The visceral shocks are also shocks of recognition in The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's spellbinder about Army bomb squads in Iraq. Watching it, you feel you're in the presence of art completely of the moment and also aesthetically new.
This film pioneers observational action moviemaking. It sensitizes you to changes in atmosphere that portend danger and convey hidden meaning while furthering the plot and the characters. And it does so while reporting aspects of the Iraq war that have never before been fleshed out.
Whether the men are blowing off steam in Camp Victory or pulling off a defusing operation in a sandy Baghdad street, anything in sight can set off reverberations with mortal consequences. When Iraqi adults suddenly appear on a tower or in a window, it's impossible to tell whether they hope to detonate a bomb or watch Americans help secure their neighborhood. A man with a camera might be monitoring troop movements or taking home movies - or giving and receiving orders to and from others just a few rooftops away.
Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, immediately pull viewers into an engulfing yet intimate panorama. The story seems simple; in the playing, it's anything but. Three men in a bomb unit count the 38 days to the end of their Baghdad rotation. We watch them confront cunning devices every day as well as adapt to an unsettling group chemistry.
For months or years, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) has helped anchor the team with the can-do sanity and street wisdom he's built up from several tours in military intelligence. At the start, he's a bulwark for impressionable Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). But within the opening minutes, circumstances force a new and enigmatic leader for this tight-knit squad: Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a man who jolts the truth back into that overused word "maverick."
Sanford and Eldridge have been trained to serve as the auxiliary eyes and ears for experts who don protective suits and defuse IEDs (improvised explosive devices). But James shakes off their support. He approaches each bomb as an antagonist in single-warrior combat. He dispenses information to his cohort on what he considers a need-to-know basis, rules and procedures be damned.
Amazingly, this emotionally eruptive scenario intensifies rather than obscures a viewer's connection to the chaos these men face in Iraq. Audiences identify in turn with Sanborn's levelheadedness, James' urgent concentration and Eldridge's confusion. This mini-kaleidoscope of conflict pricks viewers' senses to register every shift in sound and movement, every miscommunication among Americans or between Americans and Iraqis.
As Renner plays him (and as the filmmakers frame him), James is a complicated fellow. He isn't merely an addict; he's a man who knows he can touch greatness only through his craft. The filmmakers provide plenty of evidence for a negative reading of James' character: For example, he turns the diverse triggers and tripping devices that he's conquered into keepsakes, just as serial killers collect victims' mementos. (Bigelow has said she cast Renner as James after seeing him play killer-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.) But he also expresses surprising tenderness toward his fellow soldiers, and to an enthusiastic Iraqi boy who loves soccer and sells bootleg DVDs.
For a master warrior like James, neither the pull of family nor any other kind of work can substitute for the bracing, all-encompassing challenges of combat. He's a Homeric figure in a film that is simultaneously topical and transcendent. Bigelow and Boal use materials rooted in Iraq to spin their tale of men testing each other and themselves. The filmmakers create a dazzlingly complex portrait of military honor that can apply to all wars. But because of their inspired specificity, they achieve a prismatic look at the special risks of fighting this war - a war of elusive goals in a jarringly foreign environment.
The beauty of Bigelow's multifaceted technique is that it puts us in her characters' world without limiting us to their points of view. Unlike Hitchcock's heirs, she doesn't tip us to plot turns or flare-ups so we can savor the suspenseful entertainment. She creates a 360-degree vision of an environment in which anything can happen. Bigelow shapes the overall action like interconnected funnels: A wide view of the war inevitably narrows into the sight of James in his suit, walking down a street as everyone else clears out.
The movie is as enthralling in its ambiguous vistas as it is in its microscopic inspection of wires and materiel. Midway through, a duel in the desert outside Baghdad between insurgents and members of the bomb squad (who have come to the aid of contractors) provides a stunning illustration of how soldiers can feel pinned down in wide open spaces. Here, they do bond in action, and that action reveals unexpected contours in their hearts and minds. But even that bonding can't seal the cracks that come with daily pressure.
All the tension and energy of this war - a war of bombs - comes down to the galvanizing sight of the man in the bomb suit walking his own line. The Hurt Locker redefines war-film electricity.
The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment) Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R for combat violence and language. Time 130 minutes.