Archive for September 4, 2009

Shellshocked

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 4, 2009 by dcairns

the-hurt_lockerMake it look like a video game? Well, maybe, if it gets the audience to come.

I sometimes worry that, with age creeping in, this blog will become a series of enthusiastic reviews of old movies, even really stupid or trashy ones, and grouchy, negative reviews of modern movies. So a film like THE HURT LOCKER comes as a real boon, because I can totally celebrate it. If I have any complaint (apart from the detailed political take-down that follows), it’s that the title sounds off-puttingly serious. It is a serious film, but it’s also utterly thrilling. They should counter the title with a tagline like “You will gnaw your own knees off with suspense!” ~ The Independant on Sunday.

The director, Kathryn Bigelow, male gigolo, has had an odd, patchy career of late, and I haven’t caught her more recent films (K19: THE WINDOWMAKER, THE WEIGHT OF WATER), though I did enjoy her fin-de-siecle VR epic STRANGE DAYS, written by her ex-hubbie James Cameron and presented to her as part of their divorce settlement, I believe. Kind of a booby-trapped gift, since after becoming the most expensive film ever directed by a woman, it rolled over and died at the box office and left her career severely hobbled.

kathrynbigelow01Your breasts are the shells I adore.

Bigelow has always inclined to male-centered stories, hence the flip nickname I’ve given her, but I may have to retire that because she’s now genuinely worth taking seriously. Oliver Stone himself, with that complete lack of irony we’ve all grown to know and flinch from, said her work as a student had a lot of balls. Movies like POINT BREAK problematized the idea of a woman making boys’ films, since apart from the eroticizing of the male body (which several straight male action directors have also done), it was hard to see what the point of a woman director was when, as my friend Ben Halligan pointed out, the woman in that film fulfills all the usual stereotyped roles: object to be gazed at by the male characters; object to be competed over by the male characters; object that disappears from the plot to allow the male characters to wrap things up man to man. Throw in some gratuitous t&a, and Bigelow looked like she was happy to uncritically service the status quo, and maybe even push it to new extremes in order to prove her allegiance. (Having said that, NEAR DARK and BLUE STEEL do show at least somewhat more interesting and nuanced gender politics.)

The action of THE HURT LOCKER focuses so entirely on men that sexuality hardly gets a look in. Stationed in Iraq, the protagonists have no access to women (Arab countries don’t seem to offer the r&r possibilities of the far east) and entertain themselves in their off-hours by punching one another in the stomach (the manliest past-time I’ve ever seen). As Bigelow has said, the film doesn’t offer an analysis of why these men, or the Americans and British in general, are in Iraq, keeping the film’s point-of-view aligned with that of the three main characters, a bomb disposal team in Baghdad. This means that the film breaks down into a series of suspense sequences in which roadside bombs are defused or detonated, with only the briefest of vignettes of off-duty activity in between. At the end of the screening I felt exhilarated… and jumpy.

hurt

There are some issues with this approach. A critique of the war emerges, but really it’s a portrait of occupation and conflict in general. While war emerges as something you wouldn’t want to get mixed up in (although its terrible addictive appeal is also seductively woven through the narrative), I don’t think this holds up as an anti-Iraq-war movie. The one thing everybody can agree on is that bad things happen in war. I doubt this movie would change the minds of any hawkish neocons: it’s a compelling and convincing portrayal of the stresses of military action, and it might make some undecided viewers wish for a quicker resolution to the war, but despite the feeling of futility much of the action engenders, there’s nothing to convince us that this war is worse than any other. (What makes it worse is its venal and unnecessary nature.)

The focus on three characters also stops the movie from dealing closely with Iraqi characters: the damage done to the people of the invaded country isn’t shown, since the civilian population are significant only in that any one of them may turn out to be an insurgent. “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he probably is now,” deadpans the reckless SSgt James (Jeremy Renner) as a taxi driver is bundled off by security forces. Perhaps the script, by former Iraq-based journalist Mark Boal, could have found more time for the Iraqi people. Inevitably, in a situation like that portrayed so vividly in the movie, innocent civilians will get hurt and killed by western forces, but the script avoids dealing with this.

Twice in the film, Iraqis put themselves in danger through a failure to understand the situation, and I wondered about this… of course, language and cultural differences make miscommunication all too possible, but did the taxi driver who drives straight through a roadblock, and the shopkeeper who makes a mobile phone call, really not notice the guns aimed at them? In showing these civilians as, essentially, retarded aliens, the film does somewhat buy into the assumptions about the relative value of American and Iraqi lives that made the war possible. On the other hand, both those characters MAY have been insurgents…

Having got all that out of the way, I can’t urge you strongly enough to see the film, which is an incredibly slick, well-played, psychologically insightful and palm-sweatingly tense thriller. No taint of worthiness hangs over the proceedings. Bigelow gets her rocks off on the military hardware and mega-slo-mo effects, but doesn’t lose sight of the film’s overall purpose, which undercuts the high-tech heroics (a drone like the metal beastie from SHORT CIRCUIT does the really dangerous work, while Renner dons a full ROBOCOP costume to get up close and personal with explosive devices). The sound design alone, full of nervy little clinks and jangles, as well as the dreaded big bangs, makes this a cinema must. The photography, by Ken Loach regular Barry Ackroyd, goes for that kinetic, confused docu-style hyperactivity, but avoids the irritating excesses of visual incoherence that mar much modern cinema. It’s the same device, but under control.

Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are all excellent, and their unfamiliarity helps the film — see it now before they become famous and spoil everything. I particularly love the way Bigelow starts the film by killing the guy who looks like a leading man. Start as you mean to go on.

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