Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hurts So Good

The title of this post is more than an awful pun. The Hurt Locker is an excruciating film, but it is excruciating for all the right reasons. I'm not a big fan of Kafka, but I heard a quote from him a couple years back that's been kicking around ever since; "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?" There's a lot to be said for stories (and movies) that let us dream and remove us from reality. Hell, it's the sort of fiction I am more inclined to produce myself, but by and large, I have found that the stories which wound, stab and bludgeon us tend to make more of an impression on our lives. Case in point: The Hurt Locker.

There are three movie posters in this post, but only this one is any good. The other two are make it look like a generic action flick and feature broad, bland tag-lines that have next to nothing to do with the film.

For those who don't know, the movie is about an army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq nearing the end of it's rotation. Even though it is currently being marketed as an action affair (read my rant in the poster captions), it is a much more cerebral experience. Whereas the modern action film is all about constant movement, Hurt Locker is about waiting.  The explosion does not receive as much emphasis as the bomb that has not yet gone off. When firearms are drawn, they usually result in standoffs as opposed to firefights, and the most compelling exchange of firearms is a protracted sniper duel in the desert. Each of these scenes are overlaid with other sources of abstract tension. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I make no promises. Proceed with caution.

The film begins with the death of the EOD squad leader, and the arrival of his replacement, an experienced army ranger with an apparent death wish. Even before the team goes on their first mission together, we have a huge knot of emotional tension in play. The youngest member of the unit is wracked with guilt over the death of his commanding squad leader, and the middle member of the squad has a rather curt introduction with the new squad leader. Their first deployment together is a haunting echo of the prior squad leader's death, but whereas the last squad leader died despite being cautious and cooperative with his squad, the veteran ranger is reckless, non-communicative and unbelievably cocky. But he survives, and disarms a frightening number of bombs in the process. This victory obliterates traditional moral paradigms. It is unfair that the last commander died when he played by the book, and it is unfair that some cocky son of a bitch swaggers up like a hero and comes out on top even though he places his squad at risk. This unfairness is one of the wounds Hurt Locker inflicts on it's audiences.

"You'll know when you're in it." Really? Is this the best the marketing department could come up with? Worse yet, the poster emphasizes guns and explosions as opposed to the bombs themselves. 

Admittedly, unfairness in war is hardly fresh territory. It is the films' decision based approach to unfairness in war that is compelling. Each mission in the movie confronts viewers with the no-right answer situations soldiers h face on the battlefield. Do you shoot that Iraqi holding a cellphone? He might be dialing in the bomb your squad mate is disarming. Or maybe he doesn't have a cellphone at all. Your squad leader has led you into a firefight, and you think you see movement. You ask what to do, and he tells you "Be smart. Make a good decision." These scenarios serve as richter scale, charting the jagged line between figuring shit out for yourself and doing as you are told. Having never served in the military, it would be absurd and offensive for me to speculate about what that sort of life is like, but from what I've read and heard from people who have served, The Hurt Locker seems to accurately capture the dynamics of that life. War is about working together by yourself. It is about waiting, and knowing when you can't afford to wait any longer.

For me, the most compelling scene in the movie--your cue to skip this paragraph if you intend to see the film-- was not the sniper battle, or any of the bomb diffusion sequences, but a scene in the cereal aisle of a supermarket. Our Angel of Death army ranger stands before the candy colored sprawl of boxes, at a loss for which box he should pick up. That was the point at which the movie thrust the knife home for me. Two seconds ago, we were in Iraq, cutting bomb wires and now cereal. There is no patriotic swell of music, or some lofty speech about how the sacrifices made have all been noble and good; just a man and cereal.

"War is a Drug." This is a slightly better tag-line, but drug imagery has no explicit presence in the film. The metaphor is accurate, but its brevity makes it sound simple and cheap-witted. Some movies don't need soundbites to succeed.

Hurt Locker isn't an easy movie to watch but it is gripping, deeply effective and very timely. I love Netflix--it is to movies what TiVo is to the TV-- but you really should see this film in theaters. As far as suspenseful atmospheres go, it's hard to beat a dark stadium and an inescapably large screen. Hopefully it's well-deserved Oscar for Best Picture will give it some legs in extended release theaters.

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