I generally avoid writing about American films on this blog, primarily because there seem to be so few interesting ones to see, let alone bother formulating a response to. Somewhere over the last ten years something seems to have gone horribly wrong with US film-making. Blame Bush, blame the success of the American Pie series, but American cinema badly needs an injection of reality (and imagination). The studios offer a turgid sea of sex comedies, comic book adaptations and remakes , while most people’s idea of a good indie movie, these days, isn’t The Apostle, Ulee’s Gold or Sling Blade but the painfully smug and bogus likes of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. Or the equally smug and bogus (self-) “important” films: Syriana, Goodnight and Good Luck, Crash.
Surprisingly, though, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is worth seeing. It might be the best American Iraq War-related movie yet (not that there’s much competition for that particular title), and it’s certainly a vast improvement on the dire In The Valley of Elah, the original story for which was also written by Mark Boal. Drawing on Boal’s experience as an “embed” with a bomb disposal squad, The Hurt Locker follows a team made up of Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and leader Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) whose reckless, getting-off-on-it approach to his work intrigues and frightens the other men.
The movie pulls you in from its opening scene: it’s visceral, with hand-held camera-work putting the viewer right there. Bigelow orchestrates the big set-pieces superbly and finds interesting, unexpected details in them: a cat limping across the road, a fly going into someone’s mouth. (There’s also a lovely little scene in which James dons his disposal helmet while lying on his bed.) The film's dynamic formal interplay between distance and closeness is echoed in the slippery relationship between the three protagonists, each expertly acted by the leads. Cool cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes are also effective.
Even so, there’s something a bit dubious about Bigelow and Boal’s creation of what is, essentially, a gung-ho action movie (which opens with the Chris Hedges quote “War is a drug”) out of an ongoing tragedy. There’s an odd mix of subtlety and banality to Boal’s writing: some scenes are brilliantly realised, others clunk. (The biggest clunker has the previously commitment-shy Sanborn tearfully declaring “I want a son!” after a particularly close encounter.) An initially affecting subplot about James’s relationship with an Iraqi boy named Beckham is also badly botched. While it’s certainly a relief that the film doesn’t take the obvious route of having James stay with kid and wifey (Evangeline Lilly, in the very definition of a thankless non-role) back in the US (or Canada, masquerading), the tone still seems off in the glib final sequence as he returns to Iraq and strides, smiling, towards the next unexpected bomb. The movie tells us “War is a drug” but could have dug deeper into the implications of that thesis. But if there are contradictions in what Bigelow and Boal are doing here, The Hurt Locker still feels like the most authentic depiction of Iraq war experience yet to reach the screen.