Among the many arresting images in THE HURT LOCKER, the one that may be the best at putting the audience in the position of the American army bomb squad fighting a futile war in Iraq, is also one of the most quiet. Its during what started out as a routine mission to gather up bomb-making equipment in a large, deserted building. As the camera follows three soldiers, whom the audience has come to know all too well, making their way through the structure that might or might not be full of insurgents, a hand emerges from a curtain of plastic sheeting. In the half-light, its impossible to determine whose hand it is, friend or foe. Its barely two seconds of screen time, but its two seconds and a wrong call that are the difference between life and death, as has been demonstrated in every moment of the story from the opening sequence. The silence that envelops the scene, as is much of the silence that permeates the film, is of the tense variety. The waiting for something to happen with no sure knowledge of when that something will happen, or if that something , a bomb, a bullet, or a bad decision, will come another time when all involved are less ready for it.
Told in documentary style that is as ragged as the psyches of the men it follows, it encompasses the last 38 days of Bravo companys rotation. The leader, laconic Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and boyishly nervous Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), have just lost their bomb specialist. Specifically on The replacement, Will James (Jeremy Renner), who is cool and preternaturally good at what he does, which is to walk up to an explosive device, large or small, remote controlled, timed, or trip-wired, and take it apart before it can explode. His nonchalance as he is doing this is disturbing rather than reassuring. There is no swagger to it, but rather an obsession that is slowly revealed to be the worst kind of recklessness. There is a disconnect between the reality of his situation and his perception of it that jars the audience, but the film, rather than leave it at that, dissects the environment that creates it.
The bombs that James disarms are the metaphor for Iraq, where hostile, accusing eyes are everywhere and always watching, and where savagery is inherent in any interaction. Male-bonding rituals cross lines into open aggression with participants never quite knowing where the line is. Identifying the enemy as the person fighting next to you or the kid on the street with a smile defies simple definition, and the rules of war apply only in the video games that Eldridge, one of Bravo companys less solid souls, plays while a staff psychiatrist attempts to sort out the tangled emotional morass of his mind.
Renner gives a riveting performance in a film full of them. Cigarette dangling from his lower lip, the unhurried lope that is unchanged walking towards or away from a bomb or a fight, the attitude summed up with the ”that was good” that follows another bomb disarmed. Its an imperturbable demeanor that has within it an almost imperceptible, eerie undertone, as it becomes more and more obvious, little by little, that James statement is the value judgment on the adrenalin rush engendered by the job, not the successful outcome. Its a rush that explodes itself when James discovers an act of brutality, significant even in the everyday carnage around him, that Renner invests with a raw pain that is anguish and confusion incarnate.
Direction by Kathryn Bigelow cuts to the bone. There are no clichés here. The silence of waiting out a sniper and the silence of consumer excess back home take on disturbing subtexts that defy expectations while laying bare the damage to James soul. By the time a truly innocent bystander begging for help is presented, its an affront to the more sensible attitude of nihilism that has reduced the locals to objects and every situation as solvable with a bullet.
THE HURT LOCKER stays away from politics, though it has a definite opinion about the differences between the people running the war and those on the ground fighting it, once again, avoiding the clichés that would make absorbing the action less difficult. It begins with a quote by Chris Hedges claiming that war is a drug, and by the end of this fascinating, raw, and painful film, that idea, seemingly impossible to explain, has been brought home with devastating clarity.