I knew The Hurt Locker was going to be good (you don't win as many critics' prizes as it has unless you're either pretty special or Slumdog Millionaire) but I was not prepared for a work with anything close to the level of craftsmanship and vitality that I saw in Kathryn Bigelow's latest film.
The Hurt Locker is not just the best movie about the Iraq war that has been made, it's the best war movie, period, that I have seen in a long time. The film follows Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and his team of Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists through the last couple of months of their rotation in Iraq. James is reckless, he gets off on the rush of strapping into his bombsuit and stepping into dangerous situations, exasperating his partner (maybe, I'm honestly not all that sure of their relationship rank-wise), Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book veteran whose job it is to make sure the team returns from their missions alive.
Were you to think, after reading that description, that The Hurt Locker sounded rather conventional, you certainly couldn't be faulted. But there's a lot more to it than just a typical macho war/buddy picture. Bigelow is a seasoned action veteran, and the joy she takes in subverting conventions and upending expectations is almost palpable throughout her film.
The standard route for a movie that focuses on a pair of protagonists like The Hurt Locker's would be to paint Mackie's character as a stuffy, conformist caricature while turning Renner into a dashing bad-boy hero whose unconventional tactics always manage to save the day in the nick of time. In The Hurt Locker, you instead see Renner through Mackie's (very reasonable) viewpoint: for all the results he gets, he is constantly and sometimes unneccessarily putting his team in harm's way to satisfy his own lust for excitement. The tension is built up to a merciless degree thanks to ruthlessly economical editing and handheld camera work that is documentary-like without sacrificing a shred of coherence at the altar of the shakycam aesthetic, as well as absolutely relentless pacing, to the point that you almost have to restrain yourself from yelling at Renner's character to listen to his damn orders.
And, without spoiling any specific sequences, there are descisions that Renner makes in the movie that are by every measure the wrong ones, and he doesn't walk away from any of those with a clean slate.
If the movie didn't leave you feeling quite so breathless, you could almost say that it meanders through much of its running time: The Hurt Locker eschews anything resembling a traditional plot until it hits its third act, instead favoring an effective "slice-of-life" structure that gives the movie much of its vitality. You spend days and nights with the bomb squad, whipping between tense action setpieces and scenes of the time they spend back at they base, living a relatively more mundane life that feels almost aimless by comparison, and sometimes that aimlessness almost feels like relief given the life-or-death stakes they must endure constantly while on the job.
The Hurt Locker is steadfastly apolitical: whatever your opinions on the Iraq War were before you saw the film, they will likely remain unchanged. This isn't to say, however, that the movie is without any thematic weight: The Hurt Locker simultaneously gives you a new appreciation for the sacrifices that the men and women of our armed forces make in our names while never shying away from the very real emotional and interpersonal issues that many of them (like all of us) suffer from. Most "serious" war movies follow one of two tacts: either soldiers are almost inhuman in their unwavering heroism or they're bitter wrecks, cynical misanthropes, or enabled sociopaths (or some combination of those traits) who exist less as characters than as metaphors for the filmmaker's views on war.
Even the great ones can be guilty of this kind of black-and-white moralizing: my other favorite war movie, Full Metal Jacket, paints every single military character as a broad stereotype with the exceptions of the protagonist, Joker, who is above it all because he is "really" a journalist and not a Marine, and Private Pyle, who cannot stand the dehumanizing effects of basic training and kills himself. Sure, Full Metal Jacket makes plenty of good points about how military lifestyles and the culture of war can strip away our humanity, but there is just so much more canvas to cover when you're dealing with the real people that our soldiers really are, as The Hurt Locker does.
Taut, gripping suspense. Explosive action. Wrenching, borderline tragic character study. All delivered with the propulsive force of a powerful storyteller. Kathryn Bigelow has proven, after the misstep that was K-19, that she is a filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously, and she created the best film of 2009 while doing it.