One of the things that's so haunting about The Hurt Locker is how unsatisfying it is—it's almost an anti-movie, a movie designed to withhold the things you expect from movies. Not a lot of people talk about this. They just say they "thought it was okay." Let's talk about it. (And let's talk about Avatar a little more, too.) After the jump. People obsessed with spoiler alerts, you have been alerted.

In a shitty, computerized, flawlessly marketed parade of shopworn characters and ideas like Avatar, with its glittering infrastructure built out of recycled cliches—James Cameron spins innovations into cliches like no one else—you always have some sense of where you are, story-wise. You can plot the plot as you go. You're enduring hours of lush organic-looking visual gibberish, and you want to believe (because the hype has set you up to believe) that you are completely immersed in this world, but actually you know that, say, the love story hasn't resolved itself yet and the bag guy hasn't been killed, and since this is a certain kind of movie you're going to have to endure the love-story resolution and the bad guy dying before you get out of there. There is a pattern to the movie that's familiar; I'd bet, for all the braying about how innovative it is, a lot of people thought Avatar was good because they thought it felt familiar.

In a movie like The Hurt Locker, you really have no sense of where you are in the "plot"—such as it is—and so you don't have half of your mind immersed in the movie and the other half trying to figure out where you are at any given moment in the story. For all the talk about how "lifelike" Avatar is, it's just not; The Hurt Locker is lifelike. It's as if you've been transported to Baghdad and been allowed full access to soldiers with one of the most stressful jobs in the military, and all the movie conveys is a limited chunk of time in their world. (It looks just like Baghdad because it was shot not far away, in Jordan.) What happens at the end, the narrative "surprise," is nothing like the grinding, tedious third act of Avatar. Instead, it's a subtle shock: Sergeant First Class William James, the guy whose job is to walk up to bombs and cut their wires (all sorts of bombs, some of them buried in sand, some of them packed into car trunks, some of them detonated by cell phones held by onlookers, some of them coiled around innocent civilians) goes home to spend time with his wife and baby, and seems bored out of his mind by his baby especially, and then goes back to Baghdad—he would much rather be tinkering with bombs than being with his wife and baby. That's the end. That's the surprise.

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It was written by Mark Boal, an embedded journalist on assignment for Playboy who had that experience—Baghdad, full access, bomb-defusing unit, limited period of time—and who turned it into non-fiction art, which we really ought to have a better name for. (The Hurt Locker is fiction, but it's so close to the truth of at least one guy's life that he's causing the screenwriter legal problems.) To their credit, Boal and Kathryn Bigelow didn't try to "say something" about the war itself, or "redeem" the main character, or spin out some extenuated allegory meant to imply that this man has been damaged by a damaging time and so have probably many others; instead they focused on a character who stands athwart the basic preconceptions we have about American soldiers, about "supporting our troops," about virtue.

And they didn't do it neatly. Aspects of the story that would have been tidied up in the hands of some cliche-bent director like Cameron are left messy. There's an Iraqi kid playing with a soccer ball who tries to sell the soldiers bootleg DVDs in the beginning of the movie, and later on this same kid (at least it looks like him) is found laying on a table in an insurgents' bomb lab, having been killed by his own people and cut open and filled with bombs and sewn shut again, presumably to be detonated when an American soldier comes to help him. James discovers the kid and, utterly revolted at what his own people have done to him, this happy kid who used to try to sell him bootleg DVDs, breaks the sutures and sinks his hands into the kid's stomach to get the bombs out. And then it turns out that it's not the same kid. It's another kid who looks just like him. It's confusing. It maybe says something about this redneck American's attention to the nuances among people of another race, but that reading of the scene doesn't occur to you until much later because you're so fully—there's no other word—immersed in this completely confusing place. And also, you made the same mistake yourself.

And so you have this confusing, unusual, non-fiction-y, non-traditional character piece, full of unresolved, perpetual tension and grief, and the oddities in it, the gaps, the off-ness, bring it to ever greater life. For all the suspense, it completely lacks what almost all suspense movies have—an escape hatch, a clean way out. The Hurt Locker seems to be saying: This is what some lives are like. Why can't movies be?