The Hurt Locker
2009, R, 131 min. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christopher Sayegh.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 10, 2009
The hybridization of arthouse and action doesn't happen all that often, but it should, if mashing the two genres makes for film as riveting and rattling as The Hurt Locker, which had its U.S. premiere at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. Bigelow continues her fascination with hazardous occupations – after cops and robbers in Blue Steel and Point Break, submarine runners in K-19: The Widowmaker – with this story of an elite bomb-dismantling squad winding down a tour of duty in Iraq (and inspired by screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal's embed with a similar squad). "Story" is perhaps misleading, as The Hurt Locker, very little interested in character backstory or conventional plot, charts a series of missions, some more successful than others, with only the occasional interlude of drunken roughhousing. There's a sameness to the action (if not the particulars or the consequences of) that perfectly mimics what awaits the explosive ordnance disposal squad every time the three-man team pulls up to a job in their Humvee: every day another bomb, or 10, to dismantle, and every day another chance to get blown into a million itty bits. The three-person squad is comprised of the team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Renner), thrill-seeking and damaged in an unarticulated way; Sgt. JT Sanborn (Mackie), the sensible, upright one who simply wants to ride out this tour in one piece; and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty), just a kid, really, who is starting to crack under the strain of the ceaseless violence and the seeming randomness of who lives and who dies. With a minimum of expository dialogue at their disposal, all three actors create fully fleshed characters, but it's Renner who emerges as the film's focal point. Most recently seen on the now-canceled ABC police procedural The Unusuals, Renner has had a strong buzz building ever since his Indie Spirit Award-nominated performance in 2002's Dahmer. Around the same time, he was one of the featured struggling actors on Bravo's pioneering reality show The It Factor, and that title hits the nail on the head: Whatever "it" is, Renner's got it. In The Hurt Locker, he inspires sympathy, admiration, and aggravation in equal turns as the adrenaline junkie staff sergeant whose reckless methods seem almost cowboy cool – that is, until you realize his death wish has a real danger of catching others in its crosshairs. We never know precisely the root of that recklessness or the psychology behind his ever-circling back toward danger, and we don't need to know. Bigelow and Boal take the same restrained approach to the film at large. There's no moralizing here, no monologuing about why we fight: The Hurt Locker mostly restricts its focus to dramatizing the dirty work of bomb-dismantling in a war zone, and that it does brilliantly. (An opening sequence, which tracks in slow motion and from macro to micro the seismic aftershock of a detonated explosive, is awful and thrilling all at once.) The tension is enough to make you slightly sick, and the overall mood of the thing is deeply dispiriting, but then, nobody ever said that war isn't hell. (See "Every Step They Take," March 13, for an interview with the director.)