Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Overrated for all the right reasons
The following is part of my Second Chances series, which involves revisiting acclaimed movies that I didn't love as much as most people did. It runs on Tuesdays.
I had a very peculiar perspective on last year's Oscar race. The film I wanted to win was Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. But it was pretty clear that wasn't going to happen. So I had to pick a horse that was actually in the race, and it was really a two-horse race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.
Strangely, I picked the film I liked less.
That's right, I wanted The Hurt Locker to win, even though I had it ranked a full 31 slots behind Avatar on my 2009 year-end rankings (#37 vs. #68).
You'd think that kind of thing would be cut-and-dried, but of course it isn't. I may have thought Avatar was a better version of what it was trying to be than The Hurt Locker was of what it was trying to be, but I was also hugely sick of James Cameron by that point. Avatar had horrified me by becoming the highest grossing film of all time with a sub-par story, and I was feeling more and more warmly about the story of Kathryn Bigelow being recognized for her years in the industry, which produced at least one truly great film (Strange Days). Besides, there were plenty of other films I ranked ahead of The Hurt Locker that I wouldn't have thought should beat it in a (theoretical) best picture race -- I won't name them here, because some of them are too embarrassing. It's just the nature of the kind of year-end list in which you reward romantic comedies that were much better than you expected them to be, and punish, relatively speaking, war movies that didn't quite live up to the hype.
I actually saw The Hurt Locker very early in its hype cycle -- in fact, I think I saw it before anyone else I knew saw it. So when I came out of the theater disappointed -- thumbs up, but still disappointed -- it was based purely on the success of what I saw before me, not on knowing it was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last couple years.
Two things in particular bothered me about The Hurt Locker: 1) its episodic nature, 2) its main character. Let's start with the slightly easier one.
Few films are structured as generally unrelated episodes, and there's a reason for that. We the audience crave the traditional three-act narrative. We want to have a conflict set up in the beginning, and watch as it evolves toward a conclusion, one that springs logically from what has come before. This doesn't mean we want movies to be cookie cutter versions of each other, but that's the beauty of the three-act structure -- there are plenty of things you can tweak and change, and still stick to that basic structure in a way that will satisfy even the most particular film fans.
You could argue that The Hurt Locker has a general three-act structure within its series of episodes. You do, actually, follow the emotional journey of three main characters -- more on that in a minute. But the actual action that takes place is almost completely episodic. None of the incidents portrayed in The Hurt Locker relate to any of the other incidents, except tangentially, and more problematically, they don't build in intensity over the course of the narrative.
If screenwriter Mark Boal had at least given us episodes that were exclusively related to the defusing of bombs, The Hurt Locker would work a little bit more for me, almost like a series of half-hour TV shows, in which hot shot bomb technician Will James (Jeremy Renner) must sort out a different crisis with a different improvised explosive device each week. But one of the film's most interesting interludes is actually one of its most detrimental to the cohesiveness of the whole. I really enjoy the scene where James, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) happen across a team of British soldiers with car trouble, and come under the attack of an insurgent sniper. It's long and drawn out, and involves a lot of counterintuitive philosophy about what's needed to flush out an unseen assailant. But what does it have to do with preventing bombs from exploding? Not a whole lot. It's just another incident in these characters' lives, which is fine -- but which means it's probably superfluous. In the world and timeline of any movie you see, there are events that befall the characters that are not dramatized, precisely because they don't advance the narrative nor tell you more about the characters in question.
I remember feeling especially disappointed during the scene where James tries to disarm the innocent man who has the bomb locked to his body -- the film's final set piece. I could tell by the film's pacing and the amount of time that had passed that this was probably the last scene, but nothing else about that scene made it seem like it had greater stakes than any other scene. Sure, it ends with James unable to defuse a bomb for the first time, but that's because it's the only bomb he encounters with a timer. In a traditionally structured film, James' failure in this scene would serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that he's not invincible and that his cocksure methods don't always yield results. Instead, the man blows up simply because there are too many locks for James to cut in the allotted time. James puts himself in harm's way to try to save the man, but that's not really any different than he's been doing the whole movie. Boal and Bigelow try to get us for a moment by suggesting that James might have been killed in the blast, but it's only a moment. Then his body twitches and he's fine.
James' motivations seem like a pretty good way to segue into my other main problem in the film, which comes down to his character. Is his character the main character? Or is this the story of Sanborn and Eldridge?
Again that question comes down to structure. Sanborn and Eldridge are in the narrative from the start. They're alongside Thompson (Guy Pearce) when he's killed in the opening scene. (And as an aside, I'm not really sure why Thompson dies in this scene -- he seems reasonably far away from the blast, but maybe that's just how they had to film it. I guess he's supposed to have gotten hit in the back of the head with shrapnel, because his face spurts blood.) Anyway, it's not until the second scene, maybe 15 minutes in, that James appears. He appears as the unpredictable "other" that our protagonists -- at least you'd think they were the protagonists -- have to deal with. He's like a bit of a ticking time bomb himself, distant and unknowable. And like true protagonists, Sanborn and Eldridge go on to have emotional journeys. Sanborn, once saying he's not ready for fatherhood, ends the film weeping and talking about his desire to have a son. Eldridge, afraid of dying, ends up leaving Iraq safe, but with a leg full of friendly fire. We know they are both trying to live out a clock of dwindling days, shown on the screen from time to time, before the end of their tour. Fortunately for them, both do.
And then somewhere in the second act, the ticking time bomb becomes the protagonist. We still don't know Will James, but suddenly, it's his story, he who appears in all the scenes while Sanborn and Eldridge fade into a clearly secondary role. Another way to tell: When Renner got nominated for an Oscar, it was in the best actor category, not best supporting actor. Either of those other two surely would have been nominated as supporting actors, if the Academy had deemed their performances worthy.
So first James is this hot shot who disregards protocol but gets the desired results -- a maddening combination for anyone who works with him. You can't quibble with the outcome, but the means to that end are extremely frustrating. James has the attitude of a disinterested professional brought in to solve the simple problem of disarming a bomb, without attaching any moral judgments to the scenario. He just has a job to do, and that's it. The trickier it is, the more he likes it.
But somewhere along the line, he takes a real position against the Iraqis. They are no longer just an abstract stimulus for his work, but an actual enemy, one that boils his blood. This transition is not handled particularly effectively. The incident that seems to push James from disinterested to interested is finding the rigged body of the boy he believes is the same boy who has been trying to sell him DVDs, with whom he has bonded in a very superficial way. (Of course, it's not actually that boy, which we don't discover until later -- and it's not clear entirely what message we're supposed to take from this -- all hodgies look the same?) It's this incident that directly inspires him to take another merchant hostage in his truck and go off the reservation, which is by far the film's weakest scene. The scene is sort of in keeping with his character, in the sense that he's a risk taker who doesn't follow rules. But it's out of character in that it involves a loss of cool, a bubbling up of emotions we didn't previously think he was capable of.
This scene is a cousin of the scene later in the film, when James forces Sanborn and Eldridge to pursue the ghosts of insurgents he imagines are watching after a successful bomb blast where his team wasn't present. You'd think James would have a dispassionate perspective -- I won last round, they won this round, that kind of thing -- but instead he takes it personally, and like a paranoid, runs off after unseen bombers, getting Eldridge wounded in action. Eldridge later accuses him of seeking an adrenaline fix, and that may be all it is, but it seems like James is finally taking a position in this war, and really cares about beating the enemy. The problem is, this emotional change does not seem earned -- it just gets introduced because it needs to be. Afterward, he goes back and turns the shower on his head to cool himself off, without removing his uniform. The "come to Jesus" moment in the shower is an iconic cinematic scene, but it doesn't really feel earned here.
It's supposed to feel ominous at the end when James returns for another tour, and we learn that he has 365 days remaining. But it's hard to feel that way. Sanborn and Eldridge were the ones who wanted to get out -- James never did. If James doesn't care whether he lives or dies, why should we?
As you can probably tell, my perspective on The Hurt Locker has not changed radically after seeing it a second time. I still have the same basic criticisms. I always thought it was an extremely solidly crafted war movie with some intense moments, but I never thought the moments were as intense as other people did -- simply put, I never really thought there was a moment when Will James might die.
I do, however, insist that The Hurt Locker is overrated for the right reasons. It's a modestly budgeted war movie with a minimum of melodrama. It's a macho movie directed by a woman whose career is easy to cheer. The cinematography is excellent and the performances are first rate. It's the ultimate David that beat the ultimate Goliath (Avatar). I just wish Boal hadn't been awarded an Oscar for his script, because that is and always has been my primary complaint about the movie. Unfortunately, it's a pretty big one.
Second Chance Verdict, The Hurt Locker: A movie it's easy to cheer, even if it's not my favorite movie. And a more deserving Oscar winner than He's Just Not That Into You, The Proposal, and some other movies I ranked ahead of it. (Shit, I just named them, even though I said it was too embarrassing. I hope it shows guts that I'm willing to live with the judgments I entered into the official record).