To paraphrase Boogie Nights, everybody is good at one special thing. For Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, that one thing is dismantling bombs, specifically the improvised explosive devices that plague post-invasion Iraq. He takes over as leader of Bravo Company in Baghdad in 2004, as their year-long tour of duty is nearing its end. Along with Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), James responds to reports of discovered or suspected IEDs and does the dirty work of disarming them on the spot. As we meet up with him, he’s already done this 873 times, each time putting his life at risk, and he shows no desire to give it up any time soon.
Baghdad in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion seems like no place to live, and most of its inhabitants don’t appear to particularly care if they do. There are burned-out buildings, death and destruction everywhere, and the city is littered with IEDs, giving Bravo Company plenty of work to do, and James in particular never wastes time diving right in. Explosive Ordnance Disposal isn’t just his job, it’s his lifeblood, his purpose, and his obsession.
The title of The Hurt Locker comes from a poem by Brian Turner, who writes based on his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war. The film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, spent time in Iraq with an EOD squad, and the reality of those experiences shows through. It opens with a quote proclaiming that war is a drug, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the actions of Staff Sergeant James. Renner injects him with the obsessive qualities of an addict, a man who is not just good at what he does, but needs desperately to do it. He gets off on it. He keeps a souvenir piece of every bomb he’s dismantled under his bed, as if they were notches in his bedpost.
James won’t leave until he’s accomplished his mission, no matter the cost or the risk to himself and his unit. When a particularly clever car bomb has him stumped, he ignores the imminent danger around him and the pleas of his company, feverishly working until he’s overcome the challenge of figuring out and conquering the device, getting his fix in the process. When he believes a village boy he’s befriended to have been murdered, he breeches protocol, leaves base, and invades an innocent professor’s home to try to find the killer. Then he gets up the next morning, dons his bombsuit, and goes to dismantle another IED. He’s obsessed to the point of becoming a man with a singular function. Ask him to save hundreds of lives while the clock is ticking, and he’s focused and unflappable. Ask him to pick up cereal at the grocery store, though, and he’ll stand in the aisle, dumbfounded by the myriad choices.
Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot with a combination of dramatic and documentary styles, and the mix works perfectly. We see scenes of Bravo’s humvee trailing a cloud of sand across vast desert landscapes and shootout sequences that put us right in the middle of the action. Then we ride along in that Humvee, bouncing with the terrain, as Sanborn reveals his dreams and Eldridge his fears. Some sequences are beautifully cinematic, others are very down-and-dirty. The focus is always on these men and what they do and their motivations and the challenges they face.
The cast all around is excellent. The three relatively unknown actors who make up Bravo Company never imbue their characters with cliches, though they each are presented as a slightly simplified and generalized type of soldier so as to amplify the personality traits being depicted. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes head the supporting cast, and both are as good as usual. And it’s amazing what Evangeline Lilly conveys in but a small amount of screen time.
The primary emotion of this film is suspense, and it builds it constantly and effectively. Bigelow knows just how to structure a scene to maximize the tension of the situation, focusing on the task at hand and then cutting to the surroundings at just the right times. We feel the claustrophobia of James’s bombsuit, we share the tension felt by Sanborn and Eldridge, and we feel the suspense of knowing that the bomb may go off at any moment. The film establishes early on—in its introductory scene, in fact—that we can never assume that any member of the team is indispensable, that any character is immortal. There’s another scene of an ambush in the desert that ends up in a standoff that lasts until dusk, and the exhaustion—not to mention the thirst—of the soldiers who are pinned in is almost as overwhelming to the audience as it is to them. It’s effective filmmaking, not just because of its subject matter, but because we care about its subjects and what might happen to them, and feel that we’re all too familiar with the stakes.
The Hurt Locker is one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, and probably the best movie so far this year of any genre. It isn’t about the war, it’s about the warriors. It not only makes us sympathize with their situation, but it makes us feel that we’ve gained a small amount of understanding of it, and some empathy as well. It’s focused and unflinching in its depictions of its characters, and far-reaching in the precision of the emotions it invokes. War is a drug, and James is an addict, and The Hurt Locker helps us understand just exactly what that might actually mean.