Every past war film has shown us that war is hell, we know from the news that the war in Iraq is different, terrible and continuously horrific, but ‘The Hurt Locker’ manages to find something unique to say about America’s misadventure in the Middle East. Director Kathryn (‘Point Break’/'Strange Days’) Bigelow’s exhilarating return to form is a truly fascinating look at the psychology of war, and is one of the best written films I’ve seen in a long time. Using a semi-documentary style to follow soldiers Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, she exposes the real effects of not knowing who the enemy is – the local child? The man in the street? The taxi driver? Bigelow doesn’t take the easy, ‘Apocalypse Now’ route or even go all Oliver Stone – instead she uses her steadycam to show how terrifying it is to know that anyone in the street with a mobile phone could be a killer, and what effect this has on even the most well-adjusted male psyche. The three leads exist in a constant, high-tension, ultimate-stakes existence, and Bigelow with screenwriter Mark Boal gives us a compelling contrast of their differing responses to it. In a fair world Oscars would proliferate.
Bomb disposal experts Mackie and Geraghty are still reeling at the death of their leader Guy Pearce, when he’s replaced by Renner. Renner is all affable and intelligent, but where Pearce was all experience and caution, Renner is cocky and reckless. Far from having a death wish though, it becomes quickly clear that this is the only way in which he knows how to operate – from dealing with no.2 Mackie to defusing car bombs he thrives on the all-or-nothing scenario he finds himself in. His team berate him for his attitude, yet we find their ways of dealing with their Iraqi tour aren’t particularly successful – what Renner has become is what the US Army needs. He’s hardly a monster though, and this is where the film is particularly sharp. Unaffected by near-death experiences and suicide bombings, he’s suddenly moved by the seeming death of a child street vendor he’d befriended, but nothing is straightforward, the enemy is only rarely visible in the shadows and alleyways, and playing cowboy yields no results. Bigelow and Boal aren’t preaching politics – they keep showing what effect this constant disorientation has on decent men, and drags us along for their ride. There’s no room for sentimentality, and it makes for a compelling film.
Shot with steadycam in Amman, Jordan and Kuwait, the ring of authenticity constantly abounds, and the only editorialising creeps in in the last 10 minutes, when Renner discovers what we already knew – that far from being battle-scarred, constantly tripping out on near-death experiences in Iraq is where he thrives. It may reinforce his heroism, but emphasises his tragic existence at the same time. A film under no circumstances to be missed.
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