The Best Characters of 2009: Part Five

Back to the movies. I wanted to get this one in before the week ended, and before we get too far from the implausible ending of this year’s Golden Globes.

Sgt. Matt Thompson

This is a tough one. Not because it’s going to be difficult to express my opinion on the matter, but because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is an embarrassment of riches. I could populate half of this list with characters from this movie and walk away feeling justified. That wouldn’t be any fun, though, and Janice would probably kill me if I don’t leave her a space to eventually write down her own thoughts about Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of SSgt. William James.

"C'mon, it's my dick."

Luckily, there was one aspect of the film that, after several viewings and some time to let it all sink in, really stood out to me. Guy Pearce plays Sgt. Matt Thompson, the nominal leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team stationed in Iraq in 2004. These are the guys defusing roadside bombs, a job that’s equal parts mundane and high tension. It’s the polar opposite of the love affair the American Action Film has with the Navy SEALs, a role perfected by Michael Biehn (and I say this out of love, Navy SEALs being one of my cherished guilty pleasures).

What does Guy Pearce do here that’s so amazing? It’s not like any of the press about the movie has focused on him. It’s a sensation I can relate to, working in VFX. When you do your job well, no one notices. His character quietly and expertly establishes the groundwork for the entire movie. He shows what he does, what his team does, and how they interact with each other. He establishes the mindset of the job, then sets a solid granite bedrock of expectations for the audience that SSgt. James later comes in and dances on.

Emphasis on ‘shows,’ too; much to Mark Boal’s credit, there’s barely a lick of exposition in the scene Pearce is in. He’s got maybe 15 lines of dialog, one of which is making a snarky reply about the one line of obvious exposition that is in the scene. By the time he’s done, not only is he a fully-fleshed character, he’s also shown us everything we need to know to understand the rest of the film.

And he does all of this in 8 minutes. You barely hear about him again for the rest of the film, but his actions define the rest of the tale. The sureness of execution only becomes more astonishing in subsequent viewings. That scene can just about stand on its own as a short film- indeed, in the promotional push before the limited release, they did just that, releasing almost all of it as a preview.

Keeping all that in mind, I am perplexed at The Hurt Locker‘s loss at the Golden Globes. Avatar is a lot of things, but it’s not the best film of the year when compared to work like this. I fear a similar fate at the Oscars, but I can at least hold out hope that all the attention will bolster Kathryn Bigelow’s career and allow her to continue making great films about great characters.

And maybe I’ll finally get a copy of Strange Days on blu-ray in the process. One can dream.