Based on journalist Mark Boal's real experiences following bomb disposal experts in Iraq, The Hurt Locker isn't just a welcome return to big-screen action from director Kathryn Bigelow (who has wrung both fame and infamy from her art with Near Dark, Strange Days and Point Break). It's an assured, confident, swaggering piece of moviemaking that manages to not only evoke every war of the 20th century but also, despite the claims by makers and some reviewers that it's an 'apolitical' film, speaks very specifically to the Iraq war. Even so, plunging us into the thick of things alongside the highly-trained men (and they're all men here) who defuse bombs for the Army, Bigelow and Boal avoid the speeches and postures and long, contemplative talks of home front films like Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah by staying in Iraq, and they shun the loopy, loony formal experiments of Brian De Palma's Redacted. Boal and Bigelow stay laser-focused on one group of men with a singular mission, and make us live in the constant possibility of death. Viewed from half a world away, a bomb is a political concern; viewed from less than a foot away, a bomb's just a high-stakes exercise in problem-solving, where making a mistake means a final, terminal education in the physics of expanding gases.
The Hurt Locker follows three soldiers -- bomb tech James (Jeremy Renner) and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldrige (Brian Geraghty) into the jaws of death; it's all last names in The Hurt Locker, as seen on patches and heard in urgent radio dispatches. Early on, Bigleow establishes that people will be killed in this film -- with a bravura sequence that depicts a bomb's detonation on the macro and micro level, billowing bursts of smoke and pressure and flame intercut with gravel and dust leaping choreographed in lockstep by the pressure wave, as if God had slammed his fist on reality hard to make a point -- and while Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are fine actors, they're also unknown enough to subconsciously let us know that they aren't safe from what may happen.
Recreating Iraq in Jordan, the production team creates the chaos of the streets -- strewn with trash and bodies and burnt-out cars, and we understand that anything -- or anyone - could be concealing a bomb. Production designer Karl Juliusson (Breaking the Waves) and his team make us feel the city; editors Bob Murawaski and Chris Innis, as well as sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson and a great effects team, make us feel every explosion with the sick, slick power of a sucker-punch to the gut.
But it's Bigelow who makes us feel the moments before a bomb explodes (or doesn't), and feel them keenly and fiercely. Bigelow and Boal (who also produced the film, demonstrating yet again that the best way to make the film you most want to make is to make it yourself) are to be commended for avoiding any of the easy narrative arcs we might expect in The Hurt Locker; there's no cat-and-mouse chase with a master bomber on the other side, no ticking-clock plot that must be stopped. It's just what these guys are doing for a living, and they're good at it. There are conflicts and clashes, with the enemy and each other for these men, and the challenge of work you have to be crazy to do but that still needs doing. No one in The Hurt Locker gets the "What are we doing here, man?" speech, thankfully, and that's in part because the question's posed in every frame. Weren't the Iraqi people supposed to greet us as liberators, bearing bouquets and not bombs? Vice-President Cheney said so, and if that was hard to believe then, it's harder to believe while watching The Hurt Locker.
The opening quote from author Chris Hedges from his book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning that starts The Hurt Locker is burned down to its last few words on-screen-- "war is a drug" -- and as we watch these volunteer soldiers risk their lives again and again, we understand the thrill they get from their work. Of course, if war is a drug, that implies both users and pushers; The Hurt Locker stays with the soldiers on their adrenaline high, never shows us the decision-makers who put these men in harm's way, just their orders. And still, we know this is Iraq, now, the reality of the war glimpsed in the heat-haze distance. A briefing mentions 'Camp Victory' as a staging base; a soldier asks "Camp 'Victory?' I thought it was 'Camp Liberty.'" He's corrected: "Ah, no -- they changed it about a week ago; 'Victory' sounds better. ..." A commanding officer (David Morse in one of the film's three great cameos) approves of James's ways and work in dead, flat praise: "You're a wildman, soldier. A wildman." The soldiers may convey that young, heady mix of danger and competence that Gustav Hansford, in The Short-Timers (later adapted as Full Metal Jacket) dubbed "phony-tough and crazy-brave," but they also convey the worries and doubts that mask is supposed to hide.
And all these bigger questions -- political, philosophical, psychological -- tend to evaporate in the presence of the blunt, heavy presence of the bombs themselves; as Johnson said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully," and each time our leads are on-screen, them and us knowing they may die in the next five seconds in the course of their work, we're riveted. Boal and Bigleow let us into this world, and we get a loose sense of how these professionals work, but neither are the defusing sequences talked through like a bad home improvement show segment telling you how to best apply spackle. One of the greatest pleasures in film is that of watching professionals at work, and The Hurt Locker provides plenty of that precise delight. The script, and the actors, also manage to show us how callow and cool these men have become in the face of brutality, and show how there are still terrors and atrocities that can reach even them. We don't know a lot about these men, but we've seen them face death and goof off, make mistakes and make decisions -- and we lean forward in our seat to know what's going to happen next.
The Hurt Locker was picked up in Toronto by Summit Entertainment, which means it'll be coming to a theater near you at some hypothetical future point; you'll want to see it at a theater near you, in fact, on the largest possible screen with the best possible sound. War is awful, but on a certain level, war movies are awesome, and Bigelow knows that. Bigelow's a terrific action director, but the industry doesn't offer her the chance to demonstrate that as often as you might like; it could be sexism or just the bad juju that sticks to some directors that explains that, but either way Bigelow blows both those off the screen along with everything else in a blast of Dolby splendor and big-screen spectacle. The Hurt Locker looks and feels like a terrific action film, but there's a piece of art ticking away within it that goes off inside your head and your heart while you're watching.