Given the box-office fortunes of most Iraq-themed movies that haven't been directed by Michael Moore, I'm not sure if more than 10 people will want to see Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, about a cadre of U.S. Army bomb experts patrolling the streets of Baghdad. That, however, will be the audience's loss. Bigelow's film may not be, in formal terms, as radical and innovative a work as Brian De Palma's Redacted, but it's nevertheless a unique and worthy addition to the canon of cinematic texts about the Iraq campaign — the first, I think, that really tries to understand what motivates the men (and in Bigelow's army, there are only men) who join a volunteer military in times of war. It also happens to be a first-class piece of visceral action moviemaking.
Written by former Village Voice columnist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with just such a bomb squad, The Hurt Locker has already been praised by some here in Toronto (and last week in Venice) as an apolitical war movie devoid of preachy message-mongering. But what Bigelow and Boal don't do is considerably less important than what they do: namely, they give us soldier characters who are neither small-town rubes, do-gooder boy scouts, hyper-aggressive adrenaline junkies, poetry-quoting intellectuals or any other easily reducible war-movie “types.” What's more, they allow them to show very real fears. Even the most potentially cliché character, the newly arrived staff sergeant (Jeremy Renner) who saunters in trailing clouds of macho bluster, turns out to be anything but, emerging as a psychologically complex man of war who sublimated his own battlefield anxieties into a kind of dangerous addiction. It's a stunning performance in a movie that frequently rattles the senses.
Bigelow, whose best films (Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days) have always married an astute psychological dimension to a genre-movie framework, films the day-in, day-out routine of the soldiers with terrific intensity and attention to detail, whether they're defusing a rat's nest of IEDs in a narrow Baghdad alley or aiding a party of British army subcontractors caught in a desert ambush. Together with the masterful British cinematographer (who shot United 93 and many Ken Loach films) and the editor Chris Innis, she orchestrates several suspense sequences of the sort that can bring audiences to the edges of their seats, but which never feel cheap or exploitative, because Bigelow mines the natural tension from a situation rather than plastering on the kind of contrivances that can only be thought up in a Hollywood war room.
The Hurt Locker saves its most inspired strokes for last, when Renner returns home after his tour of duty and Bigelow, in a 10-minute sequence of pure cinema, creates a more palpable sense of the disorientation experienced by many a combat vet suddenly extracted from the war zone than Stop-Loss managed in its entirety. Finally, as Toronto hits the half-way mark, here is another movie worth getting excited about.
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