This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.
(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow
The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.
Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.
James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.
Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.
He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.
Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?
This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.
Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.
Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.
Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.
At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.
The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.
WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Toy Story 3