The first thing you need to know about "The Hurt Locker" is that you really shouldn't be around people after you see it. You should just go home and let things simmer for a while before you go back out into the general population.
This intensely antagonistic film rattles the nerves to the point that human interaction afterward seems like a futile activity. And you definitely shouldn't go back to work after seeing it. That's the mistake I made, attempting to slide back into my daily work routine, trying to have a one-on-one meeting with my boss, all while trying to wrap my head around the volatile stuff I just witnessed. It was like I was just back from a tour of duty my dang self.
I'm beginning to think that the jittery after-effects I had are exactly what director Kathryn Bigelow wants viewers to experience when the credits roll. There have been various anti-war war movies over the years, movies that did what they could to show just how terrifying, violent and soul-crushing going to war is. But there hasn't been a movie (or, at least, one that I know of) that makes the viewer feel like he has just been through war, that strong, recurring sense of fear and shock still lingering in his bones. "Locker" does that -- and I'm still trying to figure out if I'm all the better for it.
Whether you end up loving or hating "Locker," you can't deny that it shatters the usual war-movie conventions. For starters, "Locker" throws the whole band-of-brothers romanticism that has been instilled in every war movie I've ever seen right out the window. "Locker" shows that even when your fellow man in the trenches might have your back, you still can't trust him. He may be a bigger threat than the threats that are out there.
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That's what U.S. bomb-disposal soldiers Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Aldrich (Brian Geraghty) face after their beloved sarge (Guy Pearce, in a brief but piercing cameo) dies during an IED explosion. They immediately get Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a thrash-metal, chain-smoking bomb tech who's quite spontaneous when it comes to dismantling Iraqi bombs.
Often abandoning all protocol and endangering his unit just to get to the bottom of each bomb, this loyal yet reckless guy is the worst kind of thrill junkie. He's also the kind of military man the U.S. government would rather you not know about: a man who not only looks forward to conflict, but also walks straight into it.
Working from a script by embedded journalist Mark Boal (you may remember a magazine article of his getting melodramatized all to hell by Paul Haggis in "In the Valley of Elah"), "Locker" is merciless in its wretched view of life during wartime. IEDs, suicide bombers, even old-school sniper fire -- all these things are around to remind soldiers that death is imminent at any waking minute.
The first half of "Locker" is littered with jangly, sweaty-palmed set pieces that further solidify the quiet hysteria that surfaces when these men face danger head-on. Bigelow spends the second half fully humanizing Renner's gung-ho soldier, as he goes into the Baghdad night trying to right some wrongs, proving that this nutcase has some code of morals and ethics. But Bigelow needn't have bothered. Right from the jump, "Locker" establishes that even the most upstanding soldiers can go mad under the circumstances. (Men might find Renner's character even more insane when we see the devoted wife he doesn't feel like going back home to, played by a certain, contemporary object of prime-time TV desire.)
Plenty of buzz has already circulated about how Bigelow has finally made an Iraq War movie that gets it right, from the authentic action to the powerful performances. But this movie is less about the Iraq War and more about the irreversible damage that happens to a man's psyche once he has been in battle. War changes people, usually for the worse. Once you're literally surrounded by explosive, life-threatening action, there is no way you can return to shopping for cereal and cleaning gutters. War can turn mortal men into self-deluded supermen, unable to go back to the quiet life they once knew.
"The Hurt Locker" is one convincing argument against war. And just like many men and women who've served in a war, you may never want to go back to it.