Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by:Mark Boal
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse
Released: February 18, 2010
Grade: A-

I first heard about The Hurt Locker when in premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2008.  It received rave reviews but there was a big question mark over whether it would be picked up by a major studio for cinematic release.  This is because war films have struggled at the box-office in recent years.  People don’t want to sit in a movie theatre and be subjected to the horrible things they see on the news each night.  They prefer escapism.

Summit Entertainment bought the film and released it on over 500 screens in the U.S. in June 2009.  Its total box-office of just $12.6m (below its $15m budget) proved once again that most war movies, no matter how good, just don’t make money.  That was the same mindset of those here in Australia.  As late as last December, the film was slated to receive a straight-to-DVD release

But then, something happened.  The Hurt Locker’s started winning awards.  It became the first film since Brokeback Mountain in 2005 to win the top prize from both the New York and Los Angeles film critic organisations.  It has since won the Director’s Guild and Producer’s Guild awards and is the frontrunner for next month’s Academy Awards with nine nominations.

The great news for us filmgoers is that we can now see the film on the big screen here in Australia.  It’s not getting a huge release but hey, it’s better than nothing.  I know there’ll be a lot of people to keen to find out if the hype is justified.  Is it really the best film of the year?

Before I answer that question, let me tell you something about it.  The Hurt Locker is set in Iraq and centres on three guys who are part of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).  When a live bomb is found, their job is to go in there and defuse it.  As you can imagine, this is a high risk, high pressure job.  Watching them in action left me on the edge of my seat.

William James (Renner) leads this EOD team and to say that he is a “loose cannon” would be an understatement.  He hates following orders and has a reckless disregard for army protocols.  He could use a special remote controlled robot to defuse these bombs but instead, he gets up close and uses his hands.  It’s incredibly dangerous but being so close to death gives James a huge adrenalin rush.

This attitude does not sit well with fellow soldiers Sanborn (Mackie) and Geraghty (Eldridge).  They’ve only got a few weeks left on their year-long tour in Iraq and they want to make sure they return home safely.  These three guys are all in the Middle East for the same reason but they each have a different perspective on life.

Much has been made of the fact that The Hurt Locker has been directed by a woman.  Kathryn Bigelow looks set to become the first female to win the best director Oscar.  I don’t know if she’d get my vote (I still preferred James Cameron’s Avatar) but her victory will be significant.  It will open doors and dispel those naysayers who think that a woman can’t direct an action / war movie.

Bigelow’s direction is one of the film’s strong points.  With the use of multiple handheld cameras, she has created a very realistic setting.  You can feel the nervousness of the soldiers and the intensity of the situation.  As the camera quickly pans and an Iraq local is sighted looking from a window, your heart will stop for a split second and you’ll wonder if he’s a bad guy.  It’s as if you’re right there with them.

The film has some great qualities but to come back to my initial question – this isn’t the best movie of the year.  I had trouble understanding the James character – why did he have such an irresponsible attitude?  The film focused a little too much on the military operations than the soldiers themselves.  There’s a great conversation between James and Sanborn late in the film (while riding in a jeep) – it’s more of that “openness” which I wanted to see.

Still, this is powerful cinema.  We’ve been waiting for a long time to see The Hurt Locker here in Australia and I hope as many people as possible make the time for it.