If someone asked you what the least successful sub-genre of films today were, you would probably come up with three answers : a) Video-game adaptations, b) Films starring Nicole Kidman and c) Iraq War/Middle-Eastern Conflict movies. The problems of the first two are most mostly hack directors and Botox. But for c), the issue that often leads to both critical and financial failure doesn’t just simply boil down to “TOO SOON!”. It’s simply that there universal ideas about war and humanity aren’t properly approached. There aren’t usually any characters. Mostly there are just political talking heads. Even those that attempt to paint themselves as thrillers, like The Kingdom and Body of Lies have clumsily handled unoriginal generalizations that they try to pass off as “subtext”. But Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker does something completely different.
The Hurt Locker follows the story of a Bomb Squad in Iraq. Our main characters are the team leader SSgt. James (Jeremy Renner), the Second in Command, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the grunt Spec. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). We don’t see them necessarily go through a typical Hollywood war movie plot. They aren’t engaged in any particular one battle throughout the film. It’s more a series of different life-threatening situations involving the diffusion of bombs. There isn’t any prime arc of the story. More a prime arc of the characters. But this leads us to what makes this film great.
As the film progresses, SSgt. James becomes basically addicted to war. He thrives off the adrenaline. When given time between missions he engages in the typical macho rituals involving his fellow men but it goes even farther. When he makes any connection, he quickly find a way to make it involve his addiction. The war dehumanizes him not by making him violent and anti-social, but by making him needy. Renner finds the perfect balance with this character. He gives him a definite magnetism and charisma, but also plays up the detachment this man goes through.
But even if you don’t get this from the movie, The Hurt Locker is still an absolutely heart-pounding experience. Bigelow builds the tension to a point that any single thing makes us worried. She makes us revel in the details. When we see our characters waiting in the blistering sun to kill their last man, you are there too. From the thirst to the dirt to the irritation that they go through. But we also manage to understand how SSgt. James finds his passion in the heat of battle. Well-timed uses of slow-motion that never feel gratuitous gives the proper exaggerated feel of war that needs to come across. But otherwise we are given the gritty experience of war that soldiers go through in a way that doesn’t point any fingers or blame any sides.