First and foremost, Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a movie about junkiedom. It pretty much announces itself as such with its opening title, a quote from War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning author Chris Hedges, bluntly stating "war is a drug."
But like the very best addiction tales—and there aren't all that many, in either film or literature—The Hurt Locker conveys an understanding that a monkey on one's back is a more complicated thing than those blessed enough to not be gifted with one can easily apprehend. The bomb-defusing Sergeant William James (played with a remarkably eloquent physicality by Jeremy Renner), with nearly 900 victories over explosives to his credit, is neither the "wild man" an admiring Colonel calls him, nor the "adrenaline-fix" seeker one of his more conventional colleagues accuses him of being. No. Journalist Mark Boal's script and Bigelow's adroit, frequently inspired direction give the viewer, without undue speechifying or visual telegraphing, a satisfyingly full picture of what makes this one-man band tick. During one particularly tense duel with an extra-ingeniously-rigged car bomb, James throws off his kevlar suit ("He's reckless," scoffs the aforementioned conventional colleague, played by Anthony Mackie in a performance that's just as beautifully modulated as Renner's), saying, "If I'm gonna die, I wanna be comfortable." Later in the picture, James' colleagues discover a box he keeps under his bed, filled with various detonators and sundry other devices that he's collected in the wake of keeping them from delivering an explosive charge. "These things almost killed me," he explains to his befuddled confreres.
It isn't about wildness, or adrenaline; James is conducting an absolutely personal war, locked in existential battle against forces—mechanical, electronic, incendiary—that mean to do him harm. What sparse plot the film has deals with the people and events that could remove him from this never-ending war, to compel him to look at, and care about, a larger picture. The Hurt Locker is set in Iraq in 2004, and many of the critics who love it have said it's the least ideological of Iraq-based films; John Nolte's dissenting voice on the picture over at Big Hollywood suggests that the only fictional Iraq War picture that will satisfy conservatives is some hybrid of The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Green Berets, and he's right to say that Bigelow's picture certainly ain't that. But the more mainstream critics are correct inasmuch as The Hurt Locker isn't about the Iraq War per se, but rather about war as a condition. Which they don't really deserve a whole lot of credit for understanding, since, as noted above, that's what the film announces itself as being about from the very beginning.
Visually and viscerally it is a very remarkable piece of work. With its very first explosion, Bigelow upends all the cliches of slow-motion photography; instead of honing in on the flames and shrapnel, she examines the sand and the pebbles as they move from the ground in straight lines up into the air, and on the layers of dust leaping from a parked car. The emphasis is on how this calamity changes everything about the setting. There are sequences that combine the excruciating tension of Mann's Men In War with the visionary desertscapes of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Bigelow captures the awful stillness of the dry, hot environment with merciless clarity, as she hones in on a gunman waiting, waiting, waiting for the right frame and the right moment to take a shot at the enemy, lying with pained patience as a fly contentedly lands on his eyelid.
Still, contrary to some of the more fulsome claims made by enthusiastic critics (which have already begun to give off the sweet stink of special pleading in the "Hey, look, we really do like action movies as much as the next guy!" mode, which is unfortunate) The Hurt Locker does not remap the war movie from top to bottom. Some business involving a potential Section Eight soldier is a bit pat; so, too, is the fate of a rather dinky peripheral character who might as well be named "Dead Meat" in the manner of the Anthony Edwards Top Gun role so accurately lampooned in Hot Shots!. Bigelow handles this guy's demise in a way that says "Character Is Destiny" and "Destiny Is A Cruel Joke" at the same time, and the paradox makes the grim payoff more palatable than it might have been otherwise. Still, the bit has the air of the commonplace about it.
That's a quibble, though. Nothing, finally, detracts from the movie's aggregate of observational coups, which extend into a stateside sojourn that sees a key character lost in a supermarket, his life's meaning reduced to the point that his heaviest responsibility is making a choice of cereal. Watching, I heard the Gang of Four's song "Paralyzed" in the back of my mind: "I cant work out what has gone wrong/I was good at what I did." The punchline that follows is mordant and entirely apt. Damn good movie.