SXSW Review: The Hurt Locker

"This is a great set up for what could be a killer war movie. But it isn't."

 

What may be this year's most overrated festival darling, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker takes us on a loud, dangerous tour through 2004 Iraq as seen through the eyes of three U.S. soldiers. The film hits a number of notes that play well to festival crowds, but what on its surface appears to be a real winner and a possible Oscar contender proves to not entirely add up to the sum of its parts. Shot and presented in an almost-documentary style (sans the interviews) we aren't treated to anything resembling a standard narrative. And while we get to see firsthand the terrible face of war, we are never allowed the time we need to get to know our protagonists well enough to care about them.

The film chronicles the last 38 days of the tour of a Bravo Company bomb disposal unit. When the previous disposal tech is killed by a secondary explosive device set off by a cell phone-wielding bystander, the two remaining soldiers (who effectively act as bodyguards and additional techs to the disposal expert) are saddled with a new tech, played by Jeremy Renner. But the new tech isn't quite like the old one. He's a hot shot, a danger junkie. And there's a good chance he's going to get himself, not to mention the rest of the team, killed.

Now this is a great set up for what could be a killer war movie. But it isn't. Playing with the fly-on-the-wall, documentary-like feel somehow keeps Bigelow from ever being able to properly develop her characters. Despite spending 130 minutes with only three major characters, I walked out knowing very little about any of them. This felt both inauthentic and hollow. I know a lot of guys who have served over there, and the one thing I can count on is that they know pretty much everything there is to know about the guy they're riding around in Humvees with. (Friends tell me that the only thing worse than being shot at is the boredom of when you're not being shot at, so you talk. A lot.) But these guys are so cryptic and guarded that not only did I not believe them, I didn't feel anything for them either. They left me bored, as I felt any one of them was really disposable. And while that may in some part have been Bigelow's plan, it does not make for a very entertaining or enlightening movie.

At the end of the day it is just another war movie about a war we're still stuck in. It has nothing particularly fresh to say, other than the inclusion of an anti-hero protagonist who seems to enjoy what he's doing a bit too much. But even that never really carries the weight it should, nor is it developed enough to really resonate outside the festival circuit.

It is, however, a Kathryn Bigelow movie, and she's still got it. The film is well shot and expertly put together with a number of tense action scenes that, with the right characters, could have had me biting my nails on the edge of my seat. Instead, without caring at all about the characters involved, I simply found myself admiring them for their technical brilliance. There is, though, one great sequence in the desert in which Ralph Fiennes shows up for about ten minutes -- just before an attack that becomes a long-range sniper fight. That one got pretty hairy and unexpected, proving to be the film's best moments.

This film might get some more buzz out of festivals but is seeing a limited release this summer for a reason. This kind of material in this political climate will end up mostly ignored -- just like every other modern war film of the last few years. And while I might agree with the assessment being tossed around that this is the best of the current crop of war films, that isn't really saying much at all.

Grade: C+