How ironic that amidst all the sound and fury of Hollywood’s high-concept, effects-heavy summer outpourings, Kathryn Bigelow’s comparatively low-budget war movie should deliver some of the most profound thrills we’ve experienced in modern cinema. Produced for just $11 million, it’s an adrenaline ride of the highest calibre.
Its heart-pumping intensity is only one of many facets to its appeal: this is a war movie that makes you yearn for peace, yet carefully, splendidly, it never undermines the heroism of its stars – ordinary soldiers struggling to cope with extraordinary circumstances. The story of a bomb-disposal team struggling to survive against the backdrop of a war-torn Iraq, The Hurt Locker questions motivations, not morality: when asked in a Newsweek interview to sum up her latest thriller, Bigelow said: "War's dirty little secret is that some men love it. I'm trying to unpack why." That she pulls it off – that the film is at once so thrilling and so unsettling in the revelations it uncovers about the true nature of war – is testament to both her own talents as a director and the remarkable performances she coaxes from her carefully judged cast.
More after the break
Unknown stars shine bright
Few, if any of her ensemble can lay claim to star status: you might recognize Jeremy Renner as lead protagonist Staff Sergeant William James from his previous outings in a supporting role, but little of his earlier work hints at the quality of the performance he has conjured here. His colleagues – Anthony Mackie as Sergeant Sanborn, and Brian Geraghty as Specialist Eldridge – are even less well-known, but don’t misread this approach as a cost-cutting exercise: it’s a deliberate ploy to help ground the action and heighten the tension to almost unbearable levels.
You identify with these young men as men, not as stars in khaki: because of their lack of Hollywood baggage, they seem at once entirely credible young soldiers and vulnerable, camo-clothed equivalents of Star Trek’s doomed red-shirted extras. Bigelow’s eagerness to kill off the movie’s only two A-list stars – each merits only a five minute cameo – makes the technique even more effective.
And the action? Shot using handheld 16mm cameras, it’s grittily real. Bigelow has framed her images at 1.85:1 letterbox, Saving Private Ryan style, and is similarly willing to employ film grain, motion blur and rapid, disorientating pans in her quest to intensify the fly-on-the-wall feel. Sound, meanwhile, is spectacularly immersive, most obviously during the film’s firefight sequence, as a sniper engages James and his crew mid-desert: few films will make such extensive and disorientating use of your home cinema’s rear speakers. The Hurt Locker is a triumphant achievement. Its premise is quite simple, its narrative equally straightforward, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most compelling war films you’ll ever see – and even if you don’t like war films, you’ll surely be swayed by its thrilling intensity. James Cameron described his ex-wife’s film as “Platoon for the Iraq War” – praise indeed, but not unmerited.