'The Hurt Locker'

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
(2009, R, 131 min)
★ ★ ★

I expected more.

Scoring a staggering 93 on MetaCritic and 97% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes, The Hurt Locker has been called the first great film to be made about the current Iraq War. Watching it I thought about another great film about the Iraq War, HBO’s Generation Kill, and how it’s better than The Hurt Locker — clearer, more unified, more complete. The HBO film has the benefit of greater length; it’s a seven-hour miniseries. But then there’s another great film, Taking Chance, also from HBO, which is also better than The Hurt Locker and only 77 minutes. But its focus is different, concerning military rituals of death, and a direct comparison would be unfair.

The Hurt Locker is a good film, but given its praise there’s a feeling that, yes, it should be a better one. Its characters are at times murky, or overly familiar. Several scenes are thrilling individually, but feel fragmented from each other; they don’t build urgency from one to the next.

The story follows three Army soldiers in an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit: Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Owen Eldredge (Brian Geraghty). Team leader James is a danger junkie who cavalierly risks his safety and the safety of his unit; we’ve seen his ilk before in war films. Sanborn is weary, eager to return home at the end of his rotation, and afraid that James will get him killed before he gets there. Eldredge is riddled with guilt over the death of James’s predecessor; he meets periodically with a colonel who counsels him (Christian Camargo). The colonel is a desk jockey who hasn’t seen combat for quite a while; the payoff of this subplot announces itself well before it should.

The film works less as psychology than as a series of vignettes chronicling life on the front lines. The opening scene of a bomb disposal generates subtle dread. Later, the soldiers come under sniper fire, and director Kathryn Bigelow emphasizes the way time hangs, allowing room for the mundane details: cleaning blood off of bullets, grabbing juice pouches while the enemy lays low. The film’s best shot shows James following a single wire until he reaches a junction of wires hidden in the dirt; we feel the sudden terror — in the quiet of the desert, a web of death all around.