Kathryn Bigelow understands action. The Hurt Locker is a thrilling, visceral, explosive and mind blowing action film, and Bigelow knows how to get to the meat of the goings-on of her action. She has an innate spatial awareness, and mounts her set-pieces with unassuming alacrity and complete clarity of vision. You are always in the moment.
Once again we see the user of handheld camerawork, but instead of conveying frantic urgency, it is used to be your eyes - our eyes. The camera as a conduit for our place in the action is completely and utterly awesome. Not only is the effect more immediate, it also gives us a sense of urgency. But this isn't why The Hurt Locker is a great film.
The flip side to the action is the fact that Kathryn Bigelow gets characters. Her sense of quickly establishing characters and keeping us interested in what they are thinking is uncanny. She uses famous faces to great effect, completely disarming us in the moment, and then ratcheting up the charm quickly. It is fascinatingly done, and used to great effect during the most memorable pieces.
The characters are also written perfectly. These are flawed, scarred human beings trying to do their job while keeping what is left of their humanity intact. This isn't a picture where the soldier looks for the overall meaning of the war, but looks for meaning in himself. The result is a more personal film where the characters are not cardboards for the text, but deeply realized human beings with a more human context.
The character work is dense and layered, and is in no small part due to the performances by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. These 3 unlikely comrades (Renner's Sergeant First Class William James is the replacement bomb disposal guy for the unit after their previous expert dies in the crackerjack opening scene) are at once uncomfortable and yet familiar with each other, and as only soldiers can, bond over saving each others' lives.
Renner plays a character that is a complete maverick - a person who realizes that he is in no way special in the world back home, but on the field is an amazing soldier. His reaction is to absorb that and run with it. A man possessed with capturing that greatness, he survives on the thrill of defusing bombs, and the more dangerous the situation, the better he works.
In contrast to this is his team that consists of a man who wants to serve by the books, and a kid who simply wants to go back home in one piece. The personalities collide and eventually learn to work together in a series of increasingly dangerous situations, until it is time to go back home. Fascinating in their reality, the characters are stark in your memory long after you have left the cinemas.
Bigelow is not interested in judging these characters or the war. This is one of those rare, perfect war movies which are more interested in the human condition and how people act and forge relationships in a war. While the interest is purely human - the chronicling is utterly topical. It feels different from the WWII or Vietnam films, because it is a different war. Technology and the landscape demand patience and razor-sharp reflexes, something which James shines at.
Ultimately, it is that humanity and connection to the characters - the fact that the different bred of soldiering shown is recalled as a factor of the people - that makes this film a winner. There are large Oscar symbols on its poster that may make you curious, but it is a special film regardless, and one you will remember for a long time to come.