Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I still remember a film review that Roger Ebert wrote 5 years ago. It was for an Afghan film called "Osama":

Who will go to see "Osama?" I don't know. There is after all that new Adam Sandler movie, and it's a charmer. And "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" is opening, for fans of campy trash. I'm not putting them down. People work hard for their money, and if they want to be entertained, that's their right. But brave dissenting Islamic filmmakers are risking their lives to tell the story of the persecution of women, and it is a story worth knowing, and mourning.

It's been on my to-watch list since then. I keep putting it off because it will probably be depressing, but I also feel like I should watch it, so I keep it near the bottom of my netflix queue, along with a bunch of documentaries.

My reaction to The Hurt Locker was similar. It came out months ago, but I kept putting it off, and only just went to see it yesterday. You should go see it too.

It's a brutal film. Over two hours of minimalist tension. There's essentially no plot: the movie skips over most of the characters' between-mission activities. The team start a mission, risk their lives, and then if all goes well, the mission ends... and then the movie skips forward to the next mission and repeats essentially the same story. This happens maybe 8-9 times. For almost the entire duration of the film, everyone on screen is under lethal danger.

The film follows a bomb disposal team. Other characters move in and out of the story, without really coming into focus, like John Travolta, and George Clooney in The Thin Red Line. Unlike Malick's masterpiece (one of my all-time favourites), the Hurt locker is focused on actions not thoughts. It is primal where The Thin Red Line was cerebral.

People die, and the tension comes from not knowing if/which characters will survive each scene, and from the slow pace of the narrative. I kept wanting the movie to go faster, to tell me how it will end. Watching the main character wipe pebbles off of an explosive device, or a sniper swat flies from his face left me squirming uncomfortably - and why shouldn't it? I'll probably never be in a war zone, a film like this is the closest I'll ever get. If a film aims to depict the wartime experience, it probably should realistically convey the fear and uncertainty that (I assume) soldiers experience.

This movie is full of basic, animal truth. It's hard to compare a film like this to other movies that have completely different goals. So, I'm not necessarily saying that this movie is "the best" of the year (Ponyo, was amazing). I just hope that, in a year where movies like the Hurt Locker exist, they don't go around giving Oscar's to yuppie-baiting garbage like Crash, or Babel.

One final comment: I recommend you watch this while it's in theaters. If you watch it on DVD, you'll almost certainly pause it, or watch it in bits and pieces, just because it's unsettling, and because you can. It won't be the same experience as being subjected to the full film all in one go, a captive of the cinematheque.

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