Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenwriters: Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly
Running time: 131 mins
> Interview: Kathryn Bigelow
After scaling the heights in skydiving thriller Point Break and going deep under water in submarine drama K19: The Widowmaker, director Kathryn Bigelow takes her camera on the ground in Iraq in The Hurt Locker. Once again she's concerned with the question of what makes a man and, in particular, bomb disposal expert Sgt William James. It's a meaty role for Jeremy Renner, hitherto best known as that guy in that thing who you can't really place (ref. The Assassination of Jesse James, 28 Weeks Later and a recent episode of House) and he does such a good job of it you mightn't remember the supporting turns by more recognisable faces like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce.
It's an especially raw deal for Pearce, who gets blown to smithereens within the first five minutes. That sets the tone for the rest of the film which is bursting with action and the unnerving sense that absolutely anything could happen. With one of the bigger names in the film unceremoniously dispatched, Bravo Company is left wanting of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) expert to complete a 38-day tour of Iraq. James swaggers onto the scene to save the day and immediately sets alarm bells ringing with his uptight commanding officer Sgt JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). The last member of their elite three-man team is Specialist Owen Eldridge whose only obvious talent is making a plate of jelly look rock solid when the bombs go off.
Aside from having to deal with native insurgents, Sanborn tries desperately to impress his authority on James. He does that, initially, with a punch in the face after James ignores radio contact in the midst of a dicey situation. Annoyingly, everyone else is queuing up to slap him on the back after he dismantles the IED in maverick style. Sanborn's short fuse makes him tough to like, which is perhaps a deliberate strategy to elicit more sympathy for James. It's a tricky balancing act for Bigelow because unlike old-fashioned war movies, celebrating a spirit of brotherhood, she aims to highlight the macho egotism that drives a soldier on into the danger zone. She even opens the film with a quote on the 'addictive' effect of war and with James, it quickly becomes apparent that war feeds that primal desire to 'Be the Best'.
Fortunately Renner is inherently likable without other more obvious ploys to ingratiate his character. These include his budding friendship with a young Iraqi boy because, as it turns out, James is also a father who misses his son. When the boy goes missing he goes AWOL to find out what happened and a suggestion that he may have been used as a human bomb prompts one of the most distressing scenes of the film. These moments of vulnerability, although contrived, reveal the more intriguing conflict going on within the soldier. Like many of his peers (Sanborn being a notable exception) James is missing loved ones back home, but he is 'a nobody' there. Renner hits his stride as he explores that angst and even Sanborn becomes more human when he starts to rethink his lone wolf philosophy. As we get to know the men more intimately, the danger they face on patrol becomes more acute.
It takes a while to settle in because the action is so relentless, especially in the first half. In fact Bigelow seems intent on unsettling viewers with so much random violence. Admittedly though, the visceral impact is intense; even more so than Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield's 2007 docu-style drama). The camera is handheld yet Bigelow doesn't make a fuss by rocking the frame too much, instead capturing memorable off-the-cuff images like a three-legged cat limping for cover. The backdrop is stark, washed out by harsh sunlight, and a desert skirmish (featuring Fiennes as a blasé British officer) feels even more claustrophobic than the town scenes. Towards the end, a showdown with a suicide bomber underlines the elusive nature of glory on the battlefield. That scene alone will burn into your memory.
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