Let’s get the controversial sentence out of the way first: Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is not the best film of last year. Nor do i think that the Iraq-set war drama merits the insanely high praise it has received from critics, the BAFTAs and the Academy nominations. The hype suggesting that the film should win Best Picture is not well-founded in my mind, as a) Avatar has so much industry money tied up in it that it’s a dead cert for the Oscar, and b) it’s simply not a Best Picture-worthy flick.
That said, Bigelow’s film is very good. It’s not a genre-defining masterwork (as many reviews would have you believe), nor is it a pioneering work which will revolutionise all films of its type in the future. However, The Hurt Locker is still much better than most films you’re likely to see, not to mention chock full of tension, excellent performances and a taut, suspenseful plotline which follows Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant Will James as he takes over as the bomb disposal expert in Bravo Company. Accompanied by Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, consummate) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, unsettling), Renner’s crew’s job is to verify and disarm all shapes and sizes of bombs, from roadside to car, and keep the rest of the army safe. However, when James’ unorthodox methods threaten the integrity of the group and the safety of those around him, the tensions start to show.
The plot itself is not the most inspiring – a new guy shakes things up, finds resistance, tries to convince others – but the cast perform with real gusto and conviction, and Renner’s star-making turn as Will is gripping and creative. Instead of being just another loose cannon in a genre chock full of them, Sgt. James is a bizarrely fascinating protagonist who keeps disarmed bomb parts under his bed and appears to hold them as dearly as the photo of his daughter that he carries with him. James seems locked into this cycle of location and disarmament, so when we see him at work it seems like he enjoys the work far more than he should.
The repetitive, almost monotonous routine of war is really the central concern of The Hurt Locker, as Bigelow strives to show how dull modern warfare can be. Her direction is all about creating tension; each bomb diffusion is heart-in-mouth stuff as we know that one mistake could cost lives, and a sniper battle in the films second act is incredibly nerve-wracking. Whilst the talk of Best Picture is, I feel, premature and slightly overstated, the praise for Bigelow (and Renner) is fully deserved. The slow-motion shots of tumbling bullets and dust flying off cars are beautifully orchestrated: every set-piece of writer Mark Boal’s screenplay is lovingly crafted an executed with a deftness and craft uncommon in most directors, let alone one who’s directed only five films since 1991.
So what do we make of Bigelow’s much-discussed and highly-praised film? It’s definitely an accomplished work, full of incredibly tense moments and brilliantly delivered action and drama. However, it just falls short of the expectations associated with it. Many of the ‘shock’ moments are fairly predictable, and whilst there are a couple of big jumps (and one heartrending scene as Renner discovers a corpse), we don’t ever feel that these characters are in real danger. Boal’s screenplay is very happy to kill off bit-parts with reckless abandon, but the scenes involving the central trio aren’t as palpably perilous as many others.
In the end, we want absolutely no respite in a war film, but The Hurt Locker all too often lets us breathe, and in a film where one mistake could literally blow the characters away, we should feel as tight-chested as our protagonists. And in the end, we don’t.
8/10: Whilst it’s a tense, occasionally fantastic film, The Hurt Locker is a bit too uneven to be dubbed a masterpiece, and a bit too auteurish to win an Oscar. Its nomination is warranted, but I don’t think it will or should beat the likes of Avatar and Inglorious Basterds to the gong. It watches back like a better version of Jarhead, and although this means that it’s still an excellent motion picture, it’s not quite as extraordinary as you may have been led to believe.