The Hurt Locker (2009), a nail-biting, fall-off-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq, has no political agenda, and that might be the most impressive thing about it, though it has so many elements rightfully vying for our admiration. The only set up it gives us is "Baghdad, 2004". We, a well informed audience, can fill in the rest with our preconceptions and strong opinions.
Our protagonist is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a brilliant, fatalistic bomb tech who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Renner brings a reckless, troubled charm to the role, and he owns the film. Save for the opening, he is in every scene. There is really no plot; the film is simply a series of insanely tense ordnance disposal sequences, with deftly subtle character details sprinkled in at just the right moments.
Written by first-time screenwriter Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with a real-life ordnance disposal unit in real-life Iraq, the film is palpably authentic. Perhaps 95% of the action is set in the war zone, and we come to feel that we have actually ridden along with these soldiers.
Considerable praise is also due to director Kathryn Bigelow, who, in concert with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, has finally managed to find a perfect equilibrium between stationary, traditional camerawork and vomit-inducing shaky-cam. Paul Greengrass should take note.
With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow (responsible for much mediocrity as Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker) has suddenly revealed herself to be a master of suspense. While diffusing a bomb is a cheap and easy way to build tension, she takes it to the next level, serving up a cinematic feast of details in such a precise order and combination that we are taken somewhere new. There is no overarching plot or goal; we are given moments, and as such allowed to bathe completely in each moment, as of course these soldiers must do in reality. The Hurt Locker has the rare distinction of being both informatively true to life and so cinematically innovative as to add new vocabulary to the filmic language.