If past numbers are to be trusted, movies set in the midst of violent and controversial wars in present day Iraq and Afghanistan tend to not do well at the box office. With a relatively minor budget of $25 million, Stop-Loss sank, making only a fraction of it back at just over $11 million. Combine the disappointing intakes of Rendition and In the Valley of Elah and you don't even match what Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made in a single day (which is a sad statement on society, I might add). It's disheartening to see these interesting and insightful, albeit flawed, films get overlooked, but if there's one that may be able to break this poor streak, it's The Hurt Locker. To put it simply, it's one of the best films of the year.
The flick follows three soldiers, a bomb defusing team tasked with finding and defusing IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). I would go further into the plot, but truth be told, there's not much else to it. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, but The Hurt Locker only has a beginning. Once the credits start to roll, no real resolution is reached. In fact, the previous events all seem to begin again. It plays into the idea that war is a vicious cycle and has no end. In this case, lack of a conclusion works to its advantage.
That's not to say it doesn't have a point to make. Given the subject matter, one would rightfully assume a statement would be made, but it's not the one you might expect. In actuality, the film doesn't so much comment on the war as it does explore the effects it has on the soldiers who fight it. Republican, Democrat, or other, there's no arguing the mental anguish these soldiers go through during and after war. The movie, through its extensive study into its characters, really taps into the emotional turmoil many have to deal with. Some become increasingly angry, some find it hard to carry on normally with so much death surrounding them and others become so addicted to war that it becomes all that they know. The Hurt Locker is a non-partisan film that delves into an important topic, examining the health of our soldiers defending us from harm, and it's an excellent one at that.
Naturally, this study of real life problems soldiers have wouldn't mean much if the surrounding film lacked a visceral punch. Luckily, the film is well rounded, almost never at fault and is brilliantly directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who carries herself with aplomb, ratcheting up the camerawork when necessary, but allowing her actors and the natural suspense of diffusing a bomb carry most of the movie. There is real tension here, never manipulative or forced, rarely relying on frantic camera movements or overly loud music to bump up the action.
Even with the ample amount of suspense, it sometimes built up into nothing, but the strange thing is that it was never a disappointment. The film feels so natural and the circumstances so real that you don't want it to explode into violence. These characters are authentic, with the illusion of actual soldiers conveyed through several excellent performances, and I didn't want to see them in harm's way. In other movies, this build up with no payoff would be a problem. Here, it's a relief.
At times, I felt like I was in the field with these soldiers, not merely watching from my comfortable chair in a crowded theater, which is in large part due to the shaky cam technique Bigelow uses, similar to something like Cloverfield, but not nearly as excessive. In most movies, this style of filmmaking is unnecessary, but here it worked to the film's advantage. Along with the gritty look of the film, the shaky camera helped me immerse myself into what was going on, sweeping me away in this riveting and powerful drama.
If there's one knock against the film, it is its length. It's over two hours long and a scene or two could have been trimmed up a bit, including one that depicts a sniper battle between Iraqi insurgents and the American troops. Despite the gunfire and blood splatters, the main purpose of this scene was for one of the soldiers to have an emotional breakthrough, making the decision to gun down an enemy, presumably marking his first kill, but it took far too long for it happen. While it played to the reality of the situation, this is still a movie and tight editing and smooth transitioning is a must. This section in particular lacked both.
However, that's one minor quibble in what is otherwise an astonishing piece of art. Every performance is spot on, the tension is real, and the opening is one of the most breathtaking moments in film since the coin flip scene in No Country for Old Men. Everything about The Hurt Locker adds up to one exceptional experience that you won't soon forget and is one of the must see movies of 2009.
The Hurt Locker receives 5/5