"The Hurt Locker" is a war film set in present-day Iraq, but it is not about the war in Iraq.
It is about the universal soldier who becomes addicted to war. It is about war as a drug. It is about a man who goes home and is utterly lost in the grocery store----but completely comfortable dodging enemy fire and defusing bombs in brutal, hostile conditions.
It is a searing, unforgettable film filled with unbearably tense set pieces and first-rate performances.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was embedded with a U.S. bomb-disposal squad in Iraq in 2004) have fashioned a gritty, visceral slice of the insanely dangerous, day-to-day operations of a squad of American soldiers that are risking their lives as regularly as you and I take a three-day weekend. (And they know full well that a huge percentage of the civilians back home think they shouldn't even be in Baghdad, or are completely indifferent to their mission.)
Bigelow veers close to glamorizing the bloodshed with her penchant for ear-splitting rock and roll and her admittedly impressive, slow-motion shots of explosions. But she also serves up horrific scenes of death and destruction that serve as a punch to the gut. Even if a soldier survives a war physically uninjured, he does not emerge intact.
We follow the day-to-day routines of an elite bomb squad that has 38 days left in their rotation. In the opening scene, where the squad uses a rolling 'bot' to sniff out a bomb on a busy street in Baghdad, we're sure something won't happen because of an element I don't want to divulge here----and yet it happens anyway. From that moment, Bigelow serves notice. We're in for a hellacious ride.
Jeremy Renner isn't 1/10th as famous as many of his peers, but he's got much more of a star presence and better chops than just about any pretty boy actor you can think of. Renner commands the screen here in a performance worthy of a young Russell Crowe. His Sgt. James is a classic, conflicted, deeply flawed hero. Swaggering macho----but not a caricature. Extremely good at what he does----but the antithesis of the team player.
James has defused more than 800 bombs, and he keeps the switches in a box under his bed, noting that these cheap pieces of plastic and wire could have killed him in others in a heartbeat. At times his bravery crosses the line into death-wish territory----but he's not dead inside. He strikes up a friendship with an Iraqi boy, and he's conflicted about the estranged wife and young son he's left behind. (Evangeline Lilly from "Lost" has an effective cameo as the wife. We also get brief but memorable turns from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes.)
The underrated Anthony Mackie is brilliant here as a hardened vet who has moments of intense doubt. Brian Geraghty has the Jeremy Davies thing down pat as a good-hearted but brittle soldier who has post-traumatic stress syndrome written all over his future. There isn't a weak performance in this film.
Although it's not quite in the same league as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter," this movie strikes similar themes about the huge chasm separating the maddening, adrenaline rush of the war experience and the beautiful banality of everyday home life. When a civilian sees a war veteran in a bar or on a bus in the States, and the vet is staring into space or acting strangely, we might think of him as cliche. Get over it, we think. When we see that veteran through Bigelow's eyes, we're amazed that anyone returning home from these experiences can achieve even moments of "normalcy."
This is one of the best films of the year.