation that isn’t simply succeed and live or fail and die.

Any summing-up of what one takes away from The Hurt Locker sounds woefully obvious (e.g. “war sucks”). But that’s where it puts you. The movie reminds me very much of Generation Kill, the excellent HBO miniseries about the start of the war in Iraq. You see a bit of rah-rah-ness, a bit of buffoonishness in the higher ranks but mostly you get the very in-the-present story of guys doing an unpleasant job and desirous most of just not dying and not letting any of their fellow soldiers die. There is no “what I’m going to do when I get home,” there is no “here’s why I joined up.” There isn’t even really much discussion about the politics or the status of the war they’re currently engaged in. It’s just “I hate it here; I don’t want to die.” It’s an exhausting way to be for these men, always in what’s happening right now (necessary because the “now” can get you killed) and you can see it take a toll. The weariness seeps through every scene of this movie.

The movie doesn’t break up that mix of weariness and terror with Michael Bay-ish action or big artistic flourishes of dialog or camera work. The actors do their best work when not talking, when conveying in the most minimalist ways how sad, scared, angry or exhausted they are. This is still a movie — and a fiction one at that, with somewhat recognizable actors including Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes — but it has the dusty, unglamorous look of reality. Even the score stays more or less in the background. There’s nothing safe and movie-ish to keep you from falling into the heads of these characters. A-

Rated R for war violence and language. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker is two hours and 11 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Summit Entertainment.