*The Hurt Locker (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
Alfred Hitchcock had a rule about surprise and suspense. For surprise, put a bomb under a table and blow it up. For suspense, leave it there, ticking, and let people sit at the table, playing cards.
This concept may seem prosaic if your goal is also to make a political statement about the war in Iraq. But then, political statements about the war in Iraq, when in movie form, also tend to be prosaic. The Hurt Locker is something else. It asks: What if the bomb is somewhere in the middle of a trash-strewn street? What if there are many more bombs just like it? And what if it's little consolation to know this is only a movie, because it's a movie about a real place with real bombs?
One answer is to pay close attention to the people whose job it is to defuse those bombs. The Hurt Locker is an investigation of what it means to be the right man for such a job. Set in Baghdad in 2004, it follows a fictional U.S. Army bomb squad, whose members are formally known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, and casually known as the bravest sons of bitches you can imagine.
These include the responsible Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie); the sensitive, uncertain Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty); and their cocky new leader Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who routinely suits up in armor and lumbers straight into certain danger.
These characterizations may sound generic, but they have their share of well-played surprises; the soldiers' personalities seem at once obvious and inscrutable. When not protecting others from improvised explosive devices, they keep busy with violent, celebratory, cathartic roughhousing. Sometimes they hate each other. Sometimes they crave each other's approval. And each of the performances is uniquely extraordinary. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes make short-lived appearances as well, but the movie belongs to its central trio.
Director Kathryn Bigelow is a skilled marshal of intense masculinity and physical danger. She prioritizes immediacy, but still achieves a clarity of space and time. We're often reminded how many days remain in the men's rotation, or how many seconds remain before a bomb explodes, and we always know who's who and where they are — unless they don't know, either. Part of what sets The Hurt Locker apart is its terrifying coherence.
Screenwriter Mark Boal published an article in 2005, "The Man in the Bomb Suit," for which he spent time in Baghdad with a bomb tech. The Hurt Locker is a fictional riff on that experience, and it answers questions with more questions. Like: Is it worse to be the guy in the middle of the street taking the bomb apart, or the guys covering him, even as that task seems impossible?
It's only a movie about men at work in war. Yet it seems like a definitive War Movie, not for any aspirations as such, but for the great virtue of being supremely Hitchcockian — of ratcheting up suspense and paring down surprise to its truest essence. The Hurt Locker is exhilaratingly rudimentary.