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War torn

‘Hurt Locker’ headed for Oscar nomination.

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BOX OF PAIN: 'The Hurt Locker.'
  • BOX OF PAIN: 'The Hurt Locker.'

I'd be willing to bet my house that you'll see this one at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. I was fairly sure that wouldn't be a long-shot bet before I even saw the thing (even though I try like hell to avoid reviews of a film I'm going to review), because the press just won't shut up about this movie. And though I doubt I'm the first to say it, I'll just throw it right up front: “The Hurt Locker” is the best war movie made since “Full Metal Jacket.”

Title grabs you weirdly, doesn't it? A mix of badass and clumsy, just the right combination of awkward and forcible to make you wonder what it's about. And you're rewarded, because what it's about is this:

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, who acts the hell out of his role) is an expert Army bomb tech. He's the guy who gets called in to defuse explosive devices left by Iraqi insurgents, called in this case to replace the recently killed leader of Bravo Company's bomb squad. He's kind of a cowboy, kind of a narcissist, kind of an ass, very much a gambler, but he's good at keeping bombs from killing people. He's done it nearly a thousand times.

Sounds cliché so far, because it pretty much is, but what comes next manages to remain honest and unsentimental and veers away from the usual Hollywood summer war hero pap. After a few genuinely terrifying encounters with bombs and bad guys comes a scene both gruesome and deeply touching, when James discovers the corpse of a boy he's befriended. The boy has been gutted and stuffed with explosives to be a “body bomb,” and James is finally confronted with a situation he doesn't exactly know how to handle. It leaves him desperate to find the enemy wherever he can, pushing himself harder and harder into more and more dangerous places and taking his squad with him, like it or not.

He's not alone, though — circumstances are drawing his men each into his own circle of hell, and they find themselves both pulled together and repulsed from each other by the fallout of their shared suffering.

It is a portrayal of life at war both sympathetic and nasty. I watched it, tearing up here and there, wincing more often, even actually biting my nails, and I kept thinking of a quote from Tim O'Brien, novelist and Vietnam vet:

“A true war story is never moral. ... If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.”

I'll leave it to my father and other veterans of war to speak to the truth of that quote, but I know that if O'Brien's standard is correct, then “The Hurt Locker” is one of the truest war stories I've ever seen. It is ugly, it is largely fruitless, and there is no reward for the hell these men endure. This movie will toy with you, lead you to certainties that it rips cruelly from you. It will shake your hand and pick your pocket. You will not leave the theater feeling good or even hopeful. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. There is respect for these people and what war has done to them, but even that is tempered by ... well. You really should just see it.

I suppose I should tell you what I didn't like about it, and I guess my biggest criticism would be of the film's end. It's an honest ending, the one I expected, but it seemed rushed and tacked-on. Given that the film is 131 minutes as is, I wonder if maybe they didn't cut a bit too much of it out to keep things close to two hours.

But even so, it's not enough to tarnish the 120-some-odd minutes that came before it. Those two hours do not weaken, do not slow, do not let you breathe, do not let you hope for those who take on the jobs you never would. They comprise, as Tom Waits often said, a beautiful song that tells you terrible things, and what a song it is.

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