You know a film means serious business when it kills off one of its few recognizable stars within the first ten minutes, but it’s obvious this Iraqi conflict narrative, from director Kathryn Bigelow, is going for something other than a standard Hollywood war picture. Those initial ten minutes also give you a hint of what’s to come: The scene is a small battleground in Bagdad. American troops are standing point as a small bomb squad detail works with a ‘bot’ to disengage an IED. Bigelow, always a resourceful and resolute filmmaker, grinds the scene down to excruciatingly intricate detail, the camera cutting back and forth from shaky hand-held, to grainy bot video to perfectly framed long shots. Eventually, Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) is forced to don a blast suit to resolve the matter by hand — which does not go well. Replacing him is Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a no-bull “southern redneck piece of trash” who just so happens to be reckless, devil-may-care, and extremely good as disengaging bombs (when asked by an approving commander about the best way to dismantle a bomb, he coolly replies “The way you don’t die, Sir”). Naturally, his heedless tendencies run afoul of his two-man support team, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who at one point, smacks him in the chops for yanking off his headset during a particularly rough mission. Just as naturally, the boys all learn to respect one another — at least to a degree — as their tour of duty winds down. This is not to suggest anything in this gritty film comes easy, screenwriter Mark Boal has created a kind of war film/horror picture, with an almost unceasing crush of tension, and long, involved scenes of the three men searching through cavernous desert and menacingly deserted buildings. The film hinges on James, who remains fascinatingly inaccessible to us. Like Melville’s Bartleby, he is at once separate from and creator of the narrative’s thrust. We see him on his own, drinking, smoking, rassling with his compadres, shopping for cereal back at home with his young family, but never get more than a glance inside his head (where, one supposes, the closed-off pain the title suggests is all stored away). Nothing seems to flap him, from multiple live IEDs to a fly that keeps crawling around his mouth, to the Sergeant’s punch, everything gets pushed down and stowed away for some future time. This isn’t a WAR PICTURE, no great profundity exists within its confines, thankfully, which gives it a serious step up from the majority of Iraq War films thus far. “Do you know why I am the way I am?” James asks Sanborn towards the end of the piece. “No, I don’t,” Sanborn replies. And no other answer appears to be forthcoming.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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