[The following review is excerpted from the Boyfriend of the Week write-up on Jeremy Renner — I decided to make a separate blog entry for the movie so that it’s easier to find the review down the line if you’re lookin’. Which you ought to be, because this movie is incredible.]
The Hurt Locker, set in Baghdad in 2004, focuses on three soldiers in an elite Army unit, the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). The movie opens with the death of Bravo Company’s leader, Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce), in a scene that will make your stomach clench into a fist-sized knot approximately fourteen seconds in.
Just so you know: it will not unclench after that for at least 12 hours. Longer if you’re me.
Brought in to replace him is Staff Sgt. Will James (Renner), whose leadership style is radically different from that of his predecessor. James immediately clashes with his number two, Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a cautious, by-the-book sort of soldier who freaks out when James continually gives the metaphoric (and occasionally literal) finger to procedure.
It soon becomes clear that James has no apparent fear of death — an alarming quality in an EOD specialist, though one you’d also think would sort of have to be a prerequisite. He routinely walks into dangerous situations he doesn’t need to walk into, taking Sanborn and the third member of their team, a kid named Spec. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), into that danger with him. He does things like take off his headset when he gets annoyed with Sanborn, whose job it is to keep an eye out for snipers or dudes with cell phones that look suspiciously like detonators (which is all of them, naturally); or strip off his protective gear despite (because of) the fact he’s surrounded by IEDs on all side. He stays at scenes long after the time he should’ve cleared out, putting both his own life and the lives of his company at risk.
At first it seems like he has a death wish. But it’s not really a death wish so much as it’s, like, death apathy. The movie wants us to believe that what drives James is an addiction to adrenaline — after all, it opens with this quote by war correspondent Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” But James is not a simple adrenaline junkie, and this movie, from my perspective, was not really about addiction to the rush of danger.
Instead, it seemed to be about the variety of ways soldiers, especially young soldiers, respond to danger and fear (for example, look at the differences between James and Eldridge, or even James and Sanborn), and the hardship and confusion that stems from being sent to a place like Iraq to live for an extended period of time — a place much more like an alien planet than simply another country — and then asked to return home and do things like shop for groceries with your wife, do the dishes after dinner, play with your children, work at a desk, etc.
Iraq, where everything seems upside-down: the nice people often the most terrifying, the children used as vehicles for bombs, the cats all three-legged and limpy (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one — what was up with all the cats?), the language completely incomprehensible, and your time on the job spent walking right up to the very sorts of things sane people run screaming away from.
When your every-single-day in Iraq is a clenched-stomach tale of impossible odds, how do you go back to picking out a box of cereal in a grocery store? Like it’s a task worth your time? Like it’s a task of any importance whatsoever? To me, that’s not addiction to adrenaline so much as it is PTSD. War breaks minds — it does it all the time, without mercy or discretion. And to me, that, more than anything else, is what The Hurt Locker is about.
Adding to the tension of this movie is the fact that though it’s shot primarily outdoors, often in large open areas of the city or way out in the enormous desert beyond, it’s one of the most thoroughly claustrophobic films I’ve ever seen. No matter how much the camera is pulled back in any given scene, your field of vision remains limited to James and about the first half-meter of the primary blast radius around him. Sometimes, it gets even smaller — smaller than James, even. Down to the exposed fingertips on his gloved hands and the inch or two that encircles the fuse he’s trying to defuse.
When working on an IED, James’s gear is almost spacesuit-like, which only adds to the sense of confinement. It’s a big clunky helmet and huge padded suit that not only weighs so much it makes him walk heavy and slow like he’s on the moon (not ideal for when it comes time to flee, I might note), but has absolutely GOT to be the hottest thing you could possibly wear in Baghdad, Iraq. Every time the face mask came clunking down over James’s eyes, I was immediately gripped by a feeling of sick enclosure. The knot in my stomach tightened. I shrunk down a bit more in my seat. And then every time time a bomb was disarmed, James would take his gear off, calmly walk back to the truck, sit, and light a cigarette. And as he’d inhale, I would too, often for the first time in what felt like forever.
As for Renner himself, wow. If I ever had any doubt about his talent, it was completely blown to smithereens by my second time through this film. He is aces, and always has been, at playing distant, emotionally cool characters. But in this movie, at long last, we get to see some cracks. There are several scenes when James just loses it, for one thing. Even more affecting, though, were the scenes in which he exhibited actual tenderness, striking not just because of his reserved character, but because tenderness in that place of violence and strain — it just plain stands out. Certainly that would include every scene with the little boy he befriends. But there’s also a scene towards the end that really stayed with me. A man has had a bomb strapped to his chest and it’s covered in half a dozen padlocks so that he can’t get free. James is struggling to figure out what to do, as the timer ticks down, down, down, but the man is freaking out, screaming and crying and it’s loud and mad and crazy. In the middle of all that chaos, James suddenly cups the back of the man’s head gently with his hand, like he’s a person, just a regular person in a regular place, and says soothingly, reassuringly, “You’re okay.” I don’t know why that stuck with me, but it did.
And don’t even get me started on that shower scene after one of his teammates gets shot. Covered in blood from trying to save his friend’s life, James climbs into the shower, gear and all, and we watch as the low-flow military-grade showerhead gradually washes away not only the blood drenching his fatigues, but the last remnants of his steely facade as well.
Goddamn. That, my friends, is what we librarians call ACTING.
Seriously, I could talk about The Hurt Locker all day, and I would, too, if I didn’t think it would drive you guys batty. I’ll stop now, though, and sum it up with this one last thing: if you haven’t seen this movie, GO SEE IT. It is a brilliant film — absolutely brilliant — and even though I don’t put much stock in the Academy Awards, if it gets shafted for a Best Picture nomination, heads will roll. (I’m starting with Joan Rivers and working my way in from there.)