The script, by Mark Boal, who embedded with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, offers a detailed glimpse into the daily routine of bomb defusers, led by adrenaline junkie Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). Bigelow generally hues to a hyper-realism reminiscent of Paul Greengrass in documenting the alternately nerve-rending and mundane task of neutralizing IEDs and facing off against insurgent snipers. The approach serves to heighten the tension of the moment, and also to keep the characters at a certain remove. As Sergeant James takes greater and greater unnecessary risks in his pursuit of danger, the viewer struggles to figure out what makes him tick. His inscrutability is aided by Renner's mask of offhand machismo and the character's inability or unwillingness to articulate his feelings. When James defuses a bomb or flags down a speeding taxi with only a handgun, there's nary of glimpse of exhilaration or the mild satisfaction on his face. As his exploits become more extreme, his cool stoicism makes more sense. He approaches his job with the same grim, determination as a junkie fixing himself a shot of heroin; the joylessness of someone who has no choice.
At key moments in the film, Bigelow switches from realism to the grammar of action movies: close-ups and dramatic slow motion. The action gimmicks echo the way Sgt. James comes to view his relationship to the war; as a man living inside an action movie. Even after being repeatedly confronted with the sobering consequences of his compulsion to look death in the eye, he is unable to stop courting destruction. He can's stop because, in contrast to his increasingly terrified subordinates played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, he doesn't really think he can die. He's the hero of his own personal action flick, and the most sacrosanct myth of the action canon is that the hero never dies.
The Hurt Locker is the first Iraq war movie to concentrate on the day-to-day reality of fighting the war, and it's also the least ideological. Yet Bigelow's painstaking attention to detail and pungent sense of atmosphere make certain facts about the war jump into harsh relief. One of these is the futile nature of occupation duty. When any civilian is a potential enemy, its impossible to view them as anything other than that. Another is that the sheer totalizing force of life in a war zone has the power to render civilian life absurd, and perhaps, drive a man to seek out war's eternal present tense.