The Hurt Locker (2009)
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo
Directed By: Kathryn Bigelow
Why it made the list: When I was putting this list together, I was originally going to approach it the same way I did my top albums of the decade list, and put a 2009 representative in the lead-off spot. The reasoning being the same: it’s hard to compare something you’ve enjoyed for a few months with things that you’ve enjoyed for several years, but I didn’t want this to be a “films of the first nine years of the decade list”. But when putting the list together, it was obvious that two 2009 movies were amongst the 25 best, so I decided to lead off with both of them rather than try to compare them with the other 23.
It was even more difficult to compare in the case of The Hurt Locker, the only film on this list that I’ve seen only once. But given that it was a no-brainer qualifier for this list (and best film of 2009 honouree) after that single viewing, you can say that it made an impression. It was immediately notable for being the first of the many films about the second Iraq War to be any good, much less great. It did so by being as apolitical as the subject matter would allow, eschewing discussions of why and who’s to blame (which is where most of these films have failed – it’s too soon to address either, particularly for scripted film), and choosing to focus on the soldiers themselves.
But more than any of that, The Hurt Locker is simply a breathtaking action film, putting the viewer right there with the soldiers on the ground while avoiding the self-serious pursuit of “importance” that has made the films that came before it feel so lifeless. As a result, importance was achieved with a film that will henceforth serve as a definitive theatrical depiction of the defining conflict of the decade.
Spoiler Specifics: Just when you think there was no original ideas left in the genre of war films, along comes Mark Boal’s screenplay dramatizing his time as a journalist embedded with a US bomb squad in Iraq. This gives us a fresh perspective of war; rather than thrusting us into the front with bullets flying and bombs exploding, we get a more methodical approach from the men tasked to prevent those explosions. This perspective subverts the standard tropes of action films, where tension is built up to be released by explosions. With The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow builds exquisite tension that can’t be released, as explosions means that our protagonists have failed at their job (illustrated in the pulse-pounding opening scene, where Guy Pearce dies, setting up the stakes of the film early. Interestingly, with the deaths of Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and the guy who played Dexter’s brother Christian Camargo, the movie had a reverse-red shirt thing going on, where if you recognized an actor, he was probably going to die. I almost wondered if Evangeline Lilly was going to catch sniper fire in the grocery store). This slow release of adrenaline amongst the mundane serves as a symbol of the Iraq conflict, where America’s overwhelming advantage in terms of firepower means little in a world where any moment can result in death from an enemy you may never see.
Significant scene: The film establishes early on how these men with perhaps the most stressful jobs in the military can approach their job with a semblance of nonchalance (and then literally blows that up, leaving Anthony Mackie’s Sergeant Sanborn and Brian Geraghty’s Specialist Eldridge shaken for the rest of the movie). Bigelow continues this mix of casual and tense with most of Jeremy Renner’s action scenes (resulting in the tension between his Sergeant First Class James and Sanborn and Eldridge), where the potential for catastrophe is undercut by James’ flippant disregard for the gravity of the situation. The scene with the sniper battle reverses this dynamic. Sure, it starts within a calm scene when the bomb squad meets with a group of British contractors before it erupts in a flurry of action when the Iraqi snipers attack, but Bigelow wisely stays with the action long enough for everything to slow to a crawl while Sanborn and James methodically track down their target and return fire. The whole thing would almost be boring if it wasn’t so tense, serving as a perfect example of The Hurt Locker‘s spin on pulse-pounding action.