Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Thrill, A Kill, A Fix

by Brandon Colvin

I saw The Hurt Locker with my step-dad. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he was a Sergeant in the US Army. During his service in Iraq and Kuwait, and, years earlier, in West Germany, he saw men killed, he saved men’s lives, and he changed. In the deserts, his body frequently dehydrated. Sand particles penetrated his clothes and clogged his pores, preventing his body from sweating. He’s never sweated properly since then. At the slightest bit of heat, he starts gushing. He has to carry around a hand towel to wipe the persistent moisture from his face. Twenty years later, his pores are still compensating, still afraid he might dehydrate. The war made its mark on his body. The mark it made on his mind, though, was made evident when we walked out of the theater.

“Watching that movie put me back in it. The world looks different. It looks like it did when I was in the military. It makes me feel like a machine again.”

The Hurt Locker’s power comes from its ability to inspire this somewhat troubling shift in perspective. The film replicates the frame of mind of the soldier – the justified paranoia, the attention to detail, the reactionary instinct for self-preservation, the willingness to pull the trigger. For my step-dad, a man who has been in combat, the film’s representation of the military mindset is genuine. For me, a man who has never been close to combat, it is damned convincing, allowing me to grasp – if not fully understand – what it means to be a soldier, what it means to kill or be killed, to feel yourself constantly facing death.

Admittedly, there are some aspects of combat, of the soldier mentality that are as impenetrable to my step-dad as they are to me. These are the facets of war The Hurt Locker ultimately attempts to investigate, though the film goes no further than posing questions and suggestions – a wise choice that saves it from didacticism. At the center of this inquiry is the film’s frustrating protagonist, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). Pigheaded, reckless, and inconsiderate, Staff Sgt. James is also a master at his profession – defusing explosives in 2004 Iraq. Working with Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), he fishes for IEDs amidst piles of rubble and trash strewn through Iraqi streets. Staff Sgt. James frequently butts heads with his squad – a pair of soldiers who lost their previous leader to an IED – by ignoring safety regulations, endangering himself and his men and demonstrating what is either a death wish or a massive addiction to adrenaline-fueled high wire antics (as the film’s opening titles state, “War is a drug”). For the ever-responsible and sharp Sgt. Sanborn, James’ behavior is inscrutable, prompting him to ask the compulsive daredevil near the end of the film, “What is it that makes you the way you are?” He only receives a shrug in response.

But Staff Sgt. James is not all bad. Former war correspondent Mark Boal’s screenplay is much smarter than that. He has a hard fought soft spot for his young son, who lives a modest middle-American life with his wife, Connie (Evangeline Lilly) – both of whom James repeatedly chooses to abandon to satisfy his thrill quota on the frontlines, a decision he seems to regret only in quickly passing moments of what he might call weakness. Regardless of his general callousness toward and dissatisfaction with his family, James has a capacity for tenderness, as shown toward Specialist Eldridge, a young and psychologically damaged soldier, and most prominently displayed in the relationship he develops with a young Iraqi boy, one that leaves him vulnerable and ultimately reinforces Staff Sgt. James’ distant, cynical demeanor. The detrimental reality of caring too much hits James hard, interfering with his ability to do his job and compromising him emotionally. Indeed, the truly sympathetic facet of the man is revealed to be a failing as a soldier. Getting too involved means getting dead.

By the end of the film, James’ necessarily detached perspective seems reasonable, even if his near-suicidal bravado does not. His emotional coldness is one of the many aspects of soldiering that the film depicts with startling resonance, the most indelible of which are the sheer physical and temporal realities of life in the field. Depicting both the exhaustive, tense waiting that fills much of a soldier’s time and the abrupt harshness of real violence, The Hurt Locker is paced immaculately – as a whole and on a scene-to-scene basis – achieving an almost inverted approach to action in which gunshots, explosions, and chases are rarely embellished and the anticipatory anxiety surrounding them is allowed to develop, build, and boil over in a way that feels organic and accurate, a testament to the efforts of celebrated director Kathryn Bigelow and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski. The convincing atmospherics and tonal directness of the film’s editing is somewhat compromised by a dependency on slightly gimmicky “24”-style camera techniques (jittery POV shots, rack zooms, handheld to the max), but not enough to prevent absorption into The Hurt Locker’s involving cinematic environment, one so affecting that it hardens the viewer and conditions his mind.

The film’s final shot reveals the actual bleak result of this immersion in war. Staff Sgt. James suits up in his bomb gear. The heavy metal music previously confined to his stereo fills the entire soundtrack with a crunching riff. Having left his family once again, he walks down an Iraqi street. It all resets. Another year begins in his Sisyphean quest to get that mysterious, unreachable high. Cut off from his own humanity, he recedes into the wilderness, a modern version of The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, driven by an implacable existential restlessness. As he marches forth, isolated, we sympathize with James, familiar with his world and subsumed into its reality, but never understanding what leads a man to taunt death, to sacrifice it all for a thrill, a kill, a fix.


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