by TOM NIXON
Maybe the most deserving of 2009’s critical darlings, Kathyrn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is gathering steam as we hurtle towards Oscar season. The wonder is that it’s a film set in the Iraq war that not only dodges sentiment and never, ever feels like it’s pandering, but revolves around a man addicted to war and thrives on breathless set pieces, knife-point tension and exhilarating action. It’s to be expected from Bigelow (Point Break) of course, a director known for her rip-roaring genre pictures about groups of men under extreme pressure, but its release to huge acclaim couldn’t be more welcome in this era of limp-wristed proselytizing from In the Valley of Elah and chums. Icing on the cake then, that this one also ends up doubling as a Wrestleresque existential character study.
After Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal team leader is killed by an explosion set off by the smallest of oversights, he’s replaced by William James (Jeremy Renner, great), a risk-taking cowboy for whom early accusations of “recklessness” seem like a gross understatement. He drives down into a pit in between controlled detonations to retrieve his gloves, he dawdles in a car trying to finish an unnecessary defusal when danger is imminent all around. He’s the kind of inspiringly fearless asshole who gets his name into the legends; he’s disarmed over 800 bombs. His adrenaline habit manifests in many ways through the film, from compassion to manly bonding to a lust for vengeance, but the overall impression is of an essential disconnect from every single aspect of life away from the gaping abyss. He snorts up the tension, shudders at its culmination, goes off to prepare for his next fix by sitting in his room with his bomb helmet on, looking like an astronaut who’s only happy when lost in Iraq’s deadly moonscapes, far away from his peers mentally if not physically. He’s given to unexpected moments of genuine kindness, moral outrage and introspection, usually hard-earned, which make him, explosive and dangerous as any bomb, into something tragic. As though this man alienated from his family and liberated by war wasn’t tragic enough already.
The Hurt Locker is a film which gives war more visceral power than anything I’ve seen in years. It’s not about the war as such; there’s no objective document of its cold harsh truths in Bigelow’s vision no matter how stripped down and taut it can be. Rather, by primarily riding its fever thrum at ground level, she proves that cinema can best attain resonance by inhabiting and elucidating personal experience. Characters are allowed to indulge in inane masculine banter no matter how reminiscent it may be of genre pictures gone by, but the difference is that Bigelow has found a way of dissolving every familiar trope into a hallucinogenic haze. When strings swell, they collapse into discord. The overall feel is more like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans than anything else in 2009; a burnt-out, hallucinatory sensory bombardment about a man determined to dance with death at every opportunity.
Bigelow has made of war something nasty and hypnotic and exciting again, and she’s done it by following the opening mantra (“war is a drug”) and injecting every scene full of what she recognizes to be its essence; that terrible combination of fear and exhilaration that comes when apocalypse lurks around every corner. James is labeled a great warrior by one of his comrades, but his stash of mementos in the titular locker are less like enemy scalps than empty needles or bullets from a game of Russian roulette; monuments to the moments when the gulf between life and death is suddenly revealed to be negligible.
The whole thing plays out like the mindset left by any tragedy that yanks out the rug; no wonder America is feeling its pull at the end of this particular decade. It’s one of a spate of recent films to use specific tragedies as looming backdrops, not for the usual politicizing or sentimental portraits about loss and hope, but wild, booming, first-and-foremost cinematic tales about characters’ moral, existential, physical disintegration– each holding up a mirror to the other. Everything here is unsettling and displacing, the usual lines are there but they’re blurry and it doesn’t quite make sense– time will race or stop without warning. Bigelow steps away from the action for a moment to follow a mini-tornado, or a three-legged cat as it hobbles through the haze. It’s deadly beautiful.