Kathryn Bigelow makes rock ‘n roll action films – heart-racing, pulse-pounding genre flicks that, when necessary, employ outsized melodrama to enhance balls-to-the-wall mayhem. The Hurt Locker is no different, save for the fact that it does so within the context of the Iraq War, a conflict that’s largely been treated by Hollywood with ponderous moralizing. Bigelow situates her saga in Iraq but eschews cable-news pontificating, stripping her scenario – about a bomb squad’s tour of duty – down to its nail-biting essence. Politics don’t factor into the equation because, in reality (and in action films), the pressing concern isn’t the why but the how, with Bigelow’s clock-ticking scenarios exhibiting a canny understanding of both soldiers’ experiences as well as the demands of slam-bang cinema. A procession of expertly orchestrated set pieces that use hot-button topicality for base thrills, the director’s latest proves a rousing return to form after the lackluster K-19: The Widowmaker, delivering a heady dose of suspense that’s enlivened by her sharp psych portraits, in particular that of Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), the three-man team’s hotshot newbie whose cockiness borders on adrenaline-junkie insane.
Bigelow twice employs super-slow-mo to show-offy effect, but the gestures are forgivable because the images exude a simultaneous sense of awe and horror at chaos. Despite exploiting real-life situations for fictionalized kicks, The Hurt Locker doesn’t glorify war, its status as a procession of mounting-anxiety episodes turning the proceedings into an almost experimental snapshot of the day-to-day rigors of military service. Which is to say, Bigelow doesn’t shun realism, yet she also refuses to be wholly beholden to it. It’s a tack that lends her tale – whether during her protagonists’ attempts to disarm an IED on an urban street, or survive a sniper ambush and standoff in the middle of the desert – a balance of hardscrabble realism and, in the image of soldiers wearing astronaut-ish bomb-protection suits, an eerie sci-fi quality that furthers the impression of Iraq as a hostile alien landscape. In its downtime glimpses of James blowing off steam brawling with comrades Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), or a shot of him sitting on his bed staring at a photo of the son he left at home, his enormous helmet on his head, the film penetratingly expresses its subject’s increasingly frazzled headspace, in which self-preservation is a game, death is an omnipresent specter, and the rush of the moment becomes, as prologue text too neatly spells out, “a drug.”
Bigelow cuts to the quick with her depiction of James, so sharply delineating his psychological state through high-tension sequences that it’s disappointing to find the director resorting to contrived scripting with James’ off-the-grid efforts to avenge the murder of a young Iraqi boy who sold DVDs at the army base. It’s the one time when The Hurt Locker’s make-believe seams show, though the misstep is short-lived, and Bigelow proves shrewd enough to incorporate the incident’s lingering effects on James – via a later revelation – without undue embellishment. Bigelow may not say anything revolutionary about military duty but her film confronts wartime experiences with minimal bullshit, conveying the vital camaraderie of service through the bomb squad’s natural banter, the taxing concentration required by combat in the sight of James and Sanborn spending hours patiently looking through a machine gun’s lens, and the unmatched high that comes from life-or-death predicaments. Harrowing and horrifying, The Hurt Locker delivers the visceral, heart-in-throat action goods, and in doing so, gets at more truths about Iraq than its preachy Rendition, Redacted and In the Valley of Elah brethren.