Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker begins by informing the viewer that "war is a drug." But the director's version is not a drug most people would take voluntarily.
The film is a microcosm of the chaos of war. The majority of its 131 minutes are spent building tension and suspense with little reprieve. The Hurt Locker (rated R for war violence and language) is a deftly crafted story of danger, heroism, and dismay that may not be pleasant to watch, but its exploration of the fine line between hero and masochist is certainly addicting.
The plot revolves around a crew of weapons specialists who travel through Iraq diffusing bombs. Due to the nature of the work, it's a rotating cast of characters. And while Bigelow has convinced some larger names (Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce) to participate in her cinematic killing spree, she has inverted the usual death rate of big stars on film: If you recognize an actor's name here, he likely won't make it to the next scene.
Instead it's lesser-seen names like Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, and Brian Geraghty who do the heavy lifting. And the plot of The Hurt Locker pushes its characters to the brink of reason. The film conveys an uncertain doom over fighting terrorism throughout. Through heightening mundane sound effects and zeroing in on harrowing details, Bigelow builds a subcutaneous tension beneath every moment of the film.
The Hurt Locker avoids the well-trodden route of demonizing the military or politicizing the situation in Iraq. Bigelow is more interested in drilling down on what happens when rational beings are put in irrational situations. And that distinction is what makes this one of the few films made about the Iraq war actually worth watching.