The Hurt Locker opens with an onscreen quote from journalist Chris Hedges declaring war to be a "drug." If so, then Kathryn Bigelow’s film is itself a drug delivery device, a harrowing, exhilarating exercise in tension and release. Ever since the student film she made at Columbia three decades ago--a short in which two men pummel one another while semioticians deconstruct their actions in voiceover--Bigelow has been fascinated with the cinematic art of violence, which she has explored across such genres as the police thriller (Blue Steel), the vampire Western (Near Dark), the FBI-surfer flick (Point Break), and, now, the war film.
The subject of The Hurt Locker is simple yet riveting: the operations of a small U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit in Baghdad. These are the guys who are called in whenever something is spotted bearing the telltale signs of an IED--a pile of street rubbish that seems to have wires emanating from it, an abandoned car whose sagging suspension suggests it’s carrying more than groceries in the trunk. To describe their job as stressful would be like describing the desert as warm.
The leader of the team, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, in a star-making turn), has the electric bravado of the danger junkie. He knows, and delights in the knowledge, that his chosen vocation would scare the living shit out of anyone in his right mind. He is exactly the man you want performing a job like this, at least provided you are nowhere in the vicinity while he is performing it. That is not an option, however, for his teammates--the cautious Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and just-trying-to-stay-alive Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)--whose enthusiasm for James’s daredevil heroics is decidedly limited.
The loosely structured narrative unfolds as a series of nail-biting set pieces: The dismantling of a few particularly fraught IEDs; an agonizing sniper shootout in the desert; a haphazard attempt at retribution for the apparent killing of a young boy. Bigelow stages these episodes with an extraordinary combination of patience and panache. The rhythm of slow buildup followed by violent release recalls Sergio Leone, but without the giddy Morricone score to mediate the discomfort. (It is perhaps no coincidence that the film wrings more suspense out of the buzzing of a fly around a man’s face than perhaps any since Once Upon a Time in the West.) In sequence after sequence, you’d have difficulty cutting the tension with a chainsaw.
The Hurt Locker concerns itself not with geopolitics but with operational details. (What happens when a wheel falls off the explosives-bearing cart that a tiny robot is hauling out to detonate a much larger bomb? Under what circumstances is an unknown Iraqi with a cell phone a greater threat than one with a rifle?) Such political observations as are offered are more often than not mordant ones, as when James remarks of an Iraqi taken into custody, "If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he sure as hell is now." These men aren’t fighting for democracy or freedom or the president of the United States. They’re fighting for the buddies around them who might be blown up at any second and, secondarily, for the fellow soldiers who might be blown up tomorrow if they don’t do their jobs properly. James is fighting, too, for his own extreme sense of self: his confidence, his unflappability, his willingness to place himself at the very precipice of self-annihilation.
The movie’s political reticence is an almost unspeakable relief after the gaudy hectoring of such films as Redacted, Lions for Lambs, and In the Valley of Elah. But ultimately it is a limiting factor as well. As it suggests at the outset, The Hurt Locker is the story of an addict, but the film itself is complicit in the addiction. Even when James’s exploits are revealed to be fruitless or destructive or outright pathological, Bigelow never quite finds the distance to put a moral frame on them. James is what he is, and the film ultimately seems undecided on whether this is a good or a bad thing.
Still, even as it fails to acquire the narrative gravity for which one might hope, The Hurt Locker is an exceptional work of filmmaking and easily among the best movies of the year to date. Like her protagonist, Bigelow is both a meticulous technician and a ballsy showoff. And, like him, she has ice water in her veins.