THE HURT LOCKER will kick you in the stomach.
I've been trying to come up with a more nuanced way to put it, but I can't, really: You will feel fine going in to The Hurt Locker. You will walk out feeling like you lost a fistfight.
It's easy to say The Hurt Locker is gonna be one of the best movies of this year, because... well, it is. But that doesn't convey what a brutal, intense, challenging experience it is to watch Kathryn Bigelow's film. Bigelow has been one of Hollywood's more reliable action directors for two decades, with solid, entertaining films that rarely snagged critical raves: Point Break, Blue Steel, Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker. Yet The Hurt Locker is the sort of movie that critics eagerly slobber over with phrases like "a tour de force" (that'd be the New York Times' A.O. Scott) and "a near-perfect movie" (nice, Richard Corliss of Time). With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's getting accolades that simply aren't offered when one makes a film about Keanu going undercover to bust Swayze's gang of bank robbing surfers.
But it's not just the fact that The Hurt Locker is set in Baghdad in 2004 that's letting critics finally admit Bigelow's really fucking good at what she does—there's also the fact that here, Bigelow's better than she's ever been. It's not any director that can make you tense every muscle in your body the moment a film begins, and fewer still can make it so you don't relax until you walk out of the theater.
Practically unknown before The Hurt Locker, the excellent Jeremy Renner takes the film's lead as William James, a staff sergeant in charge of Bravo Company, a bomb squad in Iraq. The Hurt Locker follows Bravo Company's tour of duty—a title card counts down the days remaining in their tour—and what they do never changes: People see wires leading somewhere. People see parked cars with sagging suspensions. People see piles of garbage. Bravo Company comes in, finds the bomb, and tries to diffuse it. Sometimes they succeed, and everyone lives; sometimes they don't, and everyone doesn't.
For these soldiers, this is a place that's alien and lethal, and the stakes are higher for Bravo than for anyone else. "Pretty much the bottom line is if you're in Iraq, you're dead," says Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), so it means something when we discover that Staff Sergeant James—apparently dissatisfied with the already shortened life expectancy of a soldier—seeks out even more danger. James is described as "rowdy," "reckless," and a "wild man," but mostly, he's just a junkie. "Let's rock 'n' roll, man," he blithely says at the outset of one mission, causing his second-in-command, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), no shortage of concern. Afterward, James lights a cigarette, taking a post-coital drag. "That was good," he sighs appreciatively, and it's hardly a revelation when we learn he keeps bits of his favorite bombs under his bunk, with a story that accompanies each perverse souvenir. As Sanborn tries to figure out how to work alongside a man like James, Eldridge threatens to go nuts himself with the strain. Throughout, screenwriter Mark Boal—who wrote the script after being embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq—isn't concerned with why these men are in Baghdad, nor whether or not they should be. Ten minutes into The Hurt Locker, you'll be pressed to care, too—you'll just be overwhelmed with the reality that they are there, and this is what it's like, and fuck, it is horrifying and exhilarating.
The "exhilarating" thing is a huge part of what makes The Hurt Locker so astounding: War films are usually easy to group into their "pro-war" and "anti-war" subgenres; likewise, thrillers, action flicks, and dramas typically adhere to their stock morals and cinematic tricks. The Hurt Locker plays on all of those audience expectations, making you wince and stare wide-eyed in the same shot, injecting you with a rush of adrenalin before stepping back to let the aftertaste of guilt rise in your throat. Regardless of your feelings on Iraq, The Hurt Locker will dump you there, in all of its sun-bleached, grueling fucked-up-ness, and by the time it's over, Bigelow's made you understand why a man would willingly go there to blow things up. For all The Hurt Locker's stunning action sequences, sharp characters, and hyper-detailed visuals, it's that terrifying sensation that'll stick with you when you walk out of the theater, weary and reeling.