The Hurt Locker’s Flaws Expose A Larger Critical Failing

12/16/2009 3:53 PM |

Exploding Ya Critical Faculties!
  • Exploding Ya Critical Faculties!

My brother was surprised to hear that I liked Inglourious Basterds so much and demanded I explain why. After extolling the virtues of such flawless formalism—that opening scene! that basement bar shootout!—I mentioned how sick I was of W.W. II movies, one after the other sodden in teary banalities, and that what I liked most about Tarantino’s movie was the way it kicked cliches’ asses. What W.W. II movies?, he asked. Uh. A Secret. A Woman in Berlin. Katyn. And others I didn’t see because I didn’t need to, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. You know, foreign movies that nobody’s ever heard of. “Ah,” he said. You’re in too deep.

Though I still think Inglourious Basterds is a great movie, he may have had a point (and maybe I liked The Memory Thief more than its sloppy construction merited?): film critics see too many movies, and they might extol one in particular because of the way it fits into a context that no one else but film critics could appreciate.

This seems to be what’s happening right now with The Hurt Locker.

I missed The Hurt Locker when it opened and, after all the critical encomia that followed, it became the top film on my list of movies to catch up with. Well, I finally did. And I don’t want to suggest that it’s not a good film; hell, it might even be great. Director Kathryn Bigelow fashions an unbearably tense portrait of a bomb squad in Iraq that examines the irresponsibility of reckless bravado, stereotypically portrayed as heroic, and the addictive rush of war that encourages it. But Mark Boal’s script goes from a seeming authentic portrait of uneasy camaraderie during wartime duress—his resume includes “war correspondent”—to embarrassingly schmaltzy. (The rest of the paragraph features spoilers.) He kills a kid to wring emotions from the audience and lead character, and then, in a shamelessly cheap reveal, the kid ain’t really dead! There’s a kindly chaplin as blatantly marked for death as Greta Gerwig in The House of the Devil. (And a cheap, manipulative death at that!) Worst of all, there’s the protagonist’s phone call to the wife with whom he’s having problems in which he doesn’t say anything (“Will, is that you?”) before he hangs up. Grooooooooan! All that’s missing is a Sophie’s Choice or three.

As my editor Mark Asch has been writing in blog posts all week, The Hurt Locker is flawed. Compelling, intelligent, well-directed—but flawed. You wouldn’t be able to tell from all the praise, though. The New York Film Critics Circle just dubbed it best picture, as did Los Angeles’ equivalent critics association. In a year that featured Summer Hours and Two Lovers and Tokyo Sonata and a long list of other great films—this was your best?

The problem here is that The Hurt Locker is an Iraq Movie and, over the last several years, all of the movies that have attempted to tackle that Conflict of the Times (and related issues of terrorism and war in the Mid-East—critics love the zeitgeist!) have been greeted with disappointment by critics and low-turnout by audiences: In the Valley of Elah, Stop Loss, Lions for Lambs, and Redacted; Body of Lies and The Kingdom. That The Hurt Locker addresses the Iraq War and isn’t a terrible movie (and, more notably, isn’t a liberal weepie that waves its finger at the Bush administration) makes it a goddam miracle in the eyes of critics who have to watch all these middling Iraq movies that the rest of the citizenry just doesn’t see. And therefore they hype it up, and make it sound better than it is.

The Hurt Locker might be the best Iraq Movie of the decade. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best movie of the year. Not by a long shot.