The Hurt Locker is a phenomenal movie whose whirlwind action and terrific performances easily make it a contender come awards season later this year. It's also a triumphant return for Bigelow, who's been largely MIA since directing K19: The Widowmaker seven years ago.
The film follows a squad of the Army's little known Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) division whose job is to disarm roadside bombs on the streets of Baghdad. Much like how the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan set the tone for the rest of Steven Spielberg's war movie, the opening bomb disarmament sequence in Hurt Locker also sets the tone: anyone can die at any point in time so brace yourself and don't crush that tub of popcorn.
The bomb squad is lead by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) who has already disarmed close to 900 bombs when we meet him. He is fearless and reckless with no regard for authority. Good at what he does, James is addicted to the thrill of it and is constantly putting himself in potentially dangerous situations, much to the anger of his teammates, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).
The film could also be classified as the best Iraq movie that's been on the screen to date. While every Iraqi-themed movie so far has disinterested audiences at the box-office (In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Redacted are just a few that come to mind), viewers should find this one worthwhile. The war in Hurt Locker serves more as a backdrop to showcase what these men do for a living -- in another movie, for instance, these soldiers could easily have been bomb diffusers on a police squad. The film does not take a political stance about war, or preach about it being bad or a necessary evil. In Hurt Locker, war just is and the soldiers don't bother analyzing the bigger picture of what that means. They are too entrenched in the thick of things, disarming IED's to make the city a safer place for their comrades and the innocent civilians who are strategically mixed in with the terrorists.
This is not a detraction from the film, but there is no specific plot or story arc to the film -- the soldiers simply move from one mission to the next. There are no lessons to be learned, no big villain to take down and no one big reveal or climax that leads to a denouement. The characters don't start off one way and become something else at the end. The soldiers are who they are and that aspect remains constant. What does change is the magnitude of the type of IEDs the squad encounters during the missions. Those get more intricate and horrific as the film progresses and the stress of it only serves to magnify each soldier's existing personality traits.
All three leads do a stellar job in their roles. For all his swagger and attitude, Renner's Sgt. James also shows a different side in a friendship with a young Iraqi boy. But at the end of the day, war is a drug for him and like all addicts, his personal relationships suffer because of that. Meanwhile Mackie's Sanborn, who is charged to keep James safe during the disarmament, is a meticulous, by the book, skilled solider. He feels frustrated, disrespected and compromised during missions when James throws caution to the wind. If an I.E.D. doesn't kill James, Sanborn just may. Geraghty's Eldrigde is that mid-western boy who probably never should have joined the army and is surely never going to make it home. He is put in the unfortunate position of having to chose between James' and Sanborn's commands and the mental stress begins to take its toll.
Bigelow uses very little music in the film, letting the scenes speak for themselves. When a bomb is being disarmed, the silence is so loud and the tension so thick, the anxiety is felt not just by the soldiers but by the viewers as well. The constant camera movements and multiple points of view makes audience members feel they are embedded with the squad, essentially making them a fourth member of the team. (Screenwriter Mark Boal is a journalist who spent some time embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad in Baghdad back in 2004.)
With no "name" actors in the film (save a few cameos), viewers have no idea which character will live or die. Everybody is disposable here and the lack of star power works in the film's favor. As the days count down to when the squad's term in Baghdad is up, movie-goers will be left hoping they themselves make it to the end just as Sanborn and Eldridge do.