Manohla Dargis’s dissection of how Kathryn Bigelow produced the tension in The Hurt Locker is an excellent piece of explanatory film journalism, and well worth reading. Take this:
Before James does get down to his work, though, there is a shift, about a minute into the scene, from the film’s customary (and classic) detached narrative position — where the camera hovers next to characters and often shows you what they see — to a shot from inside James’s helmet looking out, as if you were seeing the world through his eyes. You see him. Then you see with him. Although this shift to the first person lasts for about six seconds, a standard shot length in contemporary movies, it feels longer because you’re abruptly removed from the visual and aural chaos. For those six seconds you see what James sees through the helmet that frames the world like a camera, and you mainly hear what he hears: his heavy breathing.
As I’ve mulled it over, I’m pretty sure The Hurt Locker and District 9 were the two best mainstream releases I saw in theaters this year (counting DVDs just gets complicated, and isn’t useful for purposes of comparison). They have a number of things in common. First, they were compellingly rooted in place. The Hurt Locker‘s universe was much more stripped down than District 9‘s fascinating and complete re-imagination of Johannesburg: it’s barracks, bomb sites, an Iraqi neighborhood, and James’s small stateside house, but having just a few location actually worked well for the movie, I think. They felt lived- and worked-in. D9 relies on a much broader landscape since it’s a movie about flight and refuge, and I think it makes sense. One thing I think made it compelling, and that made the detail impressive, was how ugly the landscape was. I’ve talked before about ugliness and beauty in effects work, and I thought the ugliness in D9 served it well.
I also thought both movies did well in wedding the viewer to protagonists who were, to one extent or another, unlikeable. They’re uncomfortable in different ways, of course. William James is so reckless to a certain extent that you don’t want to like him because you’re convinced he’s going to kill himself at some point. Liking him risks emotional injury, even if it’s only momentary. His utter detachment from his family is the kind of thing that we’re trained to feel uncomfortable with on screen, although the moment in the final minutes of the movie when he admits to his infant son how difficult it is for him to love beyond a narrow spectrum was heartbreaking. Wikus Van De Merwe is dislikable for different reasons. When the movie begins, he’s obviously racist and astonishingly callous–and also, frankly, somewhat stupid. He begins his trajectory away from those traits precisely at the moment that he begins a grotesque physical transformation–the movie actively throws up challenges to the audience that’s attempting to adapt to the idea of Wikus as a hero, and I liked that about it.
I’m not sure I’ll watch The Hurt Locker or District 9 again. I found both to be quite intense, challenging viewing experiences, and if I do take them up on a second occasion, it’ll be for my own edification, not for pleasure. But they were both refreshingly original movies, and refreshingly uninterested in just being enjoyment machines. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter. The movie that arguably made me happiest this year was Star Trek, and a more purely engineered piece of cinematic endorphin delivery is hard to imagine. But The Hurt Locker and District 9 were still the best.