The world of film directing is one dominated by men. There are many theories as to why women still aren't as numerous in the field (deep seeded Hollywood sexism, women being generally less aggressive than men, etc.), but because there are fewer female directors, there are fewer great movies to point to to prove that women can make films just as well as men. Kathryn Bigelow has not let anything hold her back, not only being a successful director, but doing it in even more male dominated genres. Her western/horror film Near Dark has gained a large cult following, she directed the action bonanza of Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, and also the underappreciated sci-fi movie Strange Days, with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, which in some ways was a precursor to The Matrix. Every one of her movies I've seen has had something great in it, but she'd not yet put it all together into a brilliant whole. She does exactly that in her new masterpiece The Hurt Locker, unsurprisingly set in the male dominated world of the United States Army, specifically an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (the Army bomb squad) working in Iraq.
Bigelow has essentially just made an action movie here, with no overt talk of the politics involved in the Iraq war, and with only a little talk of the soldiers feelings about it, which essentially consists of "I hate this fucking place". Bigelow knows that politics will only divide her audience, so she ratchets up the tension by making us actually care about these characters. These guys aren't stand-ins for the directors or writers political ideal or agenda or anything like that, they're just regular guys counting down the days they have to stay alive until they can go home. There are many Hitchcockian scenes of bomb disposal, some successful, and some not. That we know Bigelow isn't afraid to kill off any of our main characters adds to the tension of many of the scenes. What also adds to the tension of the scenes is the unpredictability of Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), the adrenaline-junkie tech guy and leader of the 3 man squad. He grates on the nerves of the by-the-book Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and just further worries the already traumatized Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). We get to see James as your traditional cocky action hero, but we also see the effect that his reckless actions have on him and his team, and Renner never makes him feel like a cliche.
The actors all around never feel like anything but real people, it's a terrific ensemble. But still, the main draw should be the unbelievable tension that Bigelow is able to extract from these situations. There are many tense sequences in the movie, and they never feel repetitive. She is always able to give them a different spin. Amazingly, even the many scenes of bomb dismantling never repeat each other. There are sequences that just can't be a reflection of the reality of an EOD unit, or what soldiers really face in Iraq, but it's always in service of making the movie better. This is a movie that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of if they say they "don't like war movies". Probably because this isn't a war movie, it's an action/thriller that happens to be set during the war. The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary film, definitely one of the best of the year.