A coolly elegant kineticist, Kathryn Bigelow specializes in impressionistic phallus jostles. Given her predilection for portraits of men under pressure, it's surprising that it took her so long to bring her dynamic cameras to the battlefield. (Her previous feature, the U-boat thriller K-19: The Widowmaker, was closer to disguised sci-fi than war.) Was she waiting for the smug smog of the recent Iraq-themed dramas (In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, et al) to dissipate? In any case, The Hurt Locker was worth the wait. An ostensibly apolitical chronicle of a U.S. bomb disposal unit's activities in occupied Baghdad, it's a smashing piece of visceral filmmaking and a trenchant visualization of reporter Chris Hedges's quote about the perilous high of combat: "War is a drug." Shunning piety, bellicosity, and even conventional heroism, Bigelow gets closer than any other recent filmmaker to the often unbearably tense, ground-level spectacle of people stuck in the middle of a morass and a mere wire-cut away from death.
The opening tour de force establishes Bigelow's combination of handheld vérité and fierce aestheticism. As the leader of the explosives-dismantling Bravo Company (played by Guy Pearce in one of the film's three brief star cameos; Ralph Fiennes and David Morse are the others) is killed by the shockwave from an insurgent IED, the screen is splintered into startling visions of rising dust, rust scrapped off an auto carcass, and the blast's effect on the human face. The man's replacement, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, in a breakout performance), is the character who most embodies the battleground addiction posited by the Hedges quote.
Yet rather than the bloodlust that such a concept might suggest, what's striking about William is his calm. As he ignores the potential snipers watching from towers while snipping away at a truckload of bombs, he seems disconnected not just from fellow Bravo technicians Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), but from the world itself. The character's genius in his field—and the thrills he gets from it—make him, as someone puts it, "not very good with people, but a good warrior," a notion that hints at the anxiety behind William's rules-breaking façade and merges neatly into the Defusing for Godot existentialism of screenwriter Mark Boal's circle of skirmishes and detonations.
Closer to the brawny genre calibrations of Anthony Mann's Men in War or Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell than to the sanctimoniousness of Home of the Brave or Stop-Loss, Hurt Locker finds Bigelow at the top of her game. The use of multiple handheld cameras could have easily led to shot-scattering chaos, yet she maintains a clean, hard grip on action geography that traces the trajectory of every bullet, most remarkably in the sequence in which the soldiers take part in a protracted, wait-and-shoot, long-distance duel with insurgents around an empty house in the middle of the desert.
To depict war on film is a tricky thing, and, as if to acknowledge the dangers of trivializing suffering into rousing pyrotechnics, Bigelow at one point fills the screen with images from a first-person shooter videogame as a soldier tries in vain to unwind back in the barracks. But unlike Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, she never allows gorgeous technique to elbow the characters out of their own narrative. Despite the palpable sense of cinematic tremor that's worked into scene after scene, the focus of the film remains on faces—on Mackie's subtly desperate clutching to military rules as an illusion of order, Geraghty's soft-featured guilt and fear, and Renner's "rowdy boy" coolness threatening to crumble into despair.
As a political text deliberately limited to a grunt's view of the Iraq War circa 2004, the film is neither recruiting pamphlet nor antiwar tract. Nevertheless, glimpses of the conflict can't help but burn through the project's professed neutrality. What other moment in recent cinema, after all, more piercingly captures the mutual horror of people in the area (occupying forces as well as resistance fighters) than the scene in which William frantically scrambles to remove the time bomb that's been strapped to a distraught Iraqi? In a flash, as the two men exchange desperate looks and the explosive ticks away, the dismay of people forced together and trying to deal with an impossible situation is forcefully laid out. Just as evocative is a later moment when, uneasily back home with his estranged family, William suddenly freezes before a wall of supermarket cereal boxes. For the "good warrior," the variety of civilian decision turns out to be more disorientating than the grim single-mindedness of combat. Only a harrowing and subversive work like Hurt Locker could envision the protagonist's closing appearance in the "kill zone" as both a daredevil's personal triumph and a dead man's walk.