SXSW Review: The Hurt Locker

In a very real sense, this movie is the first of its kind. The first boots-on-the-ground Iraq War film. It immediately places the audience in the dusty streets of Baghdad and refuses to let anyone leave until the end.
By  · Published on March 20th, 2009

Two days after seeing The Hurt Locker, I’m sitting her poised at my computer screen staring blankly off into the middle nothing trying to figure out how to frame a review for it. I’ve got nothing. What I wish I had was about two more weeks to let the movie fully sink in, getting the weight of it directly off my chest in order to step out away from it enough to realize what I’ve experienced.

Of course, this statement alone and the difficulty I’m having putting words together speaks volumes for the film. I can say this: The Hurt Locker is the best film I’ve seen all year. I know it’s still early on, but three months in, this is the one to beat. It’s a complete package of strong, yet minimal writing, seasoned directing, and some of the best acting that this year will most likely see.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is joining Bravo Company alongside Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) with a little over a month to go in their rotation. They’re an EOD squad – investigating and disabling bombs in Baghdad, a city where the threats blend in with the civilians. As the rotation nears its end, the men have to deal seriously with the devastation of knowing that they could die at any moment and the strength to face that danger head on.

In a very real sense, this movie is the first of its kind. The first boots-on-the-ground Iraq War film. It immediately places the audience in the dusty streets of Baghdad and refuses to let anyone leave until the end. What the film does most effectively – as a credit to the brilliant screenwriting of Mark Boal, whose experiences while embedded as a journalist in Iraq have shaped the story with authenticity – is to force the audience to feel the intense, exhaustive duty of existing in a foreign environment and waking up every morning with the very real possibility of being gunned down or being turned into human shrapnel by a relentless enemy. Complementing this, director Katherine Bigelow’s vision paired with Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography truly embeds the audience as the fourth man in the Humvee with the soldiers.

Bigelow has created an apprehensive feel by consistently creating boundaries. We’re inside a cramped Humvee. We’re within the confined space of the thin Iraqi streets. We’re within the safe zone blast perimeter dismantling a bomb. This theme is bolstered by a script that introduces us to characters without ever revealing all that much about them. By the end of the film, you intimately know each of the men through their actions, gaining very little in the way of personal details in exchange for something much, much deeper.

This is all mirrored by the structure of the film. Instead of a traditional narrative arc, Bigelow and company opt for showing mission after mission with a few breath-catching moments expertly placed in between. The bulk of the film is a single story told over and over again with different dangers, different details, and different dimensions. It creates this austere environment – confined but not claustrophobic – that displays the relentlessness of the job that those soldiers are undertaking. Every day is the same even if the details change.

Of course on top of this solid foundation is the acting talent, a group that elevates the subject matter in the strongest way possible. Anthony Mackie already garnered a well-deserved Indie Spirit Award nomination last year, but the real standout is Jeremy Renner. Renner’s performance is visceral and dynamic, building a character one edge at a time until a cowboy becomes a greatly well-rounded expert in a desolate, lonely world. His portrayal deserves strong recognition, if not a few award nominations of his own. Sergeant James has a fire within him, and Renner is as explosive as the IEDs his team is working to disengage. There’s a very real parallel there – while clipping wires and disarming heavy metal objects that could take out city blocks, Renner’s James is constantly trying to suppress his own heightened nature although not always successfully.

The last important feature to mention is the clever use of the known acting talent. Bigelow scores a major win by casting Guy Pierce, Ralph Feinnes, and David Morse in smaller roles. Somehow, it breathes a lot of life into the production by placing the focus on some younger, lesser-known talent while the seasoned veterans build upon the value at several key points along the way.

The scoring is sparse but strong. The editing is fantastic – especially a scene involving a man with a bomb strapped to his chest. The story is a fascinatingly engaging one that benefits from brilliant camera work and noteworthy performances all the way around. Make no mistake – this will be a hard film to watch for most anyone, but it’s well worth it. It’s above all else an action film, but it utilizes the characters and stories coming out of Baghdad in a way that no other movie has done so far and in a way that honors men and women that have an extremely dangerous, extremely integral job.

Most of all, it achieves all of this without even once getting political. It doesn’t even edge up close. It’s a story about people, and the cast and crew never lose sight of that or attempt to inject any ulterior meaning into the narrative. It’s refreshing considering the alternatives, but the filmmakers were smart and confident enough to realize how fascinating their subject matter was and enough to avoid artificially dressing it up in the heavy shroud of political clamoring.

I imagine with a few more weeks to digest everything I’ve seen – and there are some sickeningly intense moments – I might be able to come up with better ways of characterizing a film that defies several conventions, but for now, all I can really say is that if you have a chance to see it, you shouldn’t hesitate to do so.

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