Film review: The Hurt Locker

USA 2008

Film still for Film review: The Hurt Locker

Reviewed by Guy Westwell


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Iraq, present day. Staff Sergeant William James joins a bomb-disposal team after the death of his predecessor. James defuses a large IED and makes safe a car bomb at a UN headquarters. With 38 days left in their rotation, the two other team members, Sergeant J.T. Sandborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge, are wary of James' unorthodox and reckless approach.

James befriends an Iraqi boy nicknamed Beckham. Eldridge informs army doctor John Cambridge that he suffers from intrusive thoughts about dying. Sandborn and Eldridge consider killing James in order to protect themselves from his risk-taking.

Back at base, after a fierce encounter with insurgents, the men drink whisky together and wrestle. The team are sent to make safe a bomb-making factory where they find Beckham has been killed and his body rigged with explosives. Leaving the factory, Cambridge is killed by an IED. Angry at Beckham's death and appalled by the aftermath of an oil-tanker bombing, James persuades Sandborn and Eldridge to hunt down the insurgents responsible. A haphazard encounter with the enemy results in Eldridge being injured by friendly fire. As he is evacuated he blames James for his injuries. James and Sandborn unsuccessfully attempt to save a man who has been forced to wear a suicide bomb vest. Their rotation over, James returns home to his wife and infant son but finds it hard to adjust and signs up to return to Iraq.


Held back for over a year (presumably to try to avoid the fate of other Iraq war movies, all of which have bombed at the box office), The Hurt Locker is based on Rolling Stone journalist Mark Boal's experience as an 'embed' with a bomb-disposal squad. The film completely eschews the kind of Hollywoodised conceits found in Speed or Blown Away (both 1994), and instead displays a genuine fascination with the day-to-day procedures of bomb disposal in a combat zone. This subject matter would make a fascinating documentary, but the film also revels in the intrinsic, expectant dramatic charge that is part and parcel of an unexploded bomb. Each set piece unfolds in an atmosphere of almost unbearable, sphincter-clenching suspense as the characters (imperilled by the constant threat of snipers and secondary devices) defuse a range of IEDs.

In the creation of look, mood and tempo, director Kathryn Bigelow marshals her team well. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) provides sharp handheld coverage combined with captivating cutaways: a close-up of grains of sand lifting off the roof of a car under the concussion wave of an explosion stays imprinted on the mind long after the action has raced onwards. Paul N. J. Ottosson's sound design uses the barely perceptible ringing of tinnitus to amp up the tension, and explosions rip through the bowels and chest.

The film has a number of cameo appearances (Guy Pearce a boon, Ralph Fiennes a distraction) but is carried by a cast of relative unknowns. Jeremy Renner, in the lead role, has something of the pre-Bond intensity of Daniel Craig about him, and his fleshy face pleasingly breaks the mould of muscular angularity usually favoured in war-movie casting. The careful mapping of the subtle differences between each bomb, the play with point of view (we are often kept at a distance) and the attenuation of key action sequences (a Mexican standoff with insurgent snipers plays out over a full afternoon) lends the film a distinctive quality that can only be attributed to Bigelow's clever, confident direction.

The Hurt Locker is a powerful action movie in its own right, but it also offers a different take on the war in Iraq. Avoiding the high moral tone of Redacted or the plaintive soul-searching of In the Valley of Elah (also co-written by Boal), it confronts the fact that men often take great pleasure in war. While one sensitive character longs to leave the fighting behind and return to America to start a family, the film sides with Renner's character, inveterate risk-taker and adrenaline junkie Staff Sergeant Will James. James confesses to his infant son that he loves just one thing and in the very next shot he's back in Iraq and striding towards an unexploded bomb. In the context of the war in Iraq (where many reservists and stop-lossed veterans are not exactly volunteers) this unapologetic celebration of a testosterone-fuelled lust for war may gall. Yet there is something original and distinctive about the film's willingness to admit that for some men (and many moviegoers) war carries an intrinsic dramatic charge.


Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow
Produced by
Kathryn Bigelow
Mark Boal
Nicolas Chartier
Greg Shapiro
Written by
Mark Boal
Director of Photography
Barry Ackroyd
Bob Murawski
Chris Innis
Production Designer
Karl Júlíusson
Marco Beltrami
Buck Sanders
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011