The Hurt Locker (review)

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A Lust for War

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William James lights a cigarette after he disarms a bomb: being that close to death and cheating it once again gets him off with such an adrenaline fix that only an after-sex-esque smoke feels like the right thing. War is hell? Hell, war is a rush, man.

The magnificently ironic thing about Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker — an over-the-shoulder look at a month in the life and work of a bomb disposal expert in Baghdad in the summer of 2004 — is that it doesn’t give us a rush. As cool and unflappable as its decidedly antiheroic protagonist, this intense, intimate portrait of the modern battlefield — or lack thereof — is riveting but not “exciting,” not in the sense that action movies have taught us to get turned on by the foreplay of countdowns and the climax of explosions. What makes Locker a masterpiece of the action film, of the war film, of the male-buddy film is not that Bigelow found something new to say via the pornography of violence that typifies the genres, but that she found something new to say in the quiet motives behind the men who inhabit these stories and in the surprising stillnesses between the explosions.

Not that this is not an action film. There is enormous suspense in those motives and those stillnesses, and in how the film pushes James harder and harder, dropping him into tougher and tougher situations to see when he’ll crack… or if he will at all. We see James’s recklessness from the moment we meet him, when he defies standard procedure in more ways than one during his first trip out into the lively rubble of Baghdad to take on what may be a roadside bomb (it is). As James, Jeremy Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 28 Weeks Later) — who hasn’t been a household name but should be after this — is exquisitely all id, oozing in an unforgettably enticing way the contradictions of rash impulsiveness and dedicated professionalism coming together in a job that just about demands such a paradox. We don’t exactly embrace him, but we are fascinated by him. His James is a man who can say, in all honesty and with complete intellectual appreciation (and without us thinking the worse of him for it): “This guy was good — I like him,” of the bomber whose dead-man switch he’s kept in his treasure chest of “signatures,” the mechanical fingerprints bombmakers invariably leave on their work and James cannot help but collect. But when James and his team — Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie: Notorious, Eagle Eye) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty: I Know Who Killed Me, We Are Marshall) — stumble across a bomb factory and make the terrible discovery of a new kind of bomb-delivery system, you can’t help but wonder, So, does James like this guy?

And not that there aren’t action-film and war-film and buddy-film clichés galore… though they’re present only to be smashed. Big-name actors — Ralph Fiennes (The Reader, The Duchess), Guy Pearce (The Road, Traitor), David Morse (Disturbia, 16 Blocks) — appear and disappear almost instantly afterward. The “so, you got a girl back home?” conversation occurs only so that James can admit — or not, actually, but we know what he’s thinking — that he actually prefers Iraq to being home with her. The buddy stuff is unexpectedly tender, at times — the bit with the juice packet is a little bit of cinematic verve. And how Bigelow turns “the shootout” on its head is extraordinary, rendering it long and excruciatingly patient, finding new suspense in, incongruously, inaction.

Entirely missing from The Hurt Locker? Any of that phony red-wire/blue-wire nonsense.

Oh, that bomber who invented a new way to delivery bombs? We can see that James most certainly doesn’t like him, and where this pushes James becomes a surprisingly apt metaphor for the American invasion of Iraq in the first place. But Locker is mostly apolitical in its depiction of modern urban warfare, where every civilian is a potential enemy and every streetcorner a potential firefight. (It easy to imagine that ten years from now we may well look back at this and say, “Huh, that could have been Yemen,” or Venezuela, or wherever the hell we end up in a bad situation next.) Even if it’s mindsets like James’s that are responsible for the whole mess in the first place. For James is useless — or, at least, he believes he is — except at war.

Locker isn’t meant to be a documentary, however — never mind that screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) was embedded with a bomb disposal squad in Iraq, or that cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Battle in Seattle, United 93) and Bigelow (Strange Days, Near Dark) herself shot is all quick and dirty, handheld and multicamera, or that Bigelow chose to film so close to the battlefields of Iraq (in Jordan) that refugees and former American prisoners of war appear as extras. The film isn’t meant to suggest that all soldiers are adrenaline junkies. It’s a larger metaphor for what takes us to war in the first place, sometimes, and what keeps us going back for more. It could also be taken as a metaphor for what we love about the typical action movie, too, and what keeps us coming back for more. Except, of course, that action movies don’t get real people killed. If only we could satisfy our collective adrenaline jones with movies alone, we’d be a lot better off.

Oscars Best Picture 2009

previous Best Picture:
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
next Best Picture:
2010: The King’s Speech

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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Ide Cyan
Ide Cyan
Wed, Jan 13, 2010 3:22pm

Good review. I’m glad you’ve posted one after all this time! (There are a couple of easily fixed typos in there, btw.) I bought the Blu-ray yesterday, but I’m waiting to have a long quiet couple of hours to look at the disc. This was a movie well-suited to the theatres, to be shown and watched without interruptions or distractions, but I’m also looking forward to listening to Bigelow and Boal’s audio commentary.

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 12:07am

kinda of late, isn’t it?

anyway, hands down best movie 2009, I already watched it on blu ray and it blows your fucking mind away

too bad it was sold as an art film when it’s actually the best action movie of the last few years

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 11:00pm

She’s reviewing the DVD release.

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 11:16pm

This movie only recently became available in the US but it has been available overseas for the last year. I actually got to see it with my team while I was in Iraq last summer. The movie does a fantastic job of presenting the environment and the emotions that come with being deployed. I did not have a job that put me in anywhere near the same level of risk as the EOD guys and this was not 2004 when the situation was all fucked up but we definitely felt a lot of the same things as the guys in the movie. You take the days one at a time because each day is the same. You look forward to the end of each day not because tomorrow is going to be different but because you’re one day closer to leaving. When you’re deployed you don’t think about the future except in vague notions.

Another great movie about Iraq is Full Battle Rattle. It doesn’t even take place in Iraq, it takes place at the National Training Institute in California where deploying units train on how to interact with Iraqis. It’s available for instant viewing from Netflix. I recommend anyone who’s interested in the situation in Iraq to take a look.

David Monson
David Monson
Fri, Jan 15, 2010 2:45am

From a soldiers point of view who walked the streets of Baghdad, lived through an IED explosion and worked with the best…Special Forces/Navy SEALs. This movie is disappointing. I’m sure they tried to make it realistic, but leave the Hollywood out of it. It would be a much better film.
Kathryn Bigelow portrays us as we are let off a leash and can just take a midnight stroll through Baghdad. We go out, risk our lives to shuttle reporters to different sites so they can come back and not tell our story. I just wish just one Hollywood director would get it right. War has more drama than you can make up on your own. Leave it alone and tell the real story. GET IT RIGHT. To many americans have died no so some half truths can be told about what they did.
Please any director. If you need help there are lots of soldiers like to for reference. Just make the effort!

Fri, Jan 15, 2010 10:16am

I just wish just one Hollywood director would get it right.

This is not a Hollywood film. It’s an independent production. And I suppose you missed the bit in my review where I explain where it’s a *metaphor* and not meant to be a documentary.

kinda of late, isn’t it?

Late for what?

Look, doa, if you would prefer that I only review movies on the day they open, fine. Just tell me now, and you’ll save me a lot of effort. Or you could, you know, just ignore the reviews that are not timely enough for you.

Fri, Jan 15, 2010 6:57pm

Great review MaryAnn.

If anyone but Bigelow wins the Oscar for best director, it’ll be a dissapointment for me. I hope she wins.

Sat, Jan 16, 2010 9:33am

Sorry not anywhere close to the entrtainment value I expected in war films such as saving private ryan or we were soldiers etc.. I want 40% of my money back.

Sat, Jan 16, 2010 9:39am

I wish someone said this was an artsy fartsy independent type film and I would have saved my money.

Sat, Jan 16, 2010 7:37pm

Saw this today. Thing that struck me the most was all the opinions I had read about this movie, — all different kinds, people who had never been at war who wanted to see a war movie, people who would never go to war who wanted to see a war movie, people who had been in war (Iraq or any other) who liked it, people who had been in war who hated it.

So, there I am watching this movie and I’m thinking how the back-at-base conversations reminded me so much of loads of guys I know. Many of them have been soldiers, some haven’t. Some were peactime soldiers with nothing more scary than Checkpoint Charlie in their history and got to travel around europe during their leave, some had flashbacks of being in a foxhole and wiping the blood and brains of their buddy off the radio (big, chunky, WWII radio) to call CO or trying to decide if a car is going to stop at the roadblock. Some now spend their days drunk. Some spend their days hunting or fishing and away from their families unless someone comes out to the hide or on the boat with them. Some happily went back to work at a machine shop or a furniture store or a steel mill or an insurance office and never have bad dreams at all.

Each soldier has his or her own war. There is no absolute vision of a war, no one truth. There are also lots of ways of interacting with the rest of the war and the other soldiers.

This felt real because it made me think of people I know and those people I know I also do my level best to listen to if they want to talk to me. I have no agenda of what I want them to tell me. I really don’t know what they are going to say.

Accounting Ninja
Accounting Ninja
Sun, Jan 17, 2010 11:29pm

I’m laughing at Gregory, who has determined that he only received 60% entertainment value from the movie. How do you quantify that?

What’s the matter, not enough exploding heads?

LaSargenta, I think I’m gonna have to see this sometime. Your words were food for thought.

Wed, Jan 20, 2010 12:58pm

Surprised at those who said they didn’t get entertainment value. To me, this was the best pure action/suspense film I’ve ever seen. The bomb scenes, the shooutout, and final night stalking … wow. Make no mistake, this might be an indie film but the direction and camera work were the height of professionalism.

Wed, Jan 20, 2010 6:25pm

Make no mistake, this might be an indie film but the direction and camera work were the height of professionalism.

Are you suggesting that indie films are not professional? Or that only studio slickness qualifies as professional?

Thu, Jan 21, 2010 9:41am

I’m suggesting that indie creativity bundled with professional craftsmanship, is an excellent combination.

J Kapp
Mon, Jan 25, 2010 2:00pm

thanks for reviewing this film.

I was never a soldier, although I know one Iraq vet pretty well and some others I have hung out with here and there.

It is hard to say just how realistic this movie is. After all, a movie can only come so close to real life. Some vets have complained that the film was inaccurate in some of the uniforms, vehicles used, equipment used, weapons, etc.

The main thin, though, that I took away from this film, besides the edge of the seat suspense and the realistic portrayal of the personalities of these guys, was that the US soldiers in the film DID seem to care about the Iraqis.

Many of us likely remember the many Vietnam war based films of the 80’s. Platoon, Casualties of War, Full Metal Jacket.

All those films seemed to show that the American Soldiers had come to HATE the people of the country we were in, and treated the innocent citizens as bad or worse than the enemy combatants. The abuse and mistreatment of the innocent people by the cruelest of our own soldiers seemed to show up in all those films.

However, in Hurt Locker, we were introduced to a whole differnt kind of US millitary. I was amazed at how much carefulness, restraint, and protectiveness the soldiers in this film showed these Iraqis. In the one scene where Sanborn in on the roof, and Sgt James is in the car…here are people aiming “cameras” at them (which very well could have been guns covered by empty camera shells) and Sanborn is content to just “watch them”…Also, the scene where the man pulls up in his car and just sits there while James is about to diffuse the bomb…James points the gun, but doesnt shoot and gives several warnings first, then shoots the ground, then the window….The iraqi citizen drives away…

this is a new vision of the war film for Hollywood. (indie film or not)… These soldiers are compassionate and careful about making sure no innocent Iraqi is killed. That was a stark differnce to what I seemed to grow up with when I was a teen back in the 80’s seeing the the many Vietnam related films.

No, the Hurt Locker was not a documentary, but I think it sheds light on the FEELING of being at war, and the pressures involved….. I would say this film has really replaced O.Stone’s “Platoon” as one of the defining modern war films and if this film gets an oscar, it’ll be well deserved.

Sun, Feb 21, 2010 12:42pm

I watched the movie (on DVD)last night and was very disturbed (?moved?) by it. I love your critique; it hits the spot. However, one of the things bothering me was why was the name, “William James”, used? This doesn’t seem to have been addressed in the reviews. Sgt. James’ philosophy seems closely allied to that of Philosopher James. Was this done on purpose? It is another example of second level imagery in this film.

Thanks for your review.

Mon, Mar 08, 2010 1:36am

Mary Ann, thanks for this review.
The movie reminded me of things I’d read in Chris Hedges book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. That war is often a high that is addictive and this is rarely discussed or portrayed.

It makes sense when you hear so many men (typically have been men) who have been in combat (I’m thinkin esp. WW II) that they never felt so “alive” as when they were in combat. And also how they bury the difficult feelings, stuff those feelings deep inside and this interferes in various ways in their lives after war, especially any connectedness or intimacy in relationships.

MA, I liked your piece that addressed issues surrounding gender…and if Bigelow got best director it would be because she directed a dude’s movie (not that you said that, you didn’t—but others have.) She actually directed a movie that told things from a very different slant. Not the heroic, suck in all the scared, horrible feelings, and then go home and continue on with life. Basically the hero’s tale which is what we usually see. That’s not what we see in this movie. Too many heroic war movies—we’ve seen too many which also points to the addictive issues this movie raises.

The adrenaline rush–which boils down to a psychological defense mechanism that “geez, I escaped harm that time—gotta do that again. Push the limits. Prove my invincibility to protect me against my very terror that I’m denying.”

Tue, Mar 09, 2010 4:08am

On further reflection, I think this movie is about (as well as all the things mentioned above by others) a psychological study of a specific group of soldiers and the point of view that is theirs.

We especially see through the eyes of three of them. This might be why some soldiers don’t relate to this movie, or say it’s not like this because it might not be (or have been) for them. They might not have had the temperaments, the personalities portrayed–even things like very possible
ADHD (as James seems to display—strongly to me)–add that to all the war stuff.

People with very classic ADHD tend to be actually more laid back in crisis situations than the average person. The fact that James could hyper-focus in a dangerous setting made me think all the more, he’s using his ADHD in a helpful way. Only thing is that he is put in an environment that is highly dangerous (moral issues aside) and also that leaves him bored when away from it.

If he were suddenly trained as an emergency med tech, going out to the scenes of horrible traffic accidents where hyper-focused calm thinking is required, he might have been OK at home.

The other thing not mentioned is the survivor guilt that many combat soldiers feel—they want to get back to combat BECAUSE they survived and others didn’t. It’s a common reaction. It’s kind of bothersome to me that these things haven’t been brought up… Most of all the psychological study of (mainly) three characters and the situations through their eyes and their own feelings or lack of.

Sat, Jun 05, 2010 1:16pm

I thought the opening bomb detonation sequence was stunning, extremely well-edited. A superior film.