In an industry dominated by males Kathryn Bigelow has carved out a long and distinguished career as a director by beating the boys at their own game. The helmer of such cult classics as trashy tech-noir Strange Days and vampire western Near Dark, Bigalow has a knack for turning genre fiction on its head, making the familiar somehow feel fresh and vibrant.

From zen surf masters to nuclear submarine commanders, Bigalow consistently demonstrates an almost preternatural insight into just what makes alpha males tick, piercing the veil of the male psyche and making herself right at home. That she was able to secure completely independent financing for this, her latest, and at the same time retain final cut, cast who she wanted and shoot in the Middle East (surely a non starter for any studio) speaks to just how highly regarded Bigalow is as a filmmaker.

From a script penned by former Iraq War correspondent Mark Boal (who previously provided the story for somber anti-flag-waver In The Vallay of Elah), The Hurt Locker offers a thesis statement that for some war is a drug; a series of defining actions and existential moments the rush of which can be as enticing and intoxicating as any narcotic. Completely transcending the soap-boxing that typically comes as standard with any American made war movie, Bigelow all but ignores the politics of war and gets down and dirty with the day-to-day task of surviving it.

A nerve shredding opening scene sets the stage as an EOD Unit (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), led by Guy Pearce’s Staff Sergeant Thompson, attempts the routine disarmament of a roadside bomb. Cranking up the tension to a point almost beyond unbearable, Bigelow’s twitchy visual stylistics have the camera flit around the dusty alleyways and sun baked rooftops as Eldridge (Geraghty) and Sanborn (Mackie) try to cover their man against threats that could come at an instant from any direction. Our ear-splitting release is Thompson’s demise as an explosion and shockwave kick the gravel ten inches into the air, handily illustrating that even name actors are not safe in this picture.

Every bit as refreshing as the lack of messaging is the absence of your stereotypical jihadist. For a film about a bomb squad there is no mad bomber for our heroes to pit their wits against. Rather this is a daily dance with death where your enemy, in this case IED’s (Improvised Explosive Device), could be a pile of rocks, a sack of garbage or the jerry-rigged body of a twelve-year-old boy.

Into this mix drops Thompson’s replacement, hotheaded risk taker William James who views the job as a test of nerve, demonstrating an alarming eagerness to put himself in harms way. In what should be a breakout performance Jeremy Renner cleverly manages to sidestep the clichés of the detached loner playing by his own rules and renders James a recognizable human being. Equally excellent is Brian Geraghty as Specialist Sandborn, who not only exudes great ferocity but vulnerability in spades.

Best of the bunch though is Anthony Mackie as the buttoned down straight shooter Sanborn, who is none too pleased with James’ reckless antics and if James is the addict then Sanborn is the guy just saying no. Their constant butting of heads within the confines of unswerving loyalty to one another speaks to the fact that in war not only is the guy next to you responsible for your life and vice versa, but also that you have absolutely no say in who that guy might be. Meanwhile United 93 DOP Barry Ackroyd offers intense visceral immediacy, hovering in and around these men at such a distance as you can almost feel their breath.

If the relentless forward momentum is perhaps sacrificed come the mid-point (the only forward thrust being an intermittent reminder of the number of days before squad rotation), Bigelow ably illustrates that war doesn’t have to be loud to be terrifying. A sequence that allows Ralph Fiennes to cameo as the leader of a British mercenary unit sees Sanborn and James feeding each other juice boxes as they lay perfectly still among the bodies from an ambush; their scopes trained for what seems like hours on a target building, awaiting the emergence of a sniper.

Far more about the psychology that feeds war than the psychosis it can cause, this is an assured, confident, balls-to-the-wall piece of filmmaking from an immensely capable director that only makes you wish she would work more often. Free from posturing and politicking, The Hurt Locker is proof positive not only that you indeed can you make an effective and provocative statement on the nature of war without injecting ideology into it, but that most of the time you probably should.

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Runtime: 131 Minutes

Distributor: Summit Entertainment

Rating: R

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