By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
"War is a drug," writes Christopher Hedges in the epigraph that precedes "The Hurt Locker." Someone else described war as "interminable boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror." Director Kathryn Bigelow comprehends both those observations and conveys them in this captivating, completely immersive action thriller. "The Hurt Locker" just happens to be set in Iraq in 2004, but, like the best films, transcends time and place, and in the process attains something universal and enduring. "The Hurt Locker" is about Iraq in the same way that "Paths of Glory" was about World War I or "Full Metal Jacket" was about Vietnam -- which is to say, utterly and not at all. "The Hurt Locker" is a great movie, period.
In the opening scene, a winsome little robot goes about its business in a dry and dusty place in an absorbing, nearly dialogue-free sequence of startling visual eloquence. But this isn't your toddler's "WALL E": The mechanized creature is a device used for ferreting out bombs, and when a wheel suddenly breaks, that means one of the 'bot's human counterparts must suit up, slowly approach a pile of rubble and either find a bunch of trash or risk losing his life to an improvised explosive device. For the next two hours, viewers are plunged into the dizzying, disorienting world of the soldiers who disarm what Americans have come to know as IEDs or roadside bombs, neither of which term does full justice to the carnage they inflict.
The men leading the audience through those tense, tautly orchestrated encounters are the soldiers of Bravo Company, which as "The Hurt Locker" begins, has 38 days to go in its rotation. Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the mild-mannered nice guy who, in a World War II movie, most likely would have hailed from a farm in Iowa. Anthony Mackie plays Spec. J.T. Sanborn, possessed of the somber, watchful demeanor of a professional quietly observing protocol, quite simply because observing protocol is the best way to stay alive. The group's leader -- and "The Hurt Locker's" charismatic, often confounding protagonist -- is Staff Sgt. William James, an adrenaline junkie and alpha dog played in an astonishing breakout performance by Jeremy Renner.
"He's a rowdy boy," Eldridge says with a tinge of admiration after he watches James make his ostentatiously swaggering debut with Bravo Company. "He's reckless," says a studiously unimpressed Sanborn. Either way, James is an irresistible central character, a man who -- as brought to life by Renner with a tone-perfect combination of cocksure arrogance and baby-face guile -- is either captive to a pathological death wish or the embodiment of heroism at its most physically and mentally uncompromising. The dynamic among the three men -- as well as their uneasy relationships with Iraqi civilians -- heighten and heat up throughout "The Hurt Locker," which keeps its characters, and by extension the audience, on a jittery knife-edge between the chaos and control, bravado and breakdown and threat, and promise that define the life of a soldier.
All those contradictions are alive and kicking in James, who goes about his job with what seems to be an increasing sense of heedlessness. (During one of the film's most excruciatingly suspenseful scenes, James dismantles a car bomb without protective gear, which was too hot and bulky for him to do the job; while Eldridge and Sanborn nervously keep watch over Iraqi civilians nearby, every click of the wire clipper might deliver a lethal blow.) But just when his men are on the verge of dismissing (and possibly dispatching) James as a showboating cowboy, he reveals yet another side. In the desert outside Baghdad, they encounter a group of British gunmen whose leader suggests Lawrence of Arabia for a new, mercenary age. Soon, they're embroiled in a confrontation with unseen snipers that will last for what seems like a dusty, dehydrated eternity.
Like every scene in "The Hurt Locker," this sequence is orchestrated by Bigelow with breathtaking skill, conveying both boredom and terror in an unforgettable tableau of waiting, watching, killing and waiting again. From the blood-encrusted bullets Eldridge frantically spits on to make them usable to the tiny specks of dust that accumulate on Sanborn's eyelashes while he patiently gazes through a rifle sight, each detail begins to take on a singular, almost hallucinatory life of its own. It's a world where the random and the routine seem engaged in a constant standoff of their own.
"The Hurt Locker" owes much of its success to its script, which was written by journalist Mark Boal after he was embedded with an elite Army explosive ordnance disposal squad for several weeks. These are clearly men whom Boal knows intimately (although a liberal psychologist named Cambridge seems almost too painfully earnest to be true), from their gallows-humor bonhomie to their whiskey-fueled, pugilistic bonding sessions. But as authentic as Boal's characters are, it took a director of Bigelow's sensitivity, adroitness and sheer technical chops to bring them to life so completely.
In such films as "Near Dark" and "Point Break," Bigelow has made something of a specialty of investigating subcultures, mostly male, that revolve around ritualized aggression, and she has also progressively sharpened her filmmaking skills. With "The Hurt Locker" she has made the finest film of her career, an exercise in pure cinema that tells its story using every visual, aural and sensory element the medium has to offer. A former painter, Bigelow approaches the screen like a canvas, using the camera as an expressive instrument to bring viewers into an unknown and incomprehensible world. ("The Hurt Locker" was filmed by Barry Ackroyd, who shot Paul Greengrass's "United 93" with similar, swerving immediacy, using four hand-held cameras.)
With an unerring sense of hair-trigger realism, but an artist's appreciation for composition, gesture and rhythm, Bigelow has created a movie that studiously avoids the kind of ax-grinding rhetoric and posturing that has made other Iraq-themed movies box-office poison. Instead, she short-circuits polemic to create a by turns thrilling and terrifying experience, one that muscles viewers straight into the action and keeps them there, at least until their rotation is over.
Bigelow orchestrates that transition with ingenuity, in a penultimate sequence that, perhaps more than any of the action that precedes it, gets to the soldier's sense of purpose, and inevitable dislocation. When viewers are ultimately released from "The Hurt Locker's" exhilarating vice grip, they'll find themselves shaken, energized and, more than likely, eager to see it again. In the hands of a filmmaker working at the height of her powers, interminable boredom and stark terror can be a potent cocktail, indeed.
The Hurt Locker (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for war violence and profanity.