My godfather is a chaplain with the Army. A few years ago, he visited my family after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He said two things that stuck with me: sand will get in places you didn’t think sand could get, and daily life for soldiers is like Groundhog Day meets Black Hawk Down.
So several years later, I’m finding that this is perhaps the best way to describe Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It seems like an unlikely marriage between concepts, but it’s apt; the film gives the impression that time in a war zone is frustratingly cyclical and incredibly dangerous. But the film also goes deeper than this. The Hurt Locker opens with the words “War is a drug”. From there, it unpacks what that might mean.
The film centres around Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and his two EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teammates. Essentially, they’re the US Army’s bomb squad. The film follows them from mission to mission on Renner’s final month of duty in Iraq, documentary style. Though the film’s subject lends itself more towards a gung-ho action film, it winds up using mood as it’s primary method of storytelling. While Bigelow is known for her action films like Point Break, The Hurt Locker is a suspense film that actually lives up to that title.
Much has been said about how intense the film is. It’s justified. Because the film is shot in a hand-held documentary style, the “you are here” effect is amplified, but even so, the level of tension in The Hurt Locker is remarkable. It’s a film that, in it’s most intense scenes, draws you in like no other war film I’ve seen. In particular, there’s an intense showdown between Renner’s squad and (mostly) unseen snipers that draws on for roughly ten minutes, but there’s a sense of unpredictability present that keeps a scene where very little happens intense. It’s an action film without action; the film has suspense scenes in place of action scenes, and it’s difficult to overstate how legitimate the suspense actually is.
It’s almost a deconstruction of the modern action film. The cocky, rule-breaking hero has no place here, and attempts to become one don’t last. Even when Renner is at his most reckless, it’s hardly heroic in the traditional sense. He acts more like an addict than a cowboy. It takes a toll on his sanity and on his team.
Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, it needs to be said, is phenomenal. The film’s intensity is coming from more than just the pacing and performances (Jeremy Renner absolutely earns his Best Actor nomination), but nearly every aspect. The film’s score ups the tension with less music than noises, and the way it uses silence in particular is effective. Bigelow sought realism, shooting in Jordan (sometimes within sight of the Iraq border) and with the cast living in close quarters, and it feels very real as a result. The frayed nerves of Renner and his teammates never appear forced, and they’re never overplayed.
So with all that said, the question that needs to be answered is this: Is it truly the best film of 2009? I will say this: I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it’s incredibly effective. It’s certainly among the best films I’ve seen, and well worth seeing. This is one example where a film is capable of backing up it’s hype.