These days it shouldn’t be relevant whether a man or a woman directed a film. But it’s gotta be said: Kathryn Bigelow is a badass. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow—whose résumé includes Point Break, Strange Days, and K-19: The Widowmaker—once again proves that subjects such as murder, guns, and war aren’t exclusive to the old boys’ network. And with apologies to Point Break worshipers, her latest effort is arguably her best.
The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq, though that hardly matters. The story, written by a former embedded journalist named Mark Boal, could have been set anywhere. It’s refreshingly and almost completely apolitical, transcending politics to focus instead on survival in a war zone—and on the addictive and life-altering effect such an experience can have on the soldier who finds it impossible to return to nine-to-five suburbia once his tour ends.
The film follows an elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit as they deal with IEDs, interact with locals (whom they treat with suspicion), and try not to kill one another from the pressure. Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sgt. William James, a cocky specialist in bomb defusing who doesn’t get along with his squad and doesn’t care that he doesn’t get along with them. He mainly butts heads with Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who doesn’t appreciate James’ attitude nor the unnecessary risks he often takes, as time runs down on an explosive’s clock and James puts his troops’ lives in danger by refusing to walk away.
It’s not immediately clear that James isn’t just stubborn—he’s also an adrenaline junkie, a point signaled in the film’s opening quotation about battle being “a potent and lethal addiction” but not addressed until a subtle, late-chapter scene of James shopping in a grocery store. Boal’s script is less a traditional three-arc story than a series of episodes, all fraught with danger. Bigelow makes clear that any of these characters can die at any time, and they do: You’ll notice marquee names in the credits, including Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and David Morse, but their star power doesn’t guarantee a lot of screen time. Renner, in contrast, is a smart choice for the lead. He’s got one of those faces you know you’ve seen before (28 Days Later, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but there’s no celebrity sheen to distract from the character. He’s an Everysoldier, and Renner does a fantastic job of infusing James with a realistic blend of bravado, angst, and vulnerability.
Bigelow spends little time on minor characters, but many scenes are deft enough to concisely capture their personalities and get a wrenching point across. There’s the young soldier who assumes he’s going to die in Iraq, and the friend who gently tells him he’s “gotta change the record” in his head. Sanborn talks about a “girl I like,” reinforcing that some of these warriors are really just kids. A suicide bomber who has a change of heart begs for the unit to defuse the complicated bomb strapped to him, crying about his wife and children. Blood isn’t omnipresent, but Bigelow’s selective use of graphic images is more potent for it.
The director’s reliance on a shaky cam, the recent go-to style to suggest vérité, is The Hurt Locker’s biggest letdown. But it’s not nearly annoying enough to sink the film. Even if you think you’ve had your fill of Iraq stories, this is one of the worthiest—ironically because the particularity of the conflict is little more than a footnote.