Alfred Hitchcock once said that there’s a big difference between surprise and suspense. I hope he won’t mind if I paraphrase a little. If I were sitting here talking about movies, and my desk were to explode because someone planted a bomb here, that’d be a surprise. Now, if you as the audience knew there was a bomb under my desk, and I sat here for the next six minutes or so blathering on about a movie, only to get up and walk away without the bomb going off, that’s suspense. And we wouldn’t necessarily need jump-cut shots to a ticking timer or dramatic music playing. No, just an establishing shot of the bomb being placed, then me coming in and sitting down to do another one of these recordings, without any other trappings or clever gimmicks. That’s good storytelling, right? Right. The makers of The Hurt Locker know suspense from surprise, and have created one of the most suspenseful movies I have ever seen in my life. It stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse, Ralph Finnes and Guy Pearce.
The Hurt Locker follows the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit Bravo Company during the summer of 2004 in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Will James (Renner) is a soldier who defuses bombs. He’s one of the best, even if his methods can seem a trifle cavalier or even reckless to others, especially Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Mackie), who is charged with James’ safety during his operations. Yet this seeming bravado is just the first impression of a brilliant professional who understands his role in the grand scheme of modern warfare and also carries a great deal of compassion for those around him despite his outward appearances and behavior. As Bravo Company embarks on one potentially deadly mission after another, we are drawn into their lives and shown the environment in which these men toil, from the desolate wastes of the desert to the equally deadly streets of Baghdad.
There are some movies that, when a war is mentioned, I think of almost instantly. World War 2 brings Saving Private Ryan to mind. Discussions of Vietnam trigger memories of Full Metal Jacket. I spend just as much time remembering Jarhead as I do my own childhood experiences when the first Gulf War is mentioned. The current conflict in the Middle East remains a muddy, ill-defined struggle, but The Hurt Locker brings the lives of the participants into sharp relief. This film is every bit as intimate as it is intense. It never becomes political or preachy, focusing entirely on these men and the situations into which they put themselves day after day. Like the other films I’ve mentioned, we see these soldiers not so much as swaggering macho heroes but more as flawed, driven human beings who are all the more heroic because of their shortcomings.
“This one, I’m gonna disarm with the sheer power of my massive balls.”
This film is almost entirely without a musical score. The scenes involving the defusing of explosive devices and stalking an enemy sniper are possessed of a chilling stillness, which builds the tension with each passing, quiet moment. The shots are not cut short to try and jar us into a tense feeling artificially, but are left long on the faces and fingers of the protagonists, ensuring we understand who is doing what at which point in time and thus becoming more invested in the outcome of the scene. And in an odd yet telling juxtaposition, one of the film’s closing scenes that takes place in a suburban supermarket, far from the front or anything resembling danger, has an extremely similar stillness about it.
A lesser team of storytellers might pack a film like this with explosions from end to end. But considering this is a story about soldiers tasked with disarming ordnance, rather than setting it off, one of the many factors of The Hurt Locker that works so well is the fact that we are aware of the fact that any of the bombs we see might go off. Hitchcock would be proud, as writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow build layer upon layer in every scene to mount the tension to an explosive potential not unlike that possessed by the bombs themselves. It’s also established very early in the film that these are not the sort of explosions that our heroes can have much hope of outrunning. There are no rushing fireballs chasing our heroes down corridors here, no shiny CGI to make these explosions look larger than life. They don’t have to be larger than life: they are awesome, deadly and downright ugly just as they are. You don’t want to be anywhere near them, yet the men and women whose daily lives inspired the story of Bravo Company choose to get right next to them every single day.
“I popped that smoke myself. Why? Because covering fire is for pussies.”
This is one of those movies I’m sorry I missed in the theater. Not because I think it would be more impressive on a big screen, since it held me in rapt attention from start to finish on my television just as it would in a cinema. No, I would have liked to given these artists more monetary support. The talent on display in The Hurt Locker, from Jeremy Renner’s star-making performance to Katheryn Bigelow’s near-perfect direction to Mark Boal’s captivating screenplay, is a wonder to behold in a cinematic environment where gimmick is king and stories are often sacrificed on the altar of CGI and cheap adaptations. Whatever your feelings might be about the conflict in Iraq, the United States military or a movie that didn’t do all that well at the box office, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. I think it’s a strong contender for Best Picture at the Oscars, provided James Cameron doesn’t buy the committee five-star dinners and oral sex with his massive box office returns.
The bombs in the film are designed to blow up human targets. If you’re anything like me, you will agree The Hurt Locker is designed to blow your mind.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.