I can think of no higher praise for Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” than to suggest that some of its sequences have the clarity and you-are-there immediacy of Ernest Hemingway’s best writing.
Here is a bomb, and here is a man intent on defusing the bomb, and over here are snipers. We know where each is, and we know exactly how far they are from each other, and we know what’s at stake.
“The Hurt Locker” is set in Iraq in 2004, and it embeds us in a unit of Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the guys who walk up to suspicious-looking devices and disarm them. Or fail to disarm them, as we see in a nail-biting opening sequence that establishes the stakes involved.
Built around this sure-fire suspense mechanism, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (an Iraq War journalist) have room to explore landscape of the war and the complex interplay between the three main characters.
The audience surrogate in this is Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, from “Half Nelson”), a cool, smart survivor who’s counting the days — 38 — until the end of his hitch. He and anxious Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) have figured out a formula for staying alive in their difficult job.
The new guy in the trio is Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), who comes in with gladiator swagger and awe-inspiring battle instincts. Where Sanborn goes by the book, James improvises.
At first, we’re with Sanborn: This guy is going to get them all killed. But one of the amazing things about “The Hurt Locker” is that it won’t settle for easy definitions of character. James might be unpredictable, but his courage has no boundaries.
It’s only when James befriends an Iraqi street kid that the movie seems about to step into convention, but even then it finds original ways of telling its stories.
Shooting in Amman, Jordan, Bigelow captures the heat and the sand and the toll of operating at this level of war. Previously known as an inspired director of offbeat action movies (“Point Break,” “Strange Days”), she absolutely puts it all together here — it will be surprising if she isn’t Oscar-nominated for best director next year.
Mackie and Renner (who first came to notice in the title role of the lurid “Dahmer”) act as though their lives depend on it. Small roles are taken by the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse; Evangeline Lilly plays James’ stateside partner.
“The Hurt Locker” is distinguished from other Iraq War films by its refusal to politicize. There’s more than enough here to allow us to draw our own conclusions about this impeccably rendered Ground Zero.