The frequently used term "nail-biting" has never been more appropriate than to describe The Hurt Locker. Focused on a bomb squad assigned to dismantle IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Baghdad circa 2004, the gritty realism and sheer tension of this movie sucks you in, hooks you and keeps you dangling the entire time.
Based on the true experiences of journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with such a unit (Explosive Ordinance Disposal or EOD), Hurt Locker is not an Iraq war statement but rather an in-depth character study of addiction to risk and danger. It's also a classic study of men in combat and under stress that could have taken place anywhere, detailing strong characters thrown together in the harshest of times, forced to deal with each other's psychotic idiosyncrasies and insecurities.
Hurt Locker comes from the soldier's point of view, authentically depicting the high-wire act of a bomb technician. The title comes from a slang term Boal heard soldiers use - explosions putting you in the "hurt locker." The focus is on James (Jeremy Renner), a new sergeant taking over a highly trained EOD team. Amidst the violent conflicts, James surprises his two subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) by defusing bombs on his own, without any concept of fear coupled with an indifferent sense of humor. As Baghdad explodes more rapidly into chaos, so does the imploding temperaments of these three men and in time reveals truisms they never knew they had.
Willing to dismantle bombs without his protective suit, James is simultaneously a hotshot action junkie and an accomplished technician who gets off on the intellectual stimulus of figuring out literally what makes a bomb tick. As grueling seconds pass, he determinedly will not leave the scene until the bomb is dismantled. But the battle scarred desert takes its toll. James becomes increasingly unhinged as time goes on. His facade of toughness dwindles. The strongest scene was his inability to navigate a supermarket when he was home to visit the wife and kids. The despair that simple life gives him is greater than the life-or-death seconds he spends with bombs. Suburban existence is just a slow death that he can see and feel coming a mile away.
Mackie and Geraghty both give their characters huge arcs, changing strong emotional viewpoints with simplistic yet powerful awareness. The standout cameos by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse are anything but obtrusive; in fact, they fit right into Bigelow's mix. But on top of the list is Renner, who deserves any accolade he garners for his portrayal. Renner exudes a confidence rarely seen onscreen. By essentially not allowing us in while showing us all, we see his increasing fearlessness and recklessness.
Director Kathryn Bigelow has given us high-octane action movies before, ranging from offbeat to psychedelic (Point Break, Near Dark, Strange Days), but here she concocts her masterpiece. Bigelow's gift for creating stylized suspense and what she calls "heightened emotional states" is in full tilt. The robotic hardware, handheld camera, slightly grainy film look and coolly heavy soundtrack by Ministry all add to the tension, culminating with some of the loudest explosions to expand your chest cavity in a movie theater.
The Hurt Locker gives us no sense of winning or losing the war, or of even making a difference. By focusing on the bomb squad's specific life-or-death tasks, the film gives us a microscopic insight to the true casualties of war. The atmosphere is always paranoid, soldiers never knowing if bystanders are there to detonate or just watch. Submerged in total jeopardy where chaos, fear and lethal chance dominate, we get a clear sense of the ongoing and extreme peril that is a regular part of these soldier's daily lives. Basically, they have the most dangerous job in the world.
Hurt Locker captures some of the mind-boggling complexities of the war in Iraq with visceral suspense, explosions and bullets-blazing battle sequences. But thanks to the powerful performances, it's as haunting as it is visually riveting.
The Hurt Locker ★★★★✩
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony
Mackie, Brian Geraghty.
Directed: Kathryn Bigelow