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Dustin Putman

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The Hurt Locker  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Christian Camargo, Guy Pearce, Christopher Sayegh, Evangeline Lilly, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Suhail Al-Dabbach.
2009 – 131 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 29, 2009.
In the last few years, films pertaining to the Iraq War have been met with audience resistance. Some may presume this is because viewers want an escape from real-world troubles, and paying money to be reminded of them is not the most alluring of prospects. While this might be true, it is also telling that most of these movies simply haven't been very good. Efforts such as 2007's "The Kingdom," "Rendition" and "Lions for Lambs," as well as 2008's "Stop-Loss," have been earnest yet heavy-handed, bogged down by their own Hollywood slickness and self-importance. The best of the recent crop has easily been 2007's "In the Valley of Elah," a powerful look at the war from the perspective of an outsider with close familial ties to the emotional and physical scars caused through battle. The latest project dealing in similar subject matter is "The Hurt Locker," and not surprisingly screenwriter Mark Boal also received a story credit for "In the Valley of Elah." Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker"), "The Hurt Locker" is a raw and unnerving (if light in story) thriller that gets its impact from taut, intimate suspense scenes low on bombast and high on the potential costs of military duty.

When lead technician Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed after failing to dismantle a planted bomb, rebellious Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is called in to take over as head of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad in Baghdad. With 38 days and counting remaining in their Bravo Company's rotation, James' stubborn, devil-may-care personality initially causes interpersonal and on-the-job squabbling between himself and his men, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The trio eventually become a tight unit, but when a native 12-year-old boy (Christopher Sayegh) whom James has befriended is presumed brutally murdered, turned into a body bomb, James breaks protocol and risks his own life in a search to snuff out those responsible.

More a slice-of-life for this specialized military group of bomb squad techs than a thickly-plotted narrative, "The Hurt Locker" pays the closest of attention on the diversified mental toll such a job has on its soldiers. James, Sanborn and Eldridge handle their death-defying positions differently, and yet all of them react in plausible ways to what is handed down to them. While the wet-behind-the-ears Eldridge regularly meets with Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), a doctor-cum-shrink, and is unable to shake the feeling that he is headed toward a doomed fate, Sanborn is left to question who would care if he died while reevaluating his lack of desire to have a child to pass down his legacy to. As for James, who does have a son and wife (Evangeline Lilly) back home, he is torn between his wanting to return to his old life and his inexplicable love for a very dangerous job that will continue to keep him a virtual stranger to his child.

Set-pieces involving the EOD's steps to dismantling explosives popping up around the war-torn city make up the bulk of the film's running time. While they threaten to become repetitive, the intensity that director Kathryn Bigelow and her cast bring to these high-stakes sequences is worth applauding. With the smallest mistake threatening to end their lives in an instant, the film milks its heightened threats with a jittery apprehension that the viewer palpably experiences. A third-act scene where James attempts to break free a suicide bomber with second thoughts from the ticking time bomb strapped to his body is especially harrowing. Also provocative is the choice to leave the 12-year-old's death open to interpretation. Was the body James found the same boy, or a different one. A late moment where the child appears once more could be read any number of ways, all of them viable—is he really there, is it a different boy, or is it merely a mirage haunting James' conscience?

Jeremy Renner (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") has been working steadily in film for the better part of the decade, on the cusp of a breakthrough. He certainly deserves to make the leap with his powerhouse turn as Sergeant William James, a heroic, flawed figure whose talent and courage at his job makes up for his defiance. Renner brings complex dimension to James, shining through with an underlying sadness he can only shake by walking time and again back into danger's way. Ably and memorably supporting Renner are Anthony Mackie (2009's "Notorious") and Brian Geraghty (2007's "I Know Who Killed Me"), as Sanborn and Eldridge, both of them portraying a distinct, multifaceted character. The better-known actors who show up in smaller roles, particularly Guy Pearce (2008's "Traitor") and Ralph Fiennes (2008's "The Reader"), would be faultless were it not for their celebrity calling attention to itself. They stick out far too much in their brief scenes, and it feels like a bit of a gimmick that director Kathryn Bigelow saves most of her casualties for the A-list cast members.

"The Hurt Locker" absorbs the viewer and wisely avoids politicking. Because each character reacts in varied ways to their time in the war—while one loves it, another cannot wait to leave—it helps to give the picture an unbiased even-handedness. Shot in Jordan, the landscapes a dustbowl of grit and heat, the film would be close to free of artifice were it not for the participation of famed performers in cameos. There doesn't seem to be a reason for doing this since the movie, while commercial enough to work for the mainstream, is very much an indie work. If the narrative is slim and unevenly spread out—the 38-day timeline skips weeks at a time with no reference to what has happened in the interim—"The Hurt Locker" nonetheless retains a tough, unblinking gaze on what it genuinely must be like for EOD operatives risking it all and getting little in return for their everyday sacrifices.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman