"The Hurt Locker" has the killer impact of the explosive devices that are the heart of its plot: It simply blows you apart and doesn't bother putting you back together again. Overwhelmingly tense, overflowing with crackling verisimilitude, it's both the film about the war in Iraq that we've been waiting for and the kind of unqualified triumph that's been long expected from director Kathryn Bigelow.
Bigelow has been on critics' watch lists since her hallucinatory early films "The Loveless" and "Near Dark." But until now she's never had a subject that so successfully utilized her gift for stylized suspense and what she calls "heightened emotional states" as this tale of a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad (tautly portrayed by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) deployed in the terrifying streets of Baghdad.
Actually, it's unfair to burden "The Hurt Locker" with the Iraq label. It's more of a classic study of men in combat and under stress that could have taken place almost anytime, anywhere. There's no sense of winning or losing a war here, no notion of making a difference or achieving lofty geopolitical aims. But by narrowing its focus to the bomb squad's specific life or death tasks of defusing roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the film manages to expand its effectiveness as well as its relevance.
Though its themes are universal, "Hurt Locker's" specificity of action and situation are what make it compelling. Bigelow and her team bring an awesome ferocity to re-creating the unhinged mania of bomb removal in an alien, culturally unfathomable atmosphere. Here is a world where total jeopardy is the watchword, where chaos, paranoia and random chance make the rules, where the number of ways you could lose your life -- or your mind -- are infinite yet growing.
"The Hurt Locker's" verisimilitude begins with the lean and compelling script by Mark Boal, a journalist and screenwriter who wrote the magazine article on which "In the Valley of Elah" was based. Boal spent time embedded with an Army bomb squad in Iraq and the resulting script is closely observed and sharp enough to attract, in addition to the three stars, performers of the caliber of Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse in what are essentially supporting roles.
The actors who play the bomb squad trio are admired in the business as consummate professionals: Renner for his work in "Dahmer" and "North Country;" the protean Mackie for "Half Nelson," "Brother to Brother" and "Million Dollar Baby" and Geraghty for "Bobby" and "Jarhead." What they accomplish here will raise their profiles considerably.
Helping the actors dig into themselves are aspects of the way "The Hurt Locker" was shot by Barry Ackroyd, who did similarly impeccable verite work on "United 93." First, most of the film was photographed in the at times 130 degree heat and dust of Amman, Jordan, a city with physical similarities to parts of Baghdad. Second, Bigelow chose to shoot with four hand-held cameras working simultaneously -- a scenario similar to the one Jonathan Demme used on "Rachel Getting Married" -- which gave editors Bob Murawski and Chris Innis a staggering 200 hours of footage to deal with.
Director Bigelow brought all these elements together by hewing to that venerable dramatic rubric of revealing character through action. We learn almost all we need to know about these men not through what they say but through what they do in a series of mind-bending situations. What comes to light is not only individual traits but also different attitudes to crises, separate but surprisingly equal definitions of what we talk about when we're talking about heroism and courage.
"The Hurt Locker" is structured around the 38 days the three men in the EOD (for Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad have left in their rotation in Iraq. Men like Spc. Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) know all too well that every new day is potentially one they will not survive. They all want to avoid the hurt locker, the place where bad things happen.
The veteran of the group is Sgt. J.T. Sanborn. As played by the always excellent Mackie, he's a soldier who is as sane and level-headed as the situation allows. His job is to keep everybody safe and to communicate with the team leader, the guy who puts on the 140-pound protective suit and goes in to defuse the bombs knowing that no suit will protect him once he gets close to the device and enters the kill zone.
Though Eldridge and Sanborn have been in the Army and in Iraq for some time, they've never met anyone like their new leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Renner). A true fatalist whose first act is to remove the protective plywood around his bunk to let the light in, James just wants to get in there and handle it, no questions asked.
Nerveless, fearless, reckless, willing to do without any number of safety devices, including the suit, James is simultaneously a hot-shot action junkie who gets high on adrenaline and a cool, extremely accomplished technician who relishes the intellectual challenge of figuring out what makes a particular bomb tick. Literally.
As this three-man squad progresses from terrifying situation to more terrifying situation, we experience not only breathless action but also the development of what might be called a philosophical rivalry between the two sergeants about the best way to be a brave and effective soldier. It's not an abstract question, it's one that could determine who will live and who will die.
One of the most unexpected things about "The Hurt Locker" is that, unlike many war films, it is not interested in having you choose sides in this debate. In fact, it reveals unlooked-for aspects of all the characters, especially James, like the sergeant's playfulness with a young Iraqi boy (Christopher Sayegh) who calls himself Beckham and says things like "I hook you up." Renner handles all sides of his surprisingly complex character beautifully, in a performance so good it feels like a gift.
For all its realism, "The Hurt Locker" is also a stylized film that deals in the quality of myth. While documentaries have shown that the reality of Iraq is incendiary combat interspersed with tedious down time, this film largely does without the down time, placing us in such a rapid-fire sequence of high-octane situations that we never ever have a chance to catch our breath.
Finally, almost without our realizing it, "The Hurt Locker" asks difficult questions about heroism's costs and demands, about what war does to soldiers, and about damage that may be impossible to rectify or repair.
The film starts with a celebrated quote from the book "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." It's easy to understand this thought intellectually, but by the time this remarkable film comes to an end, we feel it in our souls.
'The Hurt Locker'
MPAA rating: R for war violence and language
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In limited release