While most Iraq war films deal with the political and moral side of things, The Hurt Locker is primarily interested in racking up tension. Demonstrating once again that she’s as macho as any male filmmaker working today, Kathryn Bigelow uses the dusty, sun-bleached setting as a backdrop for muscular, edge-of-your-seat thrills. Despite including many of her recurring themes (addiction, obsession, risky adrenalin-seeking), the film is undoubtedly slight in terms of storytelling, functioning more as a series of long, slow-building set-pieces than a talky narrative journey.
That being true, Bigelow and her then-unknown leading man Jeremy Renner (who broke out here) effectively portray both the psychological effects of war and, on a more existential level, how some people just aren’t satisfied with a normal life. A reckless thrill-seeker who plays fast and loose with protocol, Renner’s bomb disposal expert is a man who only feels alive during life-or-death situations, a behavioural orientation which constantly endangers his two subordinates (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty – both excellent).
Though the slow-building occasionally drags, for the most part The Hurt Locker is a masterclass in how to build tension. Based on actual experiences (screenwriter-producer Mark Boal was an embedded reporter) and shot with docu-realism (filming took place close to the Iraq border, using handheld cameras), the whole thing feels very authentic. In truth, it’s not as much fun as the heightened ‘realism’ of, say, Point Break, but there are few directors who can stage action as skilfully as Bigelow. Additionally, the likes of Guy Pierce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline ‘Kate from Lost‘ Lilly pop up in surprisingly small roles.