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Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

Stand SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) on any grocery store cereal aisle and he’s utterly lost, overwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Put that same man in front of a bomb half-buried under sandy rubble on a Baghdad street and watch his eyes come alive. To call SSG James an “adrenaline junkie,” however, is to suggest he’s fix-focused and remorseless. Renner, coming out of nowhere with a fearless performance, gives this seemingly careless soldier complexity, including a desire to understand his fixation. “You know why I’m that way?” he asks Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). There’s no real answer for a question like this, James seems to understand, and even if there was, it wouldn’t do anything to kill the adrenaline buzz.

Too often in war films we don’t get characters as human and as layered as SSG William James; instead, we get caricatures — hunky heroes (here’s looking at you, Ben Affleck/Capt. Rafe McCawley) or mouthy wild cards like Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. With “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow seems intent on changing that without skimping on the tension, the action or the explosions. Using hand-held cameras, she creates a war film that feels not shaky or low-budget but surprisingly intimate. What this technique can do is perfectly amazing: every grimace, every bullet wound, every bead of sweat gets up-close-and-personal treatment. These cameras transplant viewers to the streets of Baghdad, staring down the barrel of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) wired with enough firepower to KO a city block and everyone in it. Bigelow’s reliance on this technique infuses every frame of the film with nail-biting intensity. When an IED blows, we feel the vibrations and taste the sand. This is war at the hot, dirty ground level.

Yet as impressive as Bigelow’s vision is, it’s scriptwriter Mark Boal’s characters that make “The Hurt Locker” one of the most personal and psychologically intriguing war films ever made. Renner’s SSG James is a commanding figure, but so are his fellow soldiers. James steps in as team leader of the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, and the company members — Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, nicely capturing the anguish of a man not prepared for what he’s seeing), still smarting from witnessing the original team lead’s death — immediately distrust James. He’s reckless to a fault, pulling off his headset to dismantle an IED hidden in an abandoned car. When a cabbie is mistaken as an insurgent and gets roughed up, James is dependably cavalier: “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now.” He doesn’t rely on his team members for intel and charges head-first into unknown situations. Both Sanborn and Eldridge sense a recklessness in their superior that frightens them, and they know James isn’t in this for patriotic reasons. Mackie, a remarkably subtle actor, communicates his wariness and weariness through his eyes; in a later scene with Renner, he is more blunt about his feelings: “I’m not ready to die.”

Renner is alternately fierce and quietly devastating, but never does he shy away from showing us a man acutely aware he has a problem but likes the charge too much to stop. Renner also finds an undercurrent of pride in SSG James, a thoroughly ordinary father/husband (to Evangeline Lily, whose few scenes are poignant) in civilian life but an extraordinary soldier.

At the film’s beginning, Bigelow provides what seems like an ominous warning: “War is a drug.” But by the end of “The Hurt Locker,” New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ quote seems less like an admonition and more like a thought-provoking, very uncomfortable question. In war, Bigelow seems to prompt us, who do we really want on the battlefield — the soldier longing for home whose head isn’t quite in the game, or the reckless fighter who just can’t get enough, the one dashing right into the smoke wearing the grin of a junkie with an empty needle in his vein? Only the boldest director would dare shine a light into that dark corner of the human mind, and only a movie as good as “The Hurt Locker” would make us consider the repercussions of our honest answer.

Grade: A

16 Responses

  1. […] “The Hurt Locker” Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt […]

  2. I’m still in awe of this movie, and can’t seem to recommend it to enough people. It’s amazing to see what it’s achieved despite coming a sliver away from going straight to dvd.

    Great posts – here’s hoping a Best Picture award is just a few weeks away!

    • The highest praise I can give “Hurt Locker” is that if it wins Best Picture, I’ll be cheering (almost) as loudly as if “Inglourious Basterds” was the winner!

      I had the same reaction to Jeremy Renner as I did to Christoph Waltz: WHERE has this guy been all my life? I’m so impressed that Bigelow took such a huge chance on Jeremy Renner, and I hope this is the role that gets him noticed.

      • I was happy to see Renner in this one. His performance was very well done and allowed me to forget his performance as Jeffery Dahmer in that so appropriately named “Dahmer”. I didn’t want to see him pigeon-holed as a sleazy-bag psychotic like Steve Railsback after “Helter Skelter”. I know he has been in other films but the only one most remember is his Charles Manson.

        Looking at Renner’s bio, I see at least 5 movies that he appeared in that I was fond of but I just don’t remember his performance. Just 5 more movies that I will have to look at again.

      • I’ve been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow since she directed “Near Dark” in the 80s. Let’s not forget her vision.

  3. Glad you got to see it (though I don’t exactly share Hatter’s sentiments) – it’s a wonderful flick.

  4. Great to see that you highly enjoyed this movie! It’s an incredible thrill rush from beginning to end.

    • Funny, but the one scene that stood out to me was the one I mentioned in my lead — with James standing in the grocery store cereal aisle looking so lost and also disgusted at the same time. The other quiet one I liked was his exchange with Sgt. Sanborn, where it’s clear James isn’t totally id-driven, that he does wonder why his life has been reduced to a never-ending search for adrenaline. Those two scenes are the most poignant, I think.

      • Yes it such an effective scene because of the change of pace. It’s really a great scene because I can only begin to imagine what it would be like to come back to the civilian world after being in Iraq/Afghanistan for 6 months at a time.

  5. I’m glad that you saw the movie. I saw the movie a good eight months ago and I still remember sequences in that movie. Great, great film.

    • Loved SSG James taking on the car bomb and throwing off his headset — that one in particular had me covering my eyes. Then again, almost every scene in the movie was that good!

  6. Renner was also in 28 Weeks Later and Assassination of Jesse James.

  7. […] and in this case that movie happened to be Kathryn Bigelow’s flat-out fabulous and gritty “The Hurt Locker.” (That’ll teach me to doubt the Mighty Ebert and his Mighty Oscar […]

  8. Thanks for the info, your website is excellent! I’ve been falling behind staying updated with the Oscar nominees this past year but this really helped. The show on Sunday was great!

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