‘The Hurt Locker’ movie review: Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful Iraq War story

Eighteen months since it started touring the festival circuit, a year since a DVD screener was leaked on the internet, eight months removed from a wide release in the US and two since a local DVD release, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker finally hits Czech cinemas.

It’s about time. No beating around the bush: The Hurt Locker was the best film I saw in 2009, and one of the best of the decade (Roger Ebert ranks it #2 in his top ten of the 00s). Other bests? It’s the best modern war film I’ve seen, and one of the most clearly best-directed movies in recent memory. In ten days time, Bigelow will have an Oscar for direction, which will join numerous other awards for the film. 

A quote from author and former war correspondent Chris Hedges opens the film: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

War is a drug, and William James (Jeremy Renner) is a junkie. He’s an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Staff Sergeant in Iraq who would rather manually diffuse a bomb than send in the robot. “How many bombs have you disarmed?” Colonel Reed (David Morse) asks him. “Eight-hundred and seventy-three.” “That’s hot shit.” Hot shit, indeed.

But his colleagues in the bomb disposal unit don’t care for his methods; Segeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) just want to get out of Iraq alive. On-screen text counts down the days left in Bravo Company’s rotation.

The screenplay by Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) forgoes a typical plot or narrative thrust in favor of days-in-the-life vignettes. Those vignettes are usually scenes of action or war or bomb disposal, with plenty of interest by themselves to keep us glued to our seats; only by the end of the film do we realize we have been watching a character-based drama. Beautiful writing.

The action scenes are handled absolutely perfectly: we’re always aware of time and place, where the characters are in relation to their surroundings, and the tension – unbearable at times – flows naturally from the information we’re given. No “which wire to cut?”, only one ticking clock. These are pros who know what they’re doing (the characters in the film, and the filmmakers behind the scenes), and we’re aware of and terrified by the inherent danger in the situation without being fed manufactured drama.

What was the last bomb disposal movie? Blown Away, with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones? When was the last good one? This is a genre that hasn’t been properly exploited.

Renner, previously seen as Jeffrey Dahmer in Dahmer and in supporting roles in The Assassination of Jesse James… and 28 Weeks Later, is the big breakout star here, earning an Oscar nomination for his work. He’s excellent as the embodiment of that adrenaline drive inside of all of us. But equally good are Mackie and Geraghty as his level-headed colleagues.

Kathryn Bigelow has directed a number of cult-y favorites (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) that never really garnered much critical acclaim; her most recent film was 2002’s big budget mediocrity K-19: The Widowmaker. She’s always been adept at handling action, but there is nothing in her résumé to suggest the kind of masterful filmmaking that is The Hurt Locker; yet here it is, staring us in the face. I’m in awe of this movie.

The Hurt Locker has a surprisingly profound effect, reaching past the war movie setting into something far deeper: it digs into the male psyche, or at least a particular male psyche, more than any other movie I’ve seen. And it took a female director, go figure.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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