Urge Overkill

06/24/2009 4:00 AM |

The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Till now cinematic treatments of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have mostly taken overt, superficial political stances by focusing on the moral horrors precipitated by a misguided, meaningless and drawn-out occupation. Enter Kathryn Bigelow. The addictive thanatotic instinct, especially among an endangered species of disenfranchised macho men, has been her field of study over a three-decade career of subversive pulp (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days), and now with The Hurt Locker Bigelow’s made her Full Metal Jacket, a projection of personal preoccupations onto a symbolic theater of war. It’s a difficult character portrait of primal and sociopathic urges channeled into militaristic bravado, a portrait equally multi-layered and incomplete — but I’ll take it any day over, say, Lions for Lambs.

This time her Bodhi is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hot-dogging bomb squad unit leader specializing in dismantling IEDs. Rigged up in protective gear reminiscent of a deep-sea diver’s suit, James is a living Be All You Can Be commercial whose death-courting stunts are looked at in awe and contempt by two rattle-prone underlings (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). But while his shrapnel-scarred, bomb part collecting fetishist stands as a product of a dehumanizing era of technologically advanced war (his mirror image is an Iraqi boy gruesomely transformed into a human explosive) who must resort to greater and greater dosages of risk to feel alive, James’ selfless teamwork and genuine desire to administer justice in a foreign land belies any reduction of his motives to Frankenstein freakishness. Such anti-psychological complexity is visually realized by Bigelow’s meticulously visceral style, her handheld, multiple-camera viewpoints continually shifting the emphasis of vision, power and identification throughout an unconventionally episodic narrative.

But back to our man in Baghdad: with his steely humanity and shit-eating grin masking a profound yet sublimated perversity, James outwardly resembles the cowboy-warrior image Bush pathetically failed to sustain over the course of the botched foreign misadventure into which he led the country. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are as enthralled by this image as they are disturbed by it, an ambivalence summed up in the film’s final, ironic shot of James swaggering back into desert action for one more rush as generic nu-metal blasts into the closing credits. A few years ago such a Marlboro Man parody — whether intentional or not — would have stung without qualification, but in the first major film about Iraq released during the Obama era the joke carries unintended weight. For James the arousal of playing footsie with oblivion never tapers; for the majority of Americans, any initial thrill has long since subsided. Bigelow explores the martial impulse that might pull James, and us, into war, but circumstances far beyond gung-ho bravado are keeping us there.

Opens June 26

One Comment

  • SPOILER ALERT
    Just saw this exceptional movie in Palo Alto, California today. The two-theater plex in which it is being shown is showing it on both screens, which I hope is a harbinger of doing well here. All the performances were incredible. And it was amazing how quickly they killed off both Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes. Jeremy Renner’s performance was unforgettable. Just when I’m agreeing with Sgt. Sanborn that they should “frag” him while they have the chance, other facets of his character are revealed. My fingernails were deep into my palms the whole movie, but nothing was gratuitous. Anthony Mackie was also outstanding. The scene where he asks James how he does it, with his face so somber, clearly feeling some post-traumatic stress disorder, is amazing. As is James’ response. Nothing profound: “I just don’t think about it.” The movie, to me, demonstrates that those exceptional humans who win Congressional Medals of Honor, etc., are just wired differently than the average soldier just trying to survive.