Click here to read more about The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow and her unique approach to action movies
In the "Slate Movie Club" a couple of years ago, I got a chance to air my grievances about the Hollywood war movie. The pretext for the discussion was Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, but the structural problem we discussed is endemic to the genre: War movies tend to begin by introducing a large number of characters (an incoming boot-camp class, a unit of soldiers, etc.), differentiating them just enough so the audience can tell them apart (the gung-ho warrior, the coward, the sensitive guy), and then picking them off one by one in a series of gruesome battle scenes until the last man standing, our protagonist, either dies himself or goes home a changed man.
This Spam-in-a-can suspense strategy makes for movies that are simultaneously tense (Who's going to get smoked next, and how?) and boring (How many more guys have to get smoked before I can go home?). The argument could be made, of course, that this sickening alternation between boredom and fear is precisely what war really feels like. But like other intense life experiences (having a baby, falling in love), combat may need to undergo some kind of cinematic alchemy for its reality to become palpable on-screen. In The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment), Kathryn Bigelow accomplishes that alchemy—and she does it not by rejecting the Spam-in-a-can structure but by reducing it to its barest elements.
The film begins by introducing a very small number of characters—three members of an elite bomb-disposal squad in Iraq—then instantly plunges them into an impossibly tense situation, as a robot designed to defuse bombs malfunctions and a soldier, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is forced to get way too close to a ticking IED. Sgt. Thompson either gets blown to smithereens or doesn't (you think I'm going to tell you?), and then this unbearably anxiety-provoking situation repeats itself, with slight variations in the type of bomb being approached and the person approaching it, over and over again for the next two hours. By keeping its scale miniature instead of epic (there are no combat scenes in the traditional sense), The Hurt Locker keeps its audience in a constant state of tension without risking battle fatigue. But the main advantage The Hurt Locker has over conventional war epics is the richness of its characters. The members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team aren't hastily sketched cannon fodder or iconically heroic bores but damaged, blustering, certifiably crazy, and admirably brave men.
Sgt. Thompson's fellow squad members include Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and, eventually, Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner). On his first day with the unit, the hotheaded James immediately alienates the by-the-book Sanborn by disregarding his advice and wading into a harrowing (and entirely avoidable) near-death scenario. For the rest of their tour, James drives his squadmates and himself nearly mad with his adrenaline-seeking, consequence-ignoring behavior, going AWOL to track down a suspected bomber and doffing the safety helmet of his Kevlar suit as he investigates a car trunk full of explosives. ("If I'm going to die, I'll die comfortable.") But just when you think you know the familiar roles that James and Sanborn occupy—the macho thrill addict, the meticulous professional—they'll reverse positions, as Sanborn reveals a masochistic appetite for drunken fistfights and James proves unexpectedly tender with the emotionally troubled Eldridge.
There's just more than a month left in the squad's rotation as the film begins, and the days get counted down on-screen with queasy inexorability: 23 days left to go … 16 … three. The Hurt Locker was scripted by journalist Mark Boal, who wrote an article of the same title about being embedded with a bomb-defusal unit in Iraq. * There's a journalistic attention to the quotidian details of life on the ground, but the film's elegant episodic structure, and the way it uses action sequences to reveal character, are the opposite of documentary-style realism. Bigelow is an elegant, even intellectual filmmaker, but her style here never feels arty or abstract; whether surveying the Green Zone from above or in tight close-up on a spent shell bouncing on the ground, her camera is always right where you want it to be.
Jeremy Renner is a discovery of an actor; once you've seen him in a movie, you go around asking people, "Do you know this Jeremy Renner guy?" and usually, the answer is no. That happened to me with Dahmer, his frighteningly intense (and even more frighteningly sympathetic) 2002 portrayal of cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. After The Hurt Locker (which is without question the most exciting and least ideological movie yet made about the war in Iraq), everyone will remember Renner's name.
Correction, March 1, 2010: The sentence originally and incorrectly stated that The Hurt Locker was based on a book by Mark Boal. The movie was based on a magazine article written by Boal. (Return to the corrected sentence.)