Of all the taut, gripping images in director Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, one of the simplest lingers longest in your mind.

Pinned down by sniper fire in the middle of the desert with a group of British mercenaries, three American soldiers endure insufferable heat for hours, waiting outand killingtheir adversaries one by one. In the stillness of the stakeout, flies hover and nestle on the soldiers’ faces, as if these men striving mightily to stay alive were, somehow, already dead.

Set in 2004, Hurt Locker follows the last month of the rotation of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, or “Blasters,” whose mission is to defuse or otherwise nullify enemy mines and IEDs. The trio is comprised of Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and the hotshot Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), whose expertise and brazenness have helped him defuse more than 800 bombs. James enjoys each disabling mission not just as a challenge, but as an almost sexual rush that typically calls for a post-defusion cigarette.

A scene in which Eldridge unwinds by playing a war-themed video game evokes both the psyche of the war-weary soldier and the nature of the actual war. The Iraqi battlefield is depicted as an arid theater in which opposing sides engage in an unending, deadly game of cat-and-mouse, devoid of politics, religion or any other animating ideology. In the arena of urban warfare, distinguishing friend from foe is both paramount and nearly impossible. An enemy could be peering from behind or atop any building; an IED could be hidden underneath an innocuous bag of garbage. For the locals, war has become a spectator sportchildren fly kites from rooftops as suicide bombs detonate below.

Although Hurt Locker certainly benefits by comparison to the many previous lackluster films about America’s war in the Middle East, it is no small praise to declare it the best non-documentary yet about the Iraq War. Making her first feature film since 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow finally realizes her promise as a filmmaker. Filmed in Jordan, her action sequences are both austere and breathtaking”edge-of-your seat” is an appropriate compliment. Meanwhile, the screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent time embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq. (Boal’s 2004 article about the death of an Iraq War veteran was the basis for Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah.)

The heart of Boal’s script is an exploration of the soldiers’ survival instincts. In the waning days of their tour, Sanborn retreats to caution and careful protocol. In contrast, James faces down the enemy and its deadly devices headlong. He is either a deus ex machina or a reckless cowboy with a death wish, and we wonder whether his methods harm or protect his squad mates.

Where Hurt Locker falters is when the focus shifts too far onto James’ growing mental and emotional volatility, triggered primarily by his discovery of a bomb hidden inside the cadaver of a young child and manifested chiefly by his sudden desire to embark on seek-and-destroy missions for anonymous triggermen. While this allows Renner to expand on an already noteworthy performance, it disrupts the balance between the characters.

The film’s title is slang for inflicting pain on someone else. In the context of this film, there are other meanings. First, there’s the crate James keeps under his bunk that contains dozens of triggering devices he has previously disarmed, which remind him of the times he has cheated death. And then there is the bulky suit he wears when approaching an explosive device up close, a kind of mobile sarcophagus that is relatively ineffectual in preventing injury or death caused by short-range detonations. Ironically, it is also the place James feels most at peacehe even takes to sleeping in his blast helmet.

Contrast that with a short scene near the film’s end, in which James, now home from his deployment, visits a grocery store to buy breakfast cereal for his estranged wife (Evangeline Lilly) and their child. James looks upon the aisle of seemingly limitless choices with perplexity and alienation. The “real world” has lost its meaning. For soldiers like James, the only way to feel alive is to keep facing death.