June 10, 2010

WHY THE HURT LOCKER ISN'T A MASTERPIECE

My recent analysis of The Hurt Locker sequence by sequence shows that it holds up as a decently structured non-goal-oriented movie.

I was going to write a big essay about why it's not a masterpiece but not many people seemed to want to read it. ;-) And I am in the middle of preproduction myself, so I am going to pick my battles.  And, after my ScripShadow interview, people accused me of being too analytical.  So I will be breezier and leave you with some homework.  Excuse the first-draft nature of some of this...

My recent off-the-cuff post on Done Deal inspired me to quickly throw up this blog.  Pun intended.  Here is part of the post:

In brief.....around the tenth or eleventh sequence when the film should have shown a surprising and new revelation about what it all means, they regress (in the scene where his friend gets hurt) to "he's risk-taking and that's dangerous," which is like a page-30 revelation, not a page-100 revelation. Part of the problem is bad character orchestration. The other characters weren't defined strongly enough to challenge him. If they could have made a stronger and more specific argument to him not to chase down the bad guys on his own, they could have called him on his behavior and helped us see it for what it really was.

Some unfinished thoughts from my original THL piece:

I actually have a bigger issue with sequence 10 that culminates with Eldridge being shot. It feel it’s actually a bit of a non-sequitur in the scope of carefully linked sequences. His argument for going is generic and unclear as to the deeper meaning. He says that there are bad guys out there and they are “laughing at us.” Sanborn’s strongest rebuttal is “It’s not our job.” And Eldridge conflicts with him after-the –fact: with “fuck you… adrenaline junkie.”



I feel like the clash of ideas is a regression. This conflict was the sort that was playing out on page 40. He likes ACTION. Been there done that. Is it risky? Sure. If their response showed that they picked up some other motive, it would allow for deeper insight. Now whether or not you agree with me on this, stick with me for a second for two reasons.


First of all, if you write a nongoal-oriented movie, this is exactly the scrutiny under which you must put your scene and sequences. You are not going to evaluate it by the linear cause-and-effect of a Hollywood Blockbuster. You have to be finely attuned to the inner life of the characters in the scene. A major turning point in a nongoal-oriented story I have is that a character realizes a relationship has reached the love stage because her lover reads the newspaper in the other room. The next scene she is drunk at a party. No story software is going to tell you that the next scene must be at a party. But in these sorts of stories require you to track something else: Being open to "love scares her" so now she "must anesthetize."


That’s why this form of storytelling is hard. In an action movie, you might have a concrete task at hand. My character has to get across that guarded bridge. But in these sorts of stories, you have to create a scene that mirrors your characters’ inner life from absolute thin air. And the scene might be a really good scene but it’s trickier to measure its effectiveness. (And it’s trickier for execs to “get” it.)

REGARDING THE MOMENT before they go into the night and chase after the bad guys on their own:Let's look at the subtle craft that might allow us to dig deeper here and find out what is really driving James. As I mentioned Eldridge and Sanborn’s responses are a bit generic. I do believe that James line or tack could be tweaked. However, ironically, the actual clarification of his intent would come from the follow up line that conflicts with his argument. A character in the scene would have to be orchestrated in such a way that he is able to sense or understand the unconscious motivation and then shed light on it for us in his response. Consider the possible subtle motivations driving him here and a reaction that might pinpoint it for us.


• Like an addict, James is lying/rationalizing to get his “action fix – “You’re making shit up” or “That makes no sense”


• James can’t stand losing to the “bad guys” -- “It’s not a fucking game” or “There is no winning.”


• If he wants to compensate for the suffering of the people at the site -- “You can’t save them.” or “You can’t be a hero.”

The lesson here is that if you really want to mine the complexity of a main character, you have to orchestrate the other characters in a way that allows them to be strong enought, smart enough and opposed to their POV diamaterically enough so that their conflict can add insight.  Think of the specificity of the priest's insight into the main character in Million Dollar Baby.

For instance, by making the Psychiatrist a buffoon whose purpose was limited to showing a slightly cliched perspective: someone who doesn't understand the "reality" of  the situation, they lost an opportunity to explore the main character. Seriously, it's possible that 12.5 mf of Adderall twice a day solves 95% of this character's problems. I know it's a much less sexy title: The ADHD Locker, but if you want to write a masterpiece you have to go deeper than that.

My first draft of ideas to spur thought:

I think this film fulfills its promise as an action film and I am surprised that word-of-mouth didn’t generate more box office. There are several stunning action sequences of 10+ minute. But the truth is if a film spends a lot of time blowing things up, it has less time to explore characters and relationships.

With more time, could the film narrowed down who this character might be? What he is, what he’s not? I love the technique and the visuals in the “at home” scenes in the final sequence, but it is a little bit too dismissive about the possibilities of really understanding him. He hates shopping with his wife. Does he hate sleeping with her? He gets bored playing with his kid? Would 7.5 grams of Adderall twice a day cure that? Is he addicted to defusing bombs or does he have an acute case of undiagnosed ADHD? Would a less-caricatured version of Cambridge have been able to shed any legitimate insight into James?

As a 125-minute movie with, give or take, 12 longish sequences, it has the same amount of twists and turns as an 88-minute romantic comedy or 90-minute indie drama. Can it explore all of the necessary permutations of an idea or of a character in that many steps? If so, it has to be done with perfect efficiency? When I dig deeper into a few key moments (I gave this up, moviemaking trumps movie analysis) into the film, if there is a wasted sequence, a redundant beat or even a missed opportunity to escalate further an idea, then that’s a big deal.

Also, I am not sure I like the triumphant marching music at the end as he marches down the street and we are supposed to celebrate this as his fate. On the commentary, Bigelow argued that the last few images were from his POV...that's how he felt about it. But I am not sure that ending on that irony or POV was earned. You tell your child that you can't love it and then the final statement is: Woo Hoo, I am back to defusing bombs. The movie could have been stronger than the character.

I am being hard on this film because my expectations are high and so are the expectations of these filmmakers. The Hurt Locker is a very good film and possibly a great one. I hope that my illustration of some of this film’s inner works helps your writing. Remember, to write a script that’s very good, you have to aim for great.

Although the direction was less flashy (appropriately so) and perhaps with less overall craft, Frozen River was a masterpiece at the script level: it explored its ideas more fully... took them all of the way with more coherency.
Will have a film for you to enjoy or rip apart soon!

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