The Hurt Locker

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: The tragic death of a bomb disposal expert in Iraq brings a new face to Bravo Company. However, unlike his predecessor, Sgt James walks relentlessly towards grave danger, much to the dismay of colleagues Sanborn and Eldridge who rather fancy surviving their tour of duty. As the days tick down, James can’t help but involve himself – and others – in potentially lethal situations.

The curse of the roadside bomb is a constant hazard in and around Baghdad, as Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) discovers to his cost. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is devastated to lose his friend, while Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) carries the guilt of not preventing the tragedy around with him. The pair are partially consoled by the fact that Bravo Company have only 38 days left in Iraq, but the arrival of Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team shakes up their careful, methodical ways.

Ignoring the unit’s robot, James puts on the blast suit and snips away at wires first, unconcerned for his own safety and that of his colleagues, who immediately fear for their own lives. They even wonder whether, given the inevitability of James getting them all killed, it would be preferable to save themselves by killing him first. Not that, given James’ habit of going beyond his missions to find answers, he doesn’t give plenty of opportunities to the US Army’s enemies.

Appreciating films ‘properly’ is often a matter of timing. What that specifically means here is that I should ideally have watched The Hurt Locker before contemporaries such as The Men Who Stare at Goats and Green Zone, and before the hoo-hah surrounding the Best Picture nominations given to Bigelow and ex-husband James Cameron. Because I didn’t manage that, I arrived at the film with certain expectations that – to be fair – are mostly met: Iraq (this time, actually Jordan) is presented as a chaotic, searingly hot place, its buildings bombed-out and/or bullet-ridden, Baghdad’s citizens interfering or desperately trying to turn the situation to their advantage.

The action is filmed in the uneasy, shifting style of Green Zone, too, the handheld camera bringing the viewer into the action as we nervously look towards the sinisterly static watchers, uncertain (like Sanford and Eldridge) whether they are holding remote detonators. The film deftly exploits the tension of bomb disposal, and when bombs go off, the explosions are filmed with some stunning slow-motion photography.

Yet The Hurt Locker is much more than the standard Why are we here?/My ‘friends’ are as likely to kill me as my enemies/War is Hell movie. Indeed, the film explicitly states that ‘War is a drug’, and as Kathryn Bigelow draws out both action and characterisation in extraordinarily long scenes (my mind having been conditioned by decades of ADHD editing), we see that this is certainly the case for James. His bravado initially comes across as recklessness, or perhaps a deathwish; but as we discover more about him and his colleagues, we discover that beyond the cigarette-smoking pursuit of cool is a complicated man, with a failed marriage at home and reminders of the bombs he’s defused under the bed.

His relationship with Sanford and Eldridge is also well developed, the film giving plenty of time to their violent social interactions, to Sanford’s desire for a family and to Eldridge’s conversations with his confessor, Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo). Writer Mark Boal consistently and cleverly subverts the viewers’ expectations; at first, James’ friendship with a soccer-playing lad called Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) seems like a facile and sentimental touch, but it becomes an essential part of the plot, which shifts in unexpected and uncomfortable, gruesome ways.

The brief, uneasy section of the James family’s home life approaches genius, as does the grim comedy of the final caption: here’s a man who loves the idea of having a son to go back to, but finds that his life only has meaning on duty, not among the mundane choices of suburban day-to-day existence. Which is not to say that everything works – the episode with Ralph Fiennes’ contractors goes on much, much too long and fails to say much about the mercenary private operators attached to the war – but on the whole, the film does its job brilliantly. I’ve not mentioned the actors, but it’s not because of any deficiencies on their part; rather, it’s because they inhabit their roles so well – Renner is particularly fine.

The Hurt Locker isn’t a film which tries to say anything particularly profound about the Iraq War, or war in particular; and experts may nitpick about the realism or otherwise of what it portrays. On the other hand, it does provide a superbly-filmed and acted insight into the work of an astonishingly brave group of men, also revealing conflicts between colleagues and exploring their troubled minds. A superior film in every respect and one which, it goes without saying, kicks Avatar’s dumb blue ass from here to next week.

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