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The Hurt Locker is the tale of a trio of soldiers that makes up the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), a bomb disposal squad, attached to an army regiment on rotation in Iraq. Of the three, Staff Sgt. William James (played by James Renner, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar this year) functions as the bomb-disposal technician, Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty) and Sgt. JT Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie) serve as look-outs, scouting the area for threats (other than the bomb which obviously everyone is very aware of) and keeping it clear so the expert can focus on the job at hand and there is as little human casualty as possible.
The movie starts ominously, with the nail-biting suspense of the team heading out to diffuse a bomb. Just the visuals of the team preparing to approach the bomb in full protective paraphernalia – including the act of putting on the elaborate bomb suit – set your pulses racing. Of course, the fact that the very first outing goes horribly wrong and the team has a dead bomb-disposal expert on its hands (Guy Pearce in a short appearance) does nothing to dissipate the tension.
Thus it transpires that the EOD must now find a replacement, which arrives in the form of a barely-restrained ball of energy known as Staff Sgt. William James. We soon find out that James is a strange animal – he courts danger with a vengeance, does not heed sensible advice, likes to get into violent fist fights in the barracks with his fellow soldiers, and has difficulty adjusting to situations that do not involve tons of explosives, nails and a tangle of colorful wires.
James’ proclivities cause tension within the team, which has only a few days left on its rotation and the two original members want nothing more than to finish up and go home to their families. How the team learns to work together and comes to respect James’ uncommon ways and his leadership forms the rest of the movie.
People who’ve been in the military might find aspects of the movie wrong from a factual point of view (like such and such gun was not in use during the year in which the movie is set), but The Hurt Locker does a stupendous job of conveying to the layperson the horrors and the vagaries of dealing with explosive devices – which has become an unavoidable aspect of war – and the grit, dedication and determination of a band of soldiers.
The title of the movie refers to a figurative place of intense physical or emotional pain. The film succeeds in opening a window into that dark and little-known space, and into the psyche of a person who is very, very good at a job that most of us would never entertain even for a second as a viable career choice; it shines a light on a situation in which showing even the slightest bit of humanity might bring swift retribution (such as when James – who has left behind a wife and a toddler son at home – befriends a young boy near the army base and a few days later, in a particularly gory scene, finds an nearly identical boy killed and wired with an explosive that James must diffuse by inserting his hands into the boy’s dead body). Mind games played at a dangerously high level of intensity, the stakes ratcheted up so high the protagonists (and the viewers) can barely hear themselves think.
We might think we know something about roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices given how much of it we hear in the news every single day. But what do we really know? What do we know about the devious minds that build bombs to extricate maximum damage? About how any one of the innocent-looking onlookers, that you are trying desperately to protect, might hold the trigger that sets off the bomb? What do we know about how to tell who the enemy is or who might be the victim? Do we really know what kind of human being it takes to willingly walk into a trap knowing fully well that one wrong move could blow him and everyone else within a radius of a few hundred feet into smithereens?
The film ably crafts the message that in urban warfare all bets are off, that the only rule in modern-day combat is that there are no rules, and draws the viewer deep into the characters’ tension-filled world. From the moment the team hears of a possible explosive device that must be diffused, as their truck winds its way through dangerous streets and alleys, as the look-outs scour their field of vision for suspicious movements, as the technician makes his way to the wires and the odd-looking lump on the rocky, dusty ground, we see every aspect of the scene from their perspective and feel their nerves and desperation. The reaction is visceral. I wouldn’t be surprised if you jumped out of your seat once in a while or found yourself trying to brush off the dirt and grime off your clothes as you walked out of the theater.
Before The Hurt Locker I had never heard of its director, Kathryn Bigelow, and I was rather surprised to see Ralph Fiennes in a small role as the leader of a band of British mercenaries (which the protagonists end up fighting alongside in the middle of the desert), but apparently she is a prolific movie maker with a cult following, and they had both worked together in Strange Days as director and actor early in their careers.
The movie is certainly deserving of its nine Oscar nominations and with a win at the Directors’ Guild Awards, it looks like Bigelow is well on her way to a Directors’ Oscar as well. And I’m on my way to mining Netflix for more Bigelow movies.