Monday, March 8, 2010

"The Hurt Locker": the best picture (and Best Picture) of 2009

I am pleased to report that last night, the Academy got it right.

Kathryn Bigelow became the first female director to be awarded Best Director. The smallest-grossing Oscar-nominated film of all time beat the highest-grossing juggernaut in movie history for the prize of Best Picture.

I've been a vocal supporter of this movie since seeing it in theaters last summer and multiple times these past few months. It's gratifying to see my snobbery, at least once, was paralleled in the sentiments of the Academy.

Is the film perfect? No. It has its share of Hollywood implausibilities, and it's almost an anti-plot movie.

Is the film, in the words of Richard Corliss' spoiler-addled review, "near-perfect"? Absolutely.

The premise is simple. With hardly a month left in their rotation, bomb-squad members Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are put under the command of William James (Jeremy Renner). James is an adrenaline junkie who plays by his own rules, and Sanborn and Eldridge begin to wonder if they'll make it home alive.

What makes the film so distinct from all other recent war movies, Iraq-based or otherwise, is Bigelow's careful handling of our central characters. Most war movies have your archetypes: the gutsy leader, the scrawny kid that delivers in the end, the cocky loud-mouth who's the first casualty.

The Hurt Locker avoids these cliches. James is an anti-hero who takes things too far, but he is not a villain. Sanborn is a by-the-books soldier, but he's not uncomplicated or foolish. Eldridge is young, but not a coward or brash. These characters feel like real people, so they are perhaps not easy to understand, but easy to care about.

The other major cliche not to found in The Hurt Locker is editorializing on combat. We're not given any lectures on what war is or the politics behind our involvement in Iraq; the only thing coming close is a very brief reflection by one of our soldiers on how uncertain their day-to-day job is.

The Hurt Locker doesn't tell us what we should think about everything occurring on screen. It presents the action for what it is, and gives us the credit of being intelligent enough to form our own opinions. This is perhaps best exemplified in a scene where Eldridge sees James with his shirt off and sees what looks like frag scars on his side. James says it's damage from when his mother dropped him when he was a baby. It is dismissed immediately, and never again referred to, but we're given an extra dimension of who James is with, literally, six seconds of screen time.

The film is visceral to the point of being exhausting. In every action set-piece, from bomb dismantlings to a desert shootout, there are dozens of red-herrings and unresolved interactions with locals who may or may not be combatants. When other critics have referred to this movie as realistic, that is what they are speaking to - the constant stress of urban combat where you don't know what to expect and danger can come from any source. Despite the inaccuracies, such as the soldiers' uniforms, or implausibilities, such as the aforementioned desert shootout, The Hurt Locker finds a higher truth through its fiction: that combat is unrelentingly dangerous and unpredictable, but for some, it is the only in the constant face of death that they know how to really live. It does this better than any other war film I have personally seen.

The craftsmanship behind The Hurt Locker, from Bigelow's directing, to the cast's performances, to the cinematography, is all superb. It's a challenging film, but thankfully, it gained some well-deserved recognition last evening.

The Hurt Locker was the best-made film of 2009. Oddly, on Hollywood's biggest night, it was recognized as such.

Don't take my word for it.

TOO MUCH: The side plot with the boy, and the ending of the scene in the desert, could have each been trimmed by a half-minute.

COULD HAVE USED MORE: Cameos from great actors.

FILM SNOB NOTE: The film was shot in Jordan, right next to Iraq, and on multiple occasions during filming the crew was fired upon.

IHYFM RATING: FIVE out of FIVE MEHS. The film is, in every aspect of its execution, excellent.

IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: You're the first person I'd want to see a movie with, and the last I'd want to help defuse a bomb.


  1. I love this review.

    Especially this amazing line:
    "The Hurt Locker finds a higher truth through its fiction: that combat is unrelentingly dangerous and unpredictable, but for some, it is the only in the constant face of death that they know how to really live."