By Jeremiah Robert Wierenga

"War is a drug," the opening quote of The Hurt Locker tells us, and the human species' addiction to it is nearly as old as the ground on which each battle is fought. But like a bad trip, the fever dreams created by every new conflict are unique and ever-adapting. In historical wars, the primitive nature of weaponry required close range in order to fight, which also meant you knew where the danger could come from and there was no faceless enemy.

The "improved" efficiency of the war machine has accelerated the killing process, as well as distanced military personnel from the people they're fighting. War has become increasingly dehumanized, and the toll that this takes on the human psyche is explored in Kathryn Bigelow's new film (produced by Santa Fe resident Tony Mark), in which every bystander could be your enemy and even the ground is deadly.

With 38 days left on their rotation, bomb diffusion operatives Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are joined by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), whose loose-cannon actions and aggressive maverick tendencies threaten to bring their tour of duty to a quicker end.

James has little patience for distractions while he's working, whether it be the cumbersome protective suit or the safety positioning of his lookouts. But he gets the job done. Based on the observations of journalist Mark Boal—who also serves as screenwriter and producer—following his entrenchment with a military bomb squad in Iraq, the film is built around a series of "calls" the unit makes to defuse improvised explosive devices in and around Baghdad. With each new situation, Boal's script establishes tightly coiled scenes that hold as much tension and heart fluttering as any shoot-'em-up conflict.

It's perhaps fortunate that few of The Hurt Locker's crew are veterans of the war film genre; the film contains no glamour, no rallying speeches, no rapid fox-fire skirmishes. Rather than the breathless panting of some war films, The Hurt Locker uses a carefully measured cadence, its breath and movement as even as the motions required of those handling deadly explosives. But rather than flatlining, this deliberateness creates a wariness in the viewer, as we expect the worst and are always on edge.

While the film may not be a completely accurate picture of their lives (it's doubtful that James would be commended so highly for such reckless behavior), it does ring true as an image of how war has changed in the last century and the effect it has on those who serve our country. With fierce performances by a largely unknown cast and restrained and effective direction, The Hurt Locker helps complete a picture of war the nightly news cannot hope to show.

The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
With Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Jeremy Renner and Evangeline Lilly

UA DeVargas
131 min.