William James must defuse the bomb that has infused his humanity; his sacred alter a box full of explosive components, a locker full of impotent death. As a member of an EOD team in Iraq, James replaces Matt Thompson, another expert who followed the rules and played it safe, a good soldier whose life was erased and relegated to a wooden box full of memories. But James is a wild man, full of invigorating impulse and nihilistic expectations, a technician who relies on his own instincts and not the Army’s fallible technology. This creates a schism within his team and as their time grows shorter, the stakes become higher, and he seems to be taking unnecessary risks like a junkie high on adrenaline and cocaine.
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s cinema verite style creates immediacy and intimacy with the characters, bringing the audience into the sweltering heat, our perceptions altered by the vertiginous scintillation, while the claustrophobic enclosure of body armor smothers us in suspense…like being slowly buried alive. The attention to detail is a masquerade that hides the true face of the story; like Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, this is a story that haunts the interior ghost-world of its characters and not the grim reality on the screen. It is a visual foundation that is literally blown-apart while we examine the emotional shrapnel that is left behind as their metaphysical midden. But unlike Kubrick’s masterpiece, Bigelow depicts the human beneath the camouflage, the effects upon the psyche of our protagonist: we see James as not an automaton but a complex and likeable person, a man who is lost in a grocery store but at home in a burning vehicle hardwired with death.
Actor Jeremy Renner exceptionally portrays William James as a multi-faceted character, a man addicted to the drug of war but who also longs for home while at the same time is distanced from it. He needs to hold his infant and we can imagine in the face of each Iraqi child that is victim to these horrific bombs…he sees his own baby’s reflection. The narrative counts down the days In Country of his Unit which heightens the suspense to explosive proportions, but the story veers precariously close to melodrama with a lateral plot about a young boy that stretches credibility a bit: fortunately, Bigelow’s solid nucleus transcends this stray fragment. Finally, James’ tour is up but he is restless and needs somewhere to go, so he leaves his lady and walks once again down Desolation Row.
Final Grade: (A)