Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Hurt Locker: The Most Overrated Film of the Year?

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 3, 2009

OK, before anyone asks, I have no intention of writing about the Roman Polanski arrest. I know this has been fodder for virtually every film-related website in existence, but it’s just not what I do. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion; I just don’t feel that a movie-review website is the appropriate forum in which to have that discussion. As far as I’m concerned, it is a legal matter, between Polanski, the victim and the legal system. Anything else is just people’s opinion, and we all know what those are like. If you want to have a discussion about the man’s films, I’m all for that. I could talk about Roman Polanski’s films all day long. I consider him one of the great artists of modern cinema, and I will continue to enjoy his work in the future. And that’s the only statement I want to make about it. Whatever happens is going to happen, no matter what anyone thinks about the whole situation. I just don’t see the point in airing out someone else’s dirty laundry in this venue. Sometimes the classiest thing to do is to simply shut the fuck up. So let’s do ourselves a favor and spend our time talking about movies, OK?

Meanwhile, I finally got to see Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker last week. It finally came to my area after a good three months in release. For those who aren’t familiar, this is basically a drama about a three-man bomb-squad team in Iraq. This is a film that has gotten rave reviews from virtually every critic in America, and has even received some Oscar talk. You would think this was the greatest work of cinema since Citizen Kane based on these reviews. So naturally I’d been dying to see this for months now, and I was sure it was going to be great. I bought my ticket absolutely sure that this was going to be one of the best movie experiences of the year. And you know what?

I really didn’t care for it. At all.

You know, I’m willing to say that it might just be me. Whenever every serious film person in the free world (seemingly) raves about a film and I just don’t dig it like they did, I’m willing to consider that maybe I missed something, maybe my expectations were too high, maybe it just wasn’t for me. All of these are possibilities. But I do feel that when a film is given that much critical hype, it better deliver on some level. And this truly, honestly didn’t work for me at all. I generally like Bigelow’s films too – I’ve often thought of her as a hugely underrated director. Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break, Strange Days – all terrific genre films that I really enjoy. I was even one of the few who liked K-19: The Widowmaker! So clearly I don’t have a problem with her in general. I think she’s really talented and I have no issues with her whatsoever, so don’t try to paint this as some kind of anti-female filmmaker thing. I really just didn’t care for this film.

And this isn’t me trying to be contrarian for the sake of it either. I know there are some critics who do that, either to get attention or out of some misguided need to be considered an unconventional thinker. But I don’t. I always respond honestly to what’s on the screen, and it either works for me or it doesn’t. I dislike the “contrarian” mentality almost as much as I dislike those who simply “go along with the crowd”. I really want to like every film that I see, and I was really psyched to see this film in particular. I wouldn’t say it’s a horribly bad film – I just truly, honestly didn’t see what was so freakin’ great about it. I can’t tell you about the film that other people saw; I can only tell you about the film that I saw. So here’s my view of The Hurt Locker.

As I said, it’s a drama about a three-man bomb squad team serving in the Iraq War, led by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a young man who seems to have a bit of a death wish. The film follows the team as they go about their daily work, defusing bombs that Iraqi insurgents have planted in the area to which they are assigned. As far as plot goes… that’s pretty much it, actually. It’s a situation in search of a storyline, if you know what I mean. I know the film is based on one guy’s real experiences, but just because something’s true doesn’t necessarily make it interesting.

The other members of the team are Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a generally likable guy who can be a bit of a hothead, and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a skittish type who has become seriously concerned about the possibility of dying on the job. Why this never occurred to him before, we’re never really sure. In fact, we’re never really told much about any of the three main characters, which is a serious impediment to caring about them or their fates. There’s a serious lack of characterization going on here, to the point where we never really understand why these particular individuals are there in the first place, or why they would choose to sign up for the most potentially dangerous duty in the war. This is the kind of thing the audience, most of whom are not members of a bomb squad (I’m assuming), need to be let it on. Defusing bombs in the middle of a war zone seems like a pretty extreme thing to want to do; so what makes them do it? Why are they here, doing what they’re doing? These are basic Screenwriting 101 questions that the film never bothers to answer. They don’t seem to have any particular passion for the cause they’re supposedly fighting for, nor do they seem to care much for the Iraqi people they’re supposedly protecting. So why did they sign up for this extremely hazardous job in the first place? I’m not trying to be a dick about this, I really just don’t get it. It’s the same problem I had with Black Hawk Down, actually – I never got what the characters were doing there in the first place. They weren’t drafted, so they obviously chose to be there. Why? Even the old WWII films portray characters talking about why they’re there (wanting to kill Nazis, hating Hitler, etc). If you have to ask “why are these characters even in this situation in the first place?” then the movie isn’t doing its job.

Because I never understood these guys, I never really cared about them or their fates. And so the film never really worked for me as the “tense action thriller” all the critics say it is, because I was never invested enough in the characters to care whether or not they got blown up at any given moment. If we don’t understand the characters or their motivations, nor do we particularly “know” them as people, how are we supposed to feel any tension when they are placed in danger? If James feels an adrenalin rush when he defuses a bomb, he doesn’t really show it. Frankly, he just seemed to me like a reckless idiot most of the time, a guy who has no hesitation about placing his other team members in jeopardy whenever and however possible. How are we supposed to feel any sympathy for a guy like that? And let’s face it, any moviegoer worth his salt knows that they’re not going to blow up the main character, so there’s certainly no tension there. Come on. The few times someone actually does die in an explosion, it’s telegraphed so blatantly that it might as well have been sent by Western Union. These are the scenes that so many critics thought were so “intense” and “frightening”? They have seen movies before, right? Just making sure.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the anecdotal nature of the story kept me from being engaged in what’s happening on screen a lot of the time. Every time the story seemed to be going somewhere potentially interesting, it would hit a dead end and move on to something else. I know, that’s probably the way the guy’s experience really happened, but again, that doesn’t make it interesting to watch. (Spoilers) For instance, James’ friendship with an Iraqi boy threatened to go somewhere really interesting when he thought the boy had been killed. But then he sees the boy again, and he just ignores him and goes on with what he was doing. Huh? Gee, I guess that entire subplot was all for nothing! What was the point to all of that? There are several subplots like that, that just don’t go anywhere and left me baffled about why they were even in the film. Cameos by actors like Ralph Fiennes and David Morse just serve to waste time, even if they might add a little marquee value. The action scenes, if one can call them that, aren’t particularly exciting or even interesting to watch. They’re just kind of there. And that’s hugely disappointing because Bigelow has proved herself time and again a master of engaging action scenes, but here she just seems limited by the subject and budget. Yes, plenty of bullets fly in this film, but not for a second did I actually care about who was shooting and who was being shot. There’s a long sequence where the team takes out some Iraqi snipers at long range with rifles… and I genuinely found it boring as hell. The only purpose it seems to serve is to get us away from the bomb-defusing for awhile. If this is your idea of a thrilling action scene, you seriously need to reacquaint yourself with the work of Cameron, McTiernan, Woo, Donner, etc.

As far as the film being an “Oscar-bait drama”, I really don’t see that either. It’s not particularly dramatic, nor does it seem to have anything in particular to say about its subject matter. It’s as if, in its intention to avoid being “political”, the filmmakers forgot to have any sort of point whatsoever. I’m sorry, but why make a film about the Iraq War at all if you don’t have anything to say? Now, I don’t expect every film about the war to feel the same way that I do about it, or to turn into an anti-war tract. I don’t need long speeches about the absurdity of the situation or the politicians who got us into this mess. We’ve all seen that before. But for christ’s sake, at least take some sort of position about something. These characters seem to exist in a vacuum; if they actually care about what they’re doing or what’s going on around them, they certainly don’t express it. It honestly just seems to be a movie about random people in a random place doing a random job for no apparent reason. The only one who seems to feel anything at all is Eldridge, who is mostly just afraid of dying (though he seems to forget this fear whenever the story finds it inconvenient). Which is understandable enough, but you have to wonder why this fear didn’t come up when he signed up to defuse bombs in the middle of a war zone in the first place! What did he think he was going to be doing? Did he really not expect to be scared at some point? Honestly, I really don’t understand this. And the movie never makes any effort to make us understand what these people are thinking and feeling. Maybe that’s my issue as an audience member, having never fought in a war or served in the military myself… but please. If you have to have done what the characters in the film are doing to understand them, then the movie has failed on a fundamental level. The film is supposed to make you understand. Surely I can’t be the only person on Earth who understands this concept.

The irony of The Hurt Locker is that the war itself is the elephant in the room; the very subject matter of the film is exactly what the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid whenever possible. That’s kind of a problem. The film didn’t have to be “anti-war” or “pro-war” – it just had to give us some idea of why we needed to be told this particular story in the first place. Is that too much to ask? I walked out of this film feeling like I’d just seen a movie about a guy I didn’t understand, doing an incredibly dangerous job for no particular reason that was ever expressed. What’s so amazing about that? I have to wonder. I didn’t feel like I’d shared an experience or been made to understand something about war that I never would have known otherwise – you know, the experience films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, even Saving Private Ryan have given us. Instead, I felt like I understood war even less than I did before I walked in. I can actually pinpoint the moment where the film lost me completely and never got me back – it was the scene where the military shrink (a puzzling character) tells Eldridge that “war doesn’t have to be a negative experience, you know. It can be FUN.” Ummm, hang on a second. Excuse me, whaaaaat? And this isn’t played like the absurd, Kubrickian moment it should have been either – it’s played completely straight and serious. Who knows, maybe someone did actually say that to someone in real life. But even if that really happened, I think anyone with half a brain would have responded, “Excuse me, are you out of your fucking mind???” And somehow that never happens. That’s the kind of film this was for me – a giant “what the hell, man? Are you serious???” Yes, they’re serious. And apparently nuts.

You want to know what I really thought of William James? I thought he should have stayed home with his hot wife. Seriously. Evangeline Lilly (Lost) appears in an extended cameo as James’ wife (she only has a couple of scenes and a couple of lines), who despite looking like Evangeline Lilly is somehow loyal and waiting for his dumb ass back home. And all I could think was, “DAMN. If I landed a hot-ass wife like her, I sure as hell wouldn’t sign up to go halfway around the world to the ass-end of creation to defuse bombs in the motherfucking desert! And I sure as fuck wouldn’t re-enlist after finally getting home!” All kidding aside, I truly, honestly don’t understand why any guy on Earth would make that choice. And the movie never explains it. That’s the experience I had with The Hurt Locker – I wanted the lead character to not be doing what he’s doing, and instead go home and fuck his piece of ass wife! I want to see that movie. There, I said it. Stay home and fuck your hot wife, you stupid, careless motherfucker. That’s what I would do. That’s what any guy in the world would do. And I never understood why he did not do that. That’s the experience I had with The Hurt Locker. When you think the lead character should have just stayed home with his gorgeous wife and lived out the rest of his days banging the shit out of her, well… something’s wrong with that movie. When it comes down to the choice between Hot Brunette and Bombs in the Desert, I’ll take the Hot Brunette every fucking time. If you wouldn’t do the same, you are in sane.

So, that was The Hurt Locker for me. That’s the movie I saw. I don’t know what movie these other people are seeing. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of those cases where the Emperor truly has no clothes. And since no one else is saying it, I guess I had to. Because that’s what I do. All I know is, next time the critics are unanimous in their praise about something, I’m going to be a little more suspicious about it. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not.

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