Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war movie ignores almost the usual trappings of the by now well traveled modern desert warfare genre in the process accomplishes something almost none of those other movies was capable of: It’s good. Maybe it’s because she’s successfully welded all the harrowing excitement of speed to all the confusion and uncertainty of life in Iraq. Or maybe it’s because she seems less interested in the political implications of everything that’s going on in the country than she is in what being there is like for the soldiers whose story she’s telling. Whatever the reason The Hurt Locker is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, a wrenching rush of adrenaline set in a never-ending cycle of occupation and struggle and ever-increasing tension.
It focuses almost entirely on one, small Army bomb squad. Disarming deadly explosive booby traps is bad enough, imagine trying to do it in Iraq under constant threat of attack, stared at with hatred by the people you’re trying to keep from being blown up, surrounded by heavy artillery and threatened by snipers. That’s the job of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and his three man team. Every day they hop in their humvee and head out into the streets of Baghdad or often worse, into the desert where some asshole terrorist has planted deadly ordinance, just waiting to blow someone to hell. It takes a special kind of man to do their job, maybe even someone a bit nutty. Sergeant James is maybe, a little nuttier than most.
He ignores protocols, refuses to use the relatively safe robots, preferring instead to suit up and walk straight into danger where, he disarms the bomb and gets the whole thing over with. “You’re a wild man,” declares one of his superiors. His team thinks he’s worse than that, they think he’s going to get them all killed. William doesn’t really see himself in either light, and figuring out exactly where his head at is the deeper subplot of the film as his team drives from one potential explosion to the another, where, whether successful or not they’ll leave you with fear rumbling around right in the middle of your gut.
It’s a harrowing film, brilliantly directed and wonderfully acted. Every second is taut and thrilling even though Bigelow’s approach to the material seems primarily to be showing men at work. She doesn’t resort to undue trickery to get us on the edge of our seats. These are blue collar guys out there doing their job, it just happens to be the toughest, scariest job in the whole goddamn army. You feel every bit the danger they’re in, perhaps because Bigelow’s approach makes it real enough that we can believe without reservation that it’s happening. Or maybe it’s because we know that somewhere over in Iraq, right now, it actually is.
The Hurt Locker is a magnificent film; moving and gritty and thrilling not by coldly calculated design, but simply because it is. Taking a journey through our soldiers world of dust and desert and bullets and smoke has never felt so honest, so tense, so flat out scary. Test your mettle, watch it without flinching. See The Hurt Locker.