By MANOHLA DARGIS
LOVE is a drug, and so too is war in Kathryn Bigelow’s visceral and morally urgent “Hurt Locker.” A story about men and battle and the murderous highs of violence, the film is set in the Iraq of 2004, the year that the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib were revealed to the world, the year that four American contractors were murdered in Falluja, the year that the American military death toll reached 1,000. Written by a journalist, Mark Boal, who based the story on his experiences covering Iraq, it centers on a crew of technicians who spend their dusty days and eerie nights in and around Baghdad disarming bombs.
Ms. Bigelow has spent her career bending genre to her intelligent ways. “The Hurt Locker” is a war movie that successfully goes where few do or can: inside the kill zone of a man’s head, namely that of Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a young bomb tech who lives for his near-death experiences. Like most of Ms. Bigelow’s most memorable characters, James has pushed against his own limits and then pushed some more. He’s a danger addict who walks directly into the abyss so he can hear the thump thump thump of his own ticking heart, itself an incendiary device. But war isn’t a solitary act and James can only feed his habit by imperiling others: this is his tragedy and, by extension, ours.
The film can be divided into nine violent incidents that are connected, with a few exceptions (an impromptu wrestling match included), by somewhat quieter interludes of conversation and contemplation. James enters the story shortly after its jolt of an opener in which his predecessor (Guy Pearce) is killed during an explosion. James soon manages to disarm another device, but in the process he alienates his support team, Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). Sanborn subsequently confronts James in a bathroom, telling his new superior officer, “I’m pretty sure I can figure out a redneck piece of trailer trash like you.” James, a smile edging his mouth, replies, “Well, it looks like you’re on the right track.”
The scene that follows, which takes off about 30 minutes into the film, opens with a long, hand-held shot of men and women, including soldiers, streaming out the door of a squat building adorned with a few United Nations signs. This long shot then zooms in, with purposeful wobbliness, to give you a closer look at the fast-moving evacuees. Widely used during the 1960s and ’70s in American and European cinema (and probably borrowed, in turn, from documentary film), the zoom shot has made something of a comeback, reintroduced by directors like Steven Soderbergh to suggest an earlier era (and filmmaking ethos) or to mock the same (as in the “Austin Powers” comedies).
One of the masters of the zoom was Sam Peckinpah, perhaps best known for his 1969 masterpiece, “The Wild Bunch.” As the critic Amy Taubin has observed, Ms. Bigelow is a “daughter” of Peckinpah, specifically because her “double-faced critique of — and infatuation with — the codes of masculinity reveals the hysteria beneath their seeming rationality.” Put another way, like Peckinpah, Ms. Bigelow is brilliant at both delivering and dissecting male violence, which is why “The Hurt Locker” is at once so pleasurable and disturbing. You thrill to the violence even as you understand its horror, and your horror is doubled because you are thrilled: this is true in “The Wild Bunch” and in “The Hurt Locker.”
A zoom simply reframes an image (instead of cutting in closer, which Ms. Bigelow also does), but, when deployed fast and with a tremble, as it is here, it can also serve as a kind of visual punctuation, like an exclamation point. Ms. Bigelow creates a somewhat similar zoomy effect in the editing with her propulsive use of close-ups and very long shots: she consistently brings you within panting distance of the characters only to switch to a bird’s-eye (or insurgent’s) view and back. This accordionlike editing, along with the zooms and hand-held camera work — which at times feels almost frantic even as it remains utterly controlled — all help to destabilize the visuals, which adds more edge to the already tense setups.
The bomb that James and his crew need to disarm in front of the United Nations building turns out to be inside a car, which an enemy sniper shoots at and almost detonates. Much of the scene involves James’s search for the timer, a task he undertakes with ferocious concentration as the increasingly unnerved Sanborn and Eldridge (proxies for the viewers) stand watch. As he searches the car, and particularly after he sheds the bulky protective bomb suit that makes him look like an astronaut or a snow-suited toddler, James begins to resemble the car mechanic he might have been back home. “It looks like he’s checking the oil,” Eldridge says, reminding you that war is both dirty business (and often fought by the poor) and also work.
Before James does get down to his work, though, there is a shift, about a minute into the scene, from the film’s customary (and classic) detached narrative position — where the camera hovers next to characters and often shows you what they see — to a shot from inside James’s helmet looking out, as if you were seeing the world through his eyes. You see him. Then you see with him. Although this shift to the first person lasts for about six seconds, a standard shot length in contemporary movies, it feels longer because you’re abruptly removed from the visual and aural chaos. For those six seconds you see what James sees through the helmet that frames the world like a camera, and you mainly hear what he hears: his heavy breathing.
Ms. Bigelow uses the first person several times in the film, usually to put us inside James’s helmet and possibly his thinking. But her most canny deployment of this subject position actually takes place during the first scene, when James’s predecessor dies. The opener has several first-person shots from inside this tech’s helmet, but it’s early yet in the story, and you don’t understand the stakes, and anyway the crew is laughing and joking. The men have let down their guard, and so yours is down too, the folly of which is made brutally clear when the bomb explodes, killing the tech and filling his helmet with blood. It’s no wonder that James later wears his helmet in bed: he’s holding fast to his head before it and he explode.