The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn BigelowStarring Jeremy Renner, Anthonie Mackie, Brian Geraghty and Ralph FiennesRated R*8.5*
Goes well with: Three Kings, Point Break, In the Valley of Elah
Bombs and bullets don't care whether you're a grunt or a colonel, a movie star or an up-and-comer. That's a lesson learned early in Kathryn Bigelow's new film, The Hurt Locker, a very well-made movie about an American bomb-disposal unit in Iraq that likely will end up on the short list for Best Picture at Oscar time.
So, yes, someone finally made a decent feature about the Iraq War. Bigelow accomplishes that because she doesn't make it about the war at all. The Hurt Locker doesn't wear its politics on its sleeve, and it doesn't take sides. The enemy is almost always unseen. It works because it's about men whose incredibly stressful jobs put them smack in the war zone.
It's 2004, and Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are two-thirds of a bomb-disposal unit. They have a little more than a month to go on their rotation, and they're in need of a team leader. He arrives in the form of Staff Sgt. William James, played by Jeremy Renner, the sleepy-eyed actor who's always seemed on the verge of his big break. He certainly gets it in The Hurt Locker, playing a guy who gets off on strapping on the bomb suit and trying to disable pieces of equipment whose only purpose is to maim and kill. He quickly clashes with Sanborn, who needs to do everything by the book in order to keep himself together. But that's not James' style. He has a swagger, sure, but he backs up when faced with an IED or a car packed full of explosives. In fact, his biggest distraction isn't the bomb at all—it's his teammates becoming terrified at what's going on around them. Yeah, he gets the job done, but his next-in-line can't stand him, and Eldridge—who spends his off-hours playing Gears of War on the Xbox—is close to the breaking point. It's absolutely reasonable to wonder if these guys will get killed doing their jobs, or if they'll do each other in first.
Bigelow already has a solid pedigree as an action director. We've seen her skills on movies like Near Dark and Strange Days and in her best-known film, Point Break. All her movies are stuffed full of adrenaline junkies, and, certainly, Renner's Sgt. James has that in him. But the characters in those other films create their own adrenaline rush, through crime and violence and anxiety. James isn't a criminal. He isn't a cop. He isn't a vampire. He's a soldier. He has to be there, and he wouldn't be the first guy to come back from Iraq needing an action fix. But—and to me, this is the make-or-break point of the film, the idea that will hold it together for some and make it fall apart for others—Bigelow never really dissects James' psychology, except briefly toward the end of the film in what is an absolutely inspired scene. James isn't necessarily looking for that next thrill, and Renner ties this together by creating the sort of dude who doesn't get pumped up when he's in harm's way. The situations he's in are based on his job and life-or-death decisions that he has no time to consider—he just reacts. Sometimes he makes the right choice, other times not so much. But when he's in those situations, he's focused, calm and, perhaps more importantly, entirely capable. You see the rush in him, but Renner never goes over the top to show it to you.
So, The Hurt Locker works as a war movie, if that's what you want from it. The action sequences are almost as tense for the audience as they are for the soldiers experiencing them. Or you can look at it as a psychological exploration of what happens to men in combat—how they cope and how, sometimes, they don't. But it doesn't try to leave you with much more of a message than, perhaps, that even though war is hell, for some people, it becomes home. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.