Movie Review: ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a masterpiece of suspense

10 Apr


The Hurt Locker (R) 130 min. Directed by:Kathryn Bigelow. Written by:Mark Boal. Starring:Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Feinnes, David Morse, Evangeline Lily. Cinematography:Barry Akroyd. Original music by:Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.

cinemagrade A+

Despite the glut of films centered around it over the past few years, the Iraq War has not exactly made for compelling cinema.  Tangled in extreme political stance or statement, or designed around a general cluelessness about the way the actual battle itself is being fought, previous pics like The Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs and Redacted were dead on arrival. Now, Kathryn Bigelow, director of Point Break and Near Dark, enters the Iraq conflict with The Hurt Locker;an expertly crafted thriller that leaves behind politics and posturing and brings the viewer onto the grimy, narrow streets of downtown Baghdad. With a singularity of vision and a documentarian’s eye for extreme and seemingly inconsequential detail, Bigelow transcends not only her own previous films but typical action cliches  to deliver one of the most suspenseful and intense cinema experiences I’ve ever had.  

The Hurt Locker opens up on the men of Bravo Company, an elite bomb defusing unit with the U.S. military who are in the midst of dealing with a particularly tricky IED when the robotic vehicle they are using to disarm it gets snagged on street debris. Donning a shrapnel resistant suit,  Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) walks into the blast range to manually defuse it. The rest of his team, Sergeant Sanborn(Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge(Brian Garahity), stay behind and provide cover and surveillance.


Then a civilian walks up and starts asking questions, possibly causing a diversion. Sanborn scans the ragged buildings, looking for signs of trouble. We can hear the sounds of Muslim prayers in the background, the wind whipping around the discarded husks of cars that line the streets and the growling roar of jets overhead. Everything comes down to time. Will Thompson defuse the bomb, will it be blown before he can, or will a sniper pick all of them off from the rooftop? The scene is devestatingly precise in racheting up the tension until we no longer care what happens, as long as something does and the agonizing wait can end.

After that incident, they go right back out the next day and do it all over again. And the film follows them as they do.

Picking up after the opening coda, we are introduced to Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner in what is sure to be a breakout role; he’s a hotshot, reckless, something of a loner and now he’s the leader of Bravo Company. To describe James, he sounds like a typical action stereotype, but the movie avoids that completely. His obsession with the adrenaline rush of being the star player of the bomb squad is internalized by Renner and visualized in the more harrowing passages when Will lingers at the work of manually defusing a car-based explosive while his teammates fret they might all be gunned down in the process. Renner’s job is to play a believable  human being and a cipher at the same time, and he excels at it.


The script develops him in small bursts, in between the action, but the movie defines him by his grace under pressure in the field sequences. It also doesn’t shy away from the fact that his is a sickness; a psychosis of sorts that might very well do him and his team in if it isn’t held in check.  Will has swagger and a personal record of defusing 873 bombs–he keeps a box of detonators under his bed, along with his wedding ring, as a reminder of things that nearly killed him–but in a film like The Hurt Locker there is no gurantee that he, or anyone else for that matter, will live to the next scene.

 Anthony Mackie, who was quite good recently in We Are Marshall, plays Sanborn as a more level-headed soldier–he is good at what he does, but being constantly placed in harm’s way and finding himself shot at more than looked at has rendered him perpetually nervous and on edge. He is doing what he came to do, but he’s counting the days, and worries that he won’t get  out of this mess alive. Mackie is very good at evoking the head-space of a guy who is both out of his league and more equipped than even he realizes. Eldridge is in worse shape; after a tragedy in the field, he has regular sessions with a therapist. Geraghty makes him seem younger and more vulnerable than the rest of the men;when he manages to pick off a sniper hiding in a sheep herd, we are genuinely surprised by his gusto. The three men play perfectly off each other and the escalating war-zone around them. Even the scenes back in the bunk are filled with tension, as the guys engage in rough-housing to take off the edge that their life-and-death existence brings.


The film’s structure is perhaps its greatest asset. Essentially, there are about six or seven tense, action-oriented sequences and they occur in succession with only the briefest of interludes in between. There is a repetition to these scenes that brings home the reality of what it must be like to operate in this environment–each day is just one more on the job, terrifying and exotic to us, but business as usual for them. We wait, nervous that a bomb will explode. Bigelow draws out the tension, painting all kinds of little details into the surrounding landscape in the mean-time. Everything looks like trouble, and sometimes bravado prevails, but more often a cool, sensible head. Several recognizable faces show up, and then disappear again. People die when we assume danger has passed, and some scenes escalate and then have no climax. Survival is the goal, but there is no triumphant victory when these guys succeed. When tomorrow holds the same danger and probably the same odds, how optimistic can you be?

The world of the Baghdad streets and the nearby military base are presented with such clarity, both in the dynamic  cinematography and in the considerable sound design, that they take on the feel of a documentary. In getting down into it, and following it with the thrust of a genuine narrative, Bigelow and her team have generated more reality than similar real-life news footage has achieved. The film is a thrill-ride, but it has the presence of mind to flesh out those thrills to the point where the audience is forced to ask: is it really a good thing to desire this kind of thrill? The comic carnage of Transformers this is not.

Visually, the explosions are breath-taking and stomach-churning. When an IED explodes early on, we see the immediate impact shake clots of rust off an abandoned vehicle, thrust and hurl waves of rock and gravel, and fling human bodies through the air, cracking face-plates and breaking bones. There is more information here than we sometimes want. At one point the team find their way into a bomb-making facility that has been abandoned. There they find a ‘body bomb’–the remains of a young child with an explosive device sewn into his chest cavity. James is distraught; he thinks this is the same boy who sold him dvds next to the base.  Hard choices and harder realities drop from minute to minute in The Hurt Locker. There is no breathing room left. But instead of a hyperactive upheaval that moves us cleanly from scene to scene like Black Hawk Down, Locker can move agonizingly slow when danger hits. Seconds may seem like hours. The film runs for 131 minutes, but it seems longer than that, and yet we are engaged and riveted for the entire thing.


 This is not a message movie, but in reproducing the milieu of war, Hurt Locker provokes thought. Bigelow dissects everything from the  daredevil, adrenaline-seeking male warriors to the confused, frustrated, sometimes deadly civilians dealing with an occupation in their already besieged city. In one scene a man in a taxi has approached the site of James latest bomb situation. Sanborn and the others are understandably excited and unnerved by his appearance. James pushes a gun through the window and against his head. If he is part of an insurgent group, this makes sense, and there is no way for anyone to know for sure. Showing weakness could get everyone, including the civilians killed. The man, if he is just a taxi driver, can be somewhat understood in his actions. What he does isn’t smart, but likely frustrated, he cannot bring himself to back down from these foreign occupants in his city.

I like a good action movie from time to time, and the more thrilling they are, the more I do enjoy them.  I don’t know, however, that it can be said that I ‘enjoyed’  The Hurt Locker. I was enthralled, occasionally fascinated and even terrified by it. But did I enjoy it? That’s a hard call, but not one that is necessary to make. It is an experience, and one of the most powerful I’ve had at a theater in a very long time. In addition, its subject is a reality of the world we live in; not just the war, but the culture and mindset that drives this sort of behavior on a large scale. Kathryn Bigelow, despite not having any of her own, has specialized in the roaring testosterone of the boy’s club for years. In The Hurt Locker she captures it and then moves beyond it to even more primal urges and emotions; fear and self-preservation.


Like Alfred Hitchcock before her, she understands that film can be an expressive and immediate medium that can crystalize a “feeling” into a “truth” just by presenting it to the viewer in the right way. The Hurt Locker moves beyond simple questions of “is this right?” or “what sense do we make of it?” and instead tells us “yes, this is happening, and its happening right now”. What each of us does with it might be different. For some, like Sgt. James, it’s a neverending rollercoaster that provides him with the only thing that makes sense. For others, its the very definition of madness.

Welcome to The Hurt Locker, it just might be the best movie trip you take all summer.

15 Responses to “Movie Review: ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a masterpiece of suspense”

  1. Xiphos June 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

    Sorry Bartleby but I have to take exception to two things that you wrote. One on general principals that I don’t care that much about, and the other, if it’s true and not filtered through your writing, then this movie has a serious problem.

    Ok first there are no “elite” bomb units. Bravo company is part of a battalion. It’s not like Special Operations(that’s another problem I have but that’s for a differnt day). They are a line companys that deals with explosive. Okay that’s not a big deal I just like things to be correct.

    The following statement you made I do howver find troubling. Now it might be the way you phrased it but I don’t think so. I’ve read variations of it at other places. Below is the sentence giving me heart pains.

    “he’s a hotshot, reckless, something of a loner and now he’s the leader of Bravo Company.”

    1. You can’t be a hotshot or reckless in a bomb company. That’s the fastest ticket out like bullet train fast. Now I get that it’s a movie but conceptually it botheres the hell out of me.

    2. The loner thing. If you’re an NCO you have to spend all your time with your men. It’s true you have to have a bit of distance between you and your squad but you can’t be a “loner” either, it impacts your ability to lead your men and its near impossible anyways.

    3. By leader you don’t actually mean he the company commander of B. Co do you? because that would be an officer, a Captain. If the Captain is out of action the Company XO usually a 1st Lt would take over. If he’s out then one of the platoon leaders would step up to bat. If all the platoon leaders were done then the First Sergeant would become the company commander. Nothing like that has happened since like the early days of Korea.

    Did you mean that the Renner character is the “popular” leader, for lack of a better word, of the platoon? Because a reckless bomb techs are not well looked upon.

    Also, are you maybe confusing the words Company and Platoon? the Company is the larger unit, made up of platoons. It’s sort of hard for one guy in a platoon to be the popular guy in a company. Platoons don’t spend a enough time together for that to happen.

    • Bartleby June 27, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

      Hey Xi,
      I’m really thinking you should start gathering your nitpicks about Hollywood’s portrayal of the military and compile it into a book. I’d read it. I’m pretty sure if I go back through all the posts I’ve read since I met you, we might have something already. 🙂

      First off, I’ll direct you to Mark Boal, the writer who based this off his time as a journalist embedded with a bomb squad in Bahgdad. If you can hunt down his observations, you might find yourself closer to the root of this depiction.

      Anyway, to address all the issues you raised. When I, as a clueless lil’ film critic used the term ‘elite’ I did so in meaning that this specific group seems to be required to possess certain skills and abilities that aren’t ‘general practice’ stuff. I don’t usually read the reviews of others before I write something, but I see in a number of places the use of the word elite as well. In fact, I think it’s in the promotional materials for the film. And the film portrays the team that way. This is no distortion of their placement, it just seems to suggest that the job these guys are doing isn’t something just anyone can pick up and run with; it takes a special kind of person. For a layman, we would use ‘elite’, I think.

      The film calls the EOD team ‘Company’ and there are title cards reading “*number* days left in Bravo Company” that run across the screen to show passage of time. Renner is always with his men in the field, but the way in which he relates to them, at least when a bomb issue rears it’s head, is that they aren’t as important as he is while he’s diffusing the bomb. In some other ways, he isn’t always a loner; he bonds a bit at a time with these two other guys, but he has the cowboy persona for a reason, it’s primary about him and his ‘addiction’. If you are distanced from your fellow teammates I think of that as criteria for being a ‘loner’.

      No, I meant leader, and hotshot and all the other things I wrote. He is a staff sergeant replacing a man who was killed in the field. He is displayed as being the guy who actually goes out there and manually defuses the bomb IF that is what the situation calls for. Most of the time, robots are used. In some of the special instances in the movie, like a point where the units break down or a car bomb is the obstacle of the day, Renner goes in to take care of it. He is also very adept at his job, and most of the time he’s preventing things from going boom. But he is still a loner, hotshot, etc.

      This doesn’t mean he runs off and does things by himself when the squad is together, but he doesn’t ever listen to the directions or advice of his two fellow bomb squad members and while he is defusing a bomb, he is a million miles away. The others might be pleading with him to get out of there, but he will leave when he is ready. It is mentioned several times that his behavior is not appropriate or acceptable, but there are a few soldiers in the field (David Morse in particular) who find it amusing and inspiring that he’s a wild man who defused over 800 bombs.

      After being curious about your comments, I went out and read some other reviews to make sure I hadn’t flubbed the observation. Here are some other sites/reviewers commenting on James’ relationship to the rest of the team:

      Los Angeles Times:
      “Though Eldridge and Sanborn have been in the Army and in Iraq for some time, they’ve never met anyone like their new leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Renner). A true fatalist whose first act is to remove the protective plywood around his bunk to let the light in, James just wants to get in there and handle it, no questions asked.

      Nerveless, fearless, reckless, willing to do without any number of safety devices, including the suit, James is simultaneously a hot-shot action junkie who gets high on adrenaline and a cool, extremely accomplished technician who relishes the intellectual challenge of figuring out what makes a particular bomb tick. Literally.”

      Slant Magazine:
      “Yet rather than the bloodlust that such a concept might suggest, what’s striking about William is his calm. As he ignores the potential snipers watching from towers while snipping away at a truckload of bombs, he seems disconnected not just from fellow Bravo technicians Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), but from the world itself. The character’s genius in his field—and the thrills he gets from it—make him, as someone puts it, “not very good with people, but a good warrior,”

      Time Magazine:
      “Sgt. J.T. “Bomber Mike” Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) get a new guy, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who lacks the previous man’s leadership skills or his bluff camaraderie. James doesn’t say much, just does his own thing, which is to keep little pieces of Baghdad from blowing up.”

      The Village Voice:
      “Sgt. James is one such character, and Bigelow, Boal, and especially Renner excel at showing us how his reckless displays of bravado are both a coping mechanism and an addiction, a battlefield genius and a form of madness.”

      So it sounds like these issues are really there in the film. I’d be really curious to see what you think of the movie and the way it handles the situation. I’d love to read something from your perspective as a military man regarding it, Xi. If you ever decide to check it out and want to write a dissection of it, I’d be more than happy to post it here.

  2. Xiphos June 29, 2009 at 9:52 pm #


    I will not be seeing the movie until it hits DVD. So by then my opinion of it won’t matter much if at all, as if it does now.

    I think the problem I have is with the way the information is presented. It has to do with Hollywood and it’s belief that the “reble outsider” is the one who get things done which is simply not the fact and especially not a fact in the armed service EOD or even in the semi armed forces like the Navy and Air Force EOD.

    I can’t get around the fact that the loner outsider with the death wish gets it done. That bothers the hell out of me because if this “reporter” spent time with an EOD unit he never saw that sort of behaviour, no way in hell. NEVER. NOT ONCE.

    So if it’s Hollywood acting like Hollywood that’s problimatic but not unexpected. If that “reporter” is at fault then he’s a scumbag.

    At the root of my problem is that in real life there are men still in Iraq fighting so they should take care on how they present things. If they moved the story to some fake or unnamed country I wouldn’t have as big of a problem with the how they are peddaling this.

    By the way just to make it clear I’m not downing your review or anything, it was very well written as usual. I’m bothered by the larger ideas presented. All those snippets from other reviewers was what I was refering to in my first post. Those are the reviews that really started chapping my ass.

  3. RomeoEchoGolf July 22, 2009 at 8:38 am #

    I am completely in awe of the trailer and the reviews, really looking forward to seeing this flick as it seems to be as accurate as Hollywood gets when it comes to films dealing with the Middle East. I think this film will be a lot better than The Kingdom, which was good…a little too much suspended disbelief but still a good film.

    I appreciate films such as The Hurt Locker since they give people who have never been in the military a sense of what its like, although they must understand that they will never truly understand…only those that have worn the boots know the real feeling, but that goes for pretty much anything in life.

    I spent some time in the U.S. Army as a medic and most recently as a private contractor with DOD in Kuwait and Iraq. I liked reading the comments made by Xiphos but I disagree on the behavior issue when he says “Never. Not once”. We have all types in the military, those that toe the line, those that cross it, and a few reckless ones…its the nature of what we do, granted those guys get funneled out (when recruiting is good) but it does take some time.

    I saw so many things that I could write a book about it, but I choose to remember the my brothers in arms in a realistic yet positive light.

  4. Trainor August 10, 2009 at 8:03 am #

    xiphos, shut up.

    good review, bartleby. It’s an excellent movie.

  5. Xiphos September 3, 2009 at 3:35 pm #

    trainor I chose not, why should I jackass?

  6. Freelancer January 16, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    juat watched it on blue ray made me cry and other thing i loved this movies its going on my tops list next to avatar but really buy thr dvd or blueray what ever it an amazing movie that makes you think

  7. Army Wife February 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    As the wife of a man named Will…currently serving in Iraq…I liked the movie even if it wasn’t completely accurate as to the terminology of Company, Batallion, Troop, Team, etc, lingo. Xiphos was correct in that there is a chain of command that saying he is the “leader” tends to put the movie into an inaccurate category. What I took from it was the story of a 3 man team (the army has a special name for a little 3-4 person tactical team but I have forgotten it) who diarms IEDs. Regardless of the terminology…the movie hooked me enough to watch it and didn’t freak me out enough to have to turn it off (due to again having a husband named William in Iraq presently).

  8. Benshamin February 20, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    This movie was great. Just the intensity, the drama, the humor, the suspense, and the sheer horror of it all had me completely riveted to my seat, the entire movie. Perfect movie for the time. Despite the things mentioned by Xiphos, it was absolutley great. It opened my eyes to the job of disarming bombs. And me thinking of joining the military, gave me another job to think of. Not because of James, just the fact your risking yourself for not one or two, but possibly a convoy of your own brothers at arms.

  9. Atomic Popcorn April 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Loved it – was a great film. I have watched in on Blu a few times now.

  10. Olive April 17, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    Loved this film too. Great review by the way! I watched it on DVD over a month ago, but it still lingers with me, which is a sure sign of a great film.

  11. Xiphos0311 November 13, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    Army Wife they are called “fire teams”

    The movie is horrible and Mark Boals should get killed and eaten by a pack of wild dogs for being a lying bag of sh**.


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