The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker is an extraordinarily uncomfortable movie to watch, not because it is poorly made, but because it succeeds so brilliantly at what it does—place its audience directly in the crosshairs of life in war-torn Iraq.
This is the best Iraq war movie yet made (though it is not the definitive examination many are waiting for), all the more so because it is astonishingly apolitical. The Hurt Locker isn't interested in casting blame or heaping praise—it simply wants to immerse the viewer in hell.
The Hurt Locker doesn't focus on epic battles or even battalion-strength skirmishes, but chooses instead to embed itself with the elite technicians who daily disarm bombs on the streets of Baghdad.
When Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) arrives at Fort Victory to take over the reigns of a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, he is there because the soldier who previously held the position died in a shrapnel-infused fireball.
If Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) do not warm to James right away, it is not just because they are still mourning the loss of their friend but because James, who may not be able to tell the difference between bravery and bravado, lives his life with a reckless disregard for basic safety measures. Either that or he has honed his tightrope walking craft to the point of absolute precision, inherently recognizing what can save his life and what exists simply to give the illusion of security. But James' devil-may-care attitude endangers not just himself but all those around him, and with mere weeks until they rotate out of Iraq, Sanborn and Eldridge just want to stay alive long enough to go home.
Kathryn Bigelow has always been a guy's director. She's consistently made movies men love (Point Break, Strange Days). The Hurt Locker, based on the first-hand observations of journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal, who was embedded with an EOD unit in Iraq, has no real plot other than survival. Bigelow unspools a world of paranoia and chaos that will twist your stomach in knots.
One particularly powerful scene involves coalition forces pinned down in the desert by a sniper. The film takes its time showing us how they extricate themselves, and the overwhelming intensity of their focus is revealed by a fly that saunters across James' eyelash without once causing him to lose focus on his gun scope. And when things go boom, Bigelow trades wide-angle carnage for mesmerizing macro-detail fallout.
Bigelow zeroes in on the men's inner demons with the same sort of incisive specificity. We learn that Eldridge has lost everyone close to him, is riddled with survivor's guilt, and is morbidly fixated on his own death. We learn that James keeps a collection of the primers and fuses meant to kill him and that his swagger hides an unsettled soul that begins to come unhinged when he allows his job to become personal (ironically, in the only off-note moment of the film).
The end of the film is the closest we come to commentary. The most political The Hurt Locker gets is a shot of a supermarket aisle, cereal boxes leading to an almost unidentifiable vanishing point. If the end of the film, set back in suburbia, feels dissonant and out of place, that's because it is. Think how the returning solider feels. James does what he does because it he loves it more than anything else in his life, and as the opening quotation tells us, war is as addicting as any drug.