Kathryn Bigelow’s bold cinematic return after seven years out of the director’s chair, and the first in a series of collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker is one of the best depictions of life in the Iraq war, as told through the eyes of an explosive ordnance disposal team.

Though some have criticized its portrayal of the cowboy-like existence of a character like Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James, if we accept the existence of this character as part of a broader understanding of choices made for the sake of good cinema, we can recognize that this is an important movie that shed light on an issue that Americans had yet to come to terms with as a people, with James’ time in Iraq, his team’s obvious struggles with PTSD, all contributing to a more nuanced understanding of one of the worst American policy decisions in a quarter century.

Renner is great here, in a performance that reminds us why so many different movie studios have tried to put him at the center of a franchise. He’s got the traditional good looks of a leading man, but with an unconventional, off-kilter swagger – it’s easy to imagine him playing a cowboy, for instance. Still, there’s something off-beat and uncharismatic about the performance that goes a way to explaining why he makes for such a good leading man in this kind of movie rather than in big action franchises.

It’s interesting watching The Hurt Locker in light of Bigelow’s follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, a film which stretches the cinematic exercise in tension being put to the test here to its fullest extent. The Hurt Locker is by no means a light movie, but it has its brief moments of levity, moments where it allows the audience to breathe, and the meandering nature of the film, the lack of a true narrative, makes The Hurt Locker feel more measured. By way of comparison, Zero Dark Thirty feels almost breathless.

But at its most intense moments, The Hurt Locker is filled with a nearly existential sense of dread. If The Hurt Locker has inauthentic moments, it makes up for it with a vibrant shaky camera that Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Aykroyd employ to put the viewer firmly in the action in a real and visceral way – watching The Hurt Locker feels like taking a trip into a war zone, not like watching a movie.

Make no mistake, though – this is Bigelow’s show, an auteurist film by any standard. This is Bigelow, with her portrayals of flawed masculinity, with her interest in violence, in blending genre, her penchant for camera techniques that put the viewer in the shoes of the characters, and of course her use of a more formless narrative than traditionally accepted in film.

As a side note, it’s kind of funny to think that within a few years, Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner would both be Avengers.

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