The Hurt Locker detonates explosive thrills

Director Kathryn Bigelow sends shockwaves with her Iraq war drama

In his landmark poem “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In her thrilling film The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow shows you fear in a pile of rubble or a beat-up old car. Location is everything in The Hurt Locker: On the streets of Baghdad in 2004, something as innocuous as a pile of trash could conceal an insurgent’s hidden explosive.

??Screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal was embedded with members of the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad in 2004, and The Hurt Locker’s fresh perspective and attention to terrifying detail give the film undeniable authority. There's never been a war movie quite like it. Bigelow crafts set pieces that draw the audience’s attention as taut as a tripwire, while the off-duty scenes suggest the job’s pressures can turn soldiers into ticking time bombs.??Bravo Company’s high-risk bomb techs Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) hope to live through the remaining weeks of their Iraqi tour. Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) arrives to replace one of their fallen comrades, and at first, the soft-spoken soldier radiates confidence and ease. To Sanborn and Eldridge’s dismay, James strides recklessly into potential deathtraps with a cavalier attitude toward safety protocols. When an Iraqi driver blunders into one sealed-off neighborhood, James whips out a handgun and stares down the native as if he imagines himself the indestructible star of a Clint Eastwood movie. ??The Hurt Locker has already won acclaim as the most compelling war film since Saving Private Ryan, but the two films have telling differences. Steven Spielberg’s Omaha Beach sequence brilliantly conveyed the sprawling chaos of war and showed grisly death as terrifyingly arbitrary. In Bigelow’s film, the risks of war have an eerie orderliness: The bomb techs know exactly what could kill them if they can’t figure out the system of a given “suspect device.” Frequently the film shows soldiers fall in the field, and then the protagonists enter an identical situation. ??Compared to the “Cut the red wire!” clichés of mad bomber thrills, The Hurt Locker feels like a documentary filmed in impossible close-up. At one point, a massive explosion emits such a powerful concussion that a nearby automobile sloughs off a layer of dirt, reminiscent of the portentous vibration rings in Jurassic Park’s cup of water. The film’s signature touch places the lead bomb tech — usually James — in a protective, helmeted bomb suit resembling an antique deep-sea-diving outfit. The image cuts a surreal figure in the demolished Iraqi streets. In a tense change of pace, another sequence finds James and company pinned down by desert snipers. The Hurt Locker features big-name actors (including one of Bigelow’s Strange Days stars) in relatively small roles to mess with audience’s expectations for which characters will live or die. ??Boal collaborated on Paul Haggis’ angry, mournful Iraq war film In the Valley of Elah, but The Hurt Locker has much subtler politics. Occasional lines such as “If he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure as hell is one now” contain critiques of the U.S. occupation, but the film spends more time exploring the toll such high-risk work can take on soldiers’ psyches. Eldridge’s conversations with a well-meaning but naïve army psychologist hit the themes a little neatly, but James’ self-destructive motivations prove more elusive. Renner provides a fascinatingly oblique performance as James, and doesn’t seem to be playing the part as simply carrying himself the way James would. He’s a born action star who shares a similar mixture of folksy decency and dangerous intensity as Nathan Fillion. ??The Hurt Locker is being billed as a comeback film for Bigelow, and it’s by far the director’s most accomplished work. Bigelow specializes in offbeat genre films like the vampire western Near Dark and the surf heist picture Point Break. The Hurt Locker shows more sympathy for her heroes’ damaged humanity than any of her other films. The Hurt Locker is more than simply the sum of its brilliant suspense scenes, but builds up enormous cumulative power. You can almost see the shockwave rushing toward you.