Beautifully shot, well acted, and completely unfocused to the point of, well, what was the point?
In 2004 post-invasion Iraq, US Army Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) takes over as the new team leader of an EOD unit (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) with Bravo Company, due to rotate out in thirty-eight days. Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are assigned to protect James while he attempts to locate and disarm IEDs (improvised explosive devices.) James inherited the job when the previous bomb tech was killed by a remote detonation, but what’s worse is that James seems to prefer approaching suspected IEDs himself rather than using a bomb disposal robot. His teammates are left wondering: is he that good, that reckless, or just has a death wish?
I am happy to say I am already familiar with director Kathryn Bigelow’s body of work, from reworked vampire horror (Near Dark) to edgy techno thrillers (Strange Days.) What I am left wondering with The Hurt Locker is, what were we meant to take away from this? The main character has so many layers and dimensions that you can’t say he wasn’t interesting, but the entire point behind his actions doesn’t seem to be the point of the film. Since nothing else really stands out either, what we’re left with is a fictional documentary-style film that ends as it begins with men occasionally crying for awards contention.
Where The Hurt Locker does succeed is in its setting. Strictly from a documentary point of view, Bigelow shows how deadly and thankless the job of investigating and disposing of improvised explosive devices is. With combatants indistinguishable from civilians and every street a maze of unseen dangers, that anyone would want to do this job seems unlikely and its retirement plan a foregone conclusion. The opening scene of the movie hints at how most of these techs will end up, so the tension of every new mission is ramped up just by James putting on his concussion suit. Unfortunately, every scene between these scenes, the exposition that tells us that these men are more than their jobs or to provide purpose to James’s seemingly foolish behavior, just can’t compete and fall very flat.
Is war hell? Check. Are the characters being all that they can be? Check. But is this pro-war or anti-war? Pro-family or anti-family? Why not “You don’t have to be insane to be a bomb tech, but it sure helps?” The film may as well be voiced over by Morgan Freeman showing actual footage and soldiers instead of actors for all the good it does the film. Sadly, this is one of those movies I have to throw my fellow supporting critics under the bus for, an unspecifically overwrought production that fools viewers into thinking, “Wow… I just can’t wrap my head around what it all means, so it must be genius.” That said, here’s your alternative conclusion: don’t be fooled.
(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)