I usually avoid including a particular viewing experience with a film review, since it’s unfair and dangerous to start behaving like one has any great bearing on the other. But one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a film is the acknowledgment that it’s still replaying itself in the deeper recesses of your mind, and since seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker three months ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival, I have only grown more affected by its tale. It’s a perfectly paced action film that never resorts to gimmickry to convey suspense; it’s a character-based war drama that avoids the easy stereotypes of soldiers and their relationships; and it’s an expertly observed story about the current war that eschews partisanship just as it also does any kind of lazy moralizing or appearances of objectivity. In other words, the film doesn’t purport to rise above politics while quietly damning the leaders. It truly is about the characters and their stories, allowing the atrocities of war and the path of history to speak for themselves. The Hurt Locker is arresting both emotionally and aesthetically, and it’s the first great film to arise from the wreckage of the Iraq War.
Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are members of the Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, the group of soldiers tasked with defusing and disarming bombs discovered by their fellow fighting men. After losing one of their own, Eldridge and Sanborn find themselves answering to a new team leader, the impulsive Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), whose risky tactics and aggressive approach to the job quickly put him at odds with Sanborn. The film takes place early in the war, and its verisimilitude is never in doubt thanks to Bigelow’s taut direction of a fantastic screenplay by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent time embedded with a real Baghdad bomb squad. Boal additionally wrote an article for Playboy magazine in 2004 about the murder of a soldier recently back from war that inspired Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah; basically, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the horrors men visit upon each other in the name of survival and destruction, and the screenplay is every bit the graphic and harrowing story it needs to be to capture even a fragment of life at war. James isn’t the shining hero of old war movies, but neither is he the cardboard antihero it would have been easy to make him. He’s a reckless soldier but effective leader, a mix of hothead and control freak whose complicated character is a welcome addition to the genre.
The film’s narrative thrust hangs on the amount of time left in James’ rotation in Iraq, but the script hangs on a series of set pieces that illustrate the emotional give and take between the men as they go out every day and hope to live until nightfall. As James leads his team on somehow increasingly dangerous calls to defuse bombs while battles rage around them, the film constantly elevates the suspense, never letting up for a moment or ignoring the potentially deadly consequences of even the smallest misstep. The action scenes are fantastically orchestrated, with Bigelow’s genre experience (Point Break, among others) working at its peak on the best thing she’s ever directed. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd works wonders with the muted palettes of sand and camouflage, and he reproduces the beauty of the desert in an extended sequence when James and his team are pinned down in a ditch outside of town by snipers and gunmen in the distance.
Although the film is peppered with brief appearances by more recognizable actors —including Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and David Morse — the story rests firmly on the shoulders of Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty, and they carry it off flawlessly. The trio function seamlessly as a warring, self-destructive group of men living so far outside the normal world they probably can’t remember what it looks like, with Mackie a strict but honorable soldier and Geraghty the weaker of the group. But Renner’s performance is flat-out amazing, carving an unpredictable path through the story. He’s tortured by where he is and what his life has become, but also unable and unwilling to change: The “hurt locker” of the title refers to his collection of detonators from bombs he’s taken apart, fragments of wire that just barely missed out on their chance to kill him. He keeps them around as if they’re talismans that could ward off further harm, and because he knows that he can’t live without their memory.
But Bigelow’s film transcends the expected at every turn and never lets itself be just another war movie. The only exchange that could be considered even tangentially aimed at policy is when one soldier corrects another by saying that their base camp is now called Camp Victory instead of Camp Liberty because the new name “sounds better.” But it’s a jab at bureaucracies in general, and one that highlights one of the film’s many strengths: For these men, this is their job, and one they do not out of a higher motivation to any political movement but because it’s just what they do. And yet the film also finds its purpose in exploring the addictive powers of war, opening with the quote “War is a drug” from Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Bigelow’s protagonists have often explored the costs of being a junkie, whether in pop action art like Point Break or the slick Strange Days. But with The Hurt Locker and Staff Sgt. James, she finally crafts a moving portrait of a man damning himself just to keep feeling vital, alive or dead. It’s a tragic, beautiful, compelling film, one destined to echo in viewers’ minds for months and years.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.