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.
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.