We live in an era when cable news is a joke and more people get enraged over Batffleck then they do when they find out that the government is spying on them. As such, movies like The Hurt Locker are integral our collective awakening. If people aren't engaged or worried enough to actively research what boots on the ground have to deal with in our modern climate of perpetual war then compulsively watchable motion pictures like this may actually open a few eyes.
If anything, The Hurt Locker certainly isn't a toothless and disposable chunk of hollow info-tainment. It's actually one of the most tense, realistic and heartbreaking films I've seen in a long time.
The film wastes no time drawing us in. In a breathless and ultimately tragic preamble, Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce) and his two-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad are tasked to investigate a mysterious package lying in a Baghdad street. Despite following protocol to the letter, a shop vendor suddenly appears out of nowhere and refuses to drop his cell phone. An IED is detonated, Thompson is killed and instantly we see just how unconventional this conflict is. Nothing is innocuous, nothing is safe. Paranoia and disorder are rife.
Thompson is replaced by a hotshot veteran, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner). Partners Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are immediately disturbed by his reckless and borderline-suicidal proclivities. At one point James hops in their humvee and casually drives through a heavily-primed detonation site just to recover a pair of gloves he left behind. Sanborn and Eldridge are so convinced that their ersatz leader will be the death of them they humor the possibility of setting off a blast "by accident".
The balance of the story catalogs one head-shaking set-piece after another. James encounters an inconceivably ghoulish "body cavity bomb". When a green military shrink is goaded into taking the field for "seasoning" the results are unexpectedly expected. The group encounter a pack of clueless, trigger-happy mercenaries led by Ralph Fiennes (!) who are collecting dead bodies like baseball cards.
Based on journalist Mark Boal's experience of being embedded with a real-life EOD team in Iraq for two weeks, many of the things that happen in the film are so insane that you know they probably have some basis in reality. Take note that there's a distinction between this and William's highly dubious behavior. I don't care how much of a veteran this guys is, I'd like to think that his renegade actions would see him barred from the military pretty quick. Such is my naive hope.
I'm wholeheartedly on board with the film's theme, however, which is nicely encapsulated by the opening quote from journalist Chris Hedges:
"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
Although Will's behavior may seem completely over the top, I also know that scores of young veterans have labored under similar conditions for years. When you've been marinating in stress, paranoia, and constant danger for your entire formative life, how can you ever be content dealing with the minutia of regular society? This is embodied in a scene in which Will's wife Connie (Evangeline Lilly) reacts with awkward silence after he recounts the story of an insurgent who lured a crowd of children to him with candy and then detonated a bomb. It's almost as if she can't even process this sort of first-hand horror. As such, the film's denouement shouldn't come as a shock to anyone.
Much hay has been made over the fact that a *GASP!* woman managed to make such a gritty and realistic film. Speaking as someone who wasn't born yesterday, I've been following Kathryn Bigelow's storied career for decades now. Anyone who can't see the merits of her earlier work like Near Dark (1987) and Point Break (1991) are either delusional or film snobs. Having said that, I'm delighted that she's decided to turn his attention towards more controversial and weighty subjects. In fact, I'm positively chomping at the bit to see Zero Dark Thirty now.
Normally I'm not a huge fan of hand-held camerawork but given the documentary style approach employed by Bigelow here, the tactic works very well. In fact, I can't recall a time in which I felt so immersed in a film. Along with her editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, Bigelow manages to inject a sadistic level of tension into the firefights, the IED discoveries and the many stand-offs with deliberately uncommunicative locals. The sequence in which an innocent Iraqi man is padlocked inside an explosive straight-jacket is shot from so many different perspectives and edited so tightly, the scene is nigh-unbearable.
Likely because of the script's controversial characters, the military lent no assistance to the production. In spite of this, the film still looks pretty freakin' authentic to this particular civilian. This has a lot to do with the fact that The Hurt Locker was shot on location in Jordan, sometimes mere miles away from the Iraqi border. The buildings, the extras, the props and the sun-bleached environs provide a level of realism rarely matched in contemporary Hollywood films. The principal actors in particular look like their literally being pulled through a knothole of misery.
The shell-shocked slo-mo and macro-level shrapnel photography is expertly documented by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. The nighttime sequence in which James, Sanborn and Eldridge investigate the scene of a destroyed oil tanker literally looks as if it was shot on location in the bowels of hell. Again, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the film's military protocol, but the movie itself looks and feels distressingly real.
The cast is uniformly brilliant. Jeremy Renner interprets the script brilliantly, delivering an understated yet complex portrait of a damaged soul. Inhumanly brave and possessed of a coal-black sense of humor, Will comes off like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon at first. But as the insane risks start to pile up, we begin to realize that he's borderline suicidal. Renner expertly navigates though a minefield of repressed emotions and disparate mental states and still presents a character that we give a shit about. In a vaguely related point, someone needs to get Renner into a Matt Fraction Hawkeye movie pronto.
In a lesser script, James would be depicted as a one-dimensional jar-head but instead we get an intriguing sub-plot in which Will befriends a boisterous Iraqi kid and then goes rogue after the boy turns up dead. Later, when William is on leave back home, he secretly confesses to his own newborn son that he has only one love left in his life and he isn't referring to anyone or anything under that roof. Instantly we reminded of the Chris Hedges quote and we're chilled to the bone.
Accomplished stage actor Anthony Mackie is also terrific as Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. Out of the entire cast, you really get the impression that Mackie used the miserable shooting conditions to inspire a seamlessly authentic performance. In a constant state of high alert over the unpredictable nature of his strange surroundings it's darkly amusing to speculate just how long it will take before Will's antics cause him to crack. The scene in which he recants his previous hesitation over becoming a father is delivered with such heartfelt resignation it's lingered with me for days.
Baby-faced Brian Geraghty is the perfect portrait of lost innocence. Not only is Eldridge clearly suffering under the stress of living in an unpredictable war zone, he's also horrified by his own capability to mete out life or death. His guilt over Thompson's demise is soon compounded after he goads the hapless Cambridge (Christian Camargo) into going out on patrol with them. When he finally snaps on Will, Geraghty's genuine rage provides a memorably cathartic experience for both himself and the audience.