I won’t mince words. The Hurt Locker is the best film of the year so far. It is gritty, it is tough, it is somber, it is real and it is intense.
It is so un-summer.
But if you’re willing to hop off the Hollywood formula mill for a couple hours and shed the warm cape of escapism that has sheltered you for the past couple months, you’ll be rewarded with a film that will stay with you longer than the sunburn you got last weekend.
What is The Hurt Locker? Ask anyone who knows and they’ll tell you it’s a war movie. But that’s an oversimplification. There have been war movies—Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket—but they were focused on making a statement about war and what war does to men. While The Hurt Locker doesn’t completely escape the philosophy of war, it doesn’t seem wholly interested in commenting on the inherent goodness or badness of it either. That judgment gets left to the viewer based on the transparency of the events that get played out. Instead, the film is about a man doing his job—and doing it intensely and well, not too different than the characters in, say, Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross. And just as we learned about traders in Wall Street or salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, we learn in The Hurt Locker what it takes to be a bomb diffuser on the front lines of an insurgent war in the streets of Iraq. But instead of wearing a designer suit, our captain of industry is wearing fatigues and steel-lined protective gear.
Yet what is the industry?
Instead of money, our hero is driven by death. The fear of it—or the allure of it? There seem to be so many questions that surround our character. What is the attraction of the tightrope walk, of the inches between safety and oblivion, of the game of chance played with loaded dice? It takes a certain type of person to succeed in a job that requires nerves of steel, the precision of a surgeon, and the courage of a Marine. And what makes The Hurt Locker so strong is that it gives away no easy answers, instead it just brings us along, letting us watch and wonder.
Given the subject matter and the setting—the film is shot almost entirely in Jordan, which is as realistic a stand-in for Iraq as you could imagine—you have to be prepared going in for a tough two hours of movie-watching. And you wouldn’t be wrong. The Iraq war now is not about hand-to-hand combat, it is instead about an occupation and an army of hidden insurgents who strike in insidious and violent ways and are everywhere and anywhere. It makes city streets death zones, ordinary citizens potential snipers and a schoolbus the makings for a suicide bomber launching pad. Remnants of war are everywhere, from bombed-out buildings to trash and debris-laden streets, it is truly a depressing and heart-wrenching backdrop. Insert onto that canvas our three leading men, our squad of bomb experts, who get called in to diffuse bombs that are discovered along the sides of roads or anywhere they may pose a danger to the allied military or the civilian public. Played by relative newcomers Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, this squad avoids all the war movie clichés. Every new mission is just another day at the office. When this film isn’t about the nuances of bomb diffusing in a war zone, it’s a film about men learning to work together in a high-stress environment, which is sometimes just as interesting. The screenplay, written by Mark Boal (who also wrote In the Valley of Elah), avoids cliché and actually lets men be men, and shows respect to them, as men and soldiers, and never defines them just as one or the other. War is hell, that is clear. What is not always clear is how sane men who manage to stay sane are able to get through it.
The Hurt Locker is such a genuine experience because the performances are truly astounding and authentic. Renner plays lead bomb diffuser, Sgt. Will James with intensity and confidence and his performance is absolutely electrifying. He plays a character that would ordinarily be so easy to turn into a caricature, a crazed bomb expert, but Renner manages to humanize him while still distancing him both from his colleagues and the audience. You neither sympathize with him nor hate him—he remains a total mystery right until the end. Name the last war movie where you can say that about the lead character.
All the supporting performances are also strong. Mackie is a genuine force onscreen as he tries, often in vain, to rein in his reckless superior, who puts them all in dangerous situations. While you may not recognize or be familiar with any of the leading actors, there are enough cameo performances throughout the film to stay entertained.
To call this film entertaining would seem to be an oddity, but the suspense is kept at such a high level throughout the entire film, you might find yourself perched on the edge of your seat without even realizing it. More than one sequence is shot on pure adrenaline, with no soundtrack, using a handheld camera (as most of the film is), so as to amp up the drama (and danger). And it works. Director Kathryn Bigelow does a great job at never losing the pace and never losing focus of what we’re interested in—what is it like to be a bomb diffuser in the thick of war. You feel the glass crunch under your feet, you can almost feel the eyes of the sniper boring into the back of your head as the sweat beads roll down your temple…
Welcome to hell.
Welcome to the first great film of the year.