A Baghdad bomb squad becomes the subject of a study male angst in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Conceived largely as a string of set pieces, this action film relays the tension and fatigue that builds over the last 40 days of the squad’s rotation. For most of the film, Bigelow exteriorizes the psychological state of these men. Their mindset is relayed less by the actors than the way that they hurtle themselves into life-or-death situations. They are men of actions defined by actions, at least on the battlefront.
The Hurt Locker is designed in such a manner that characterization doesn’t get in the way of set pieces, even if the film is at its heart less a thrill ride than a contemplation. Bigelow does her best to act as if she’s made a mindless movie. The action scenes, which are tense enough, dominate the film, even if the meaning lies in the margins. Oftentimes, the visuals do all of the talking, such as when the director sets her cast in front of a scene of mass destruction at an emotional low point or when the protagonist takes a shower and washes off a cascade of blood. In some ways, it’s a strange approach, because it doesn’t provide the typical overall payoffs of the action genre, but it’s redeemed by the final twenty minutes of the movie, which make what was unstated throughout completely explicit, without cheapening what’s come before. The shot of a squad man, who we’ve seen for the last few hours making split second decisions, paralyzed by a choice of breakfast cereals packs a surprising punch.