If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.
Generally I don't go in for war movies sent in the present or recent past, admittedly in large part because I don't feel particularly well-versed in the political subtext accompanying them, so I wasn't sure The Hurt Locker would be anywhere near my wheelhouse; but, not only does the film veer more or less clear of politics, it also succeeds in engaging the full and rapt attention of somebody who doesn't typically have an overwhelming interest in the subject matter simply (that somebody being me). It's a bit of a tough piece to for me to review, however, in the sense that it doesn't have the typical overarching plot or objectives I'm accustomed to (there's no real goal being worked towards outside of "Will they survive to the end of the 130 minutes?"); really, it felt more like a documentary than anything else, and I believe that's a credit, as I have to figure that's what they were going for. This was not a showcase for acting (it's not tossed aside completely, but I also feel it's not particularly flashy because that's not what's being done here), but rather for process, and I found myself appreciating that far more than I'm accustomed to. To that end, I understand and agree wholeheartedly with the praise for Kathryn Bigelow for her directing work as, again, this was an instance where I actually noticed things like camerawork and placement of set and was rivetted by that in the place of over-the-top characters and performances. The use of silence, slow motion shots, shaky cams, lighting, etc. put me totally in the moment as I was utterly engaged in the dangerous situations the characters were placed in even if I found them disposable in large part; Bigelow creates a world and moments that bleed intensity not on the back of your personal attachment to the people inhabiting it/them, but just because, and that feels so much more weighty. The scene that stood out most for me as an example of the film's quality was the face-off in the desert where Bigelow and company demonstrate that a tense lack of noise and quick flurries of discardable violence can be far more effective than explosions and gore in bringing to life the horror of war (I say as somebody who has obviously never experienced it first hand).
Though I said and stand by this not being an actors showcase, that's not to say the leads don't make the most of what they are given and in large part transcend just being believable as soldiers to create memorable performances. Jeremy Renner's charisma and intensity as Will James bring the character above being the stereotypical wild card and make him a fascinating enigma; his turn is extremely powerful, his physical nuances perfect, and he creates a very nice center for his supporting cast, most notably Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, to revolve around.
The movie is certainly not without its flaws, as for as invested I got in the technical aspects of the work being done I never quite got over feeling over my head in terms of understanding it. Also, while the stakes in the moment certainly feel tremendous, as noted I felt no real sense of investment in any of the characters, which was certainly a negative at moments when their survival was supposed to be driving my interest in the film.
But the downside of The Hurt Locker is outweighed by the visual brilliance and technical excellence complimented by one damn fine star turn by its lead actor. For a movie I'm still not quite sure was for me, I enjoyed it a helluva lot.
For a more thorough and thoughtful review of this film, I recommend Sean's.