Is ‘Hurt Locker’ locked in?

Posted by · 9:58 am · August 6th, 2009

The Hurt LockerA few months ago, before the Academy completely altered the playing field for this year’s Oscars, “The Hurt Locker” looked like the longest of long shots for Best Picture consideration.

Its unpopular subject matter, absence of stars, a respected but genre-based director, and the languishing delay between its 2008 Venice debut and its summer 2009 release — none of these factors inspired much confidence in its chances.

But then a weird thing happened. Just after the Academy effectively doubled its chances of a Best Picture nod in June, an ecstatic wave of reviews for the film started rolling in, the ardently passionate consensus of which took many off-guard following its warm but hardly explosive reception on the fest circuit last year.

In as much as one can quantify these things, “The Hurt Locker” has happily adopted the title of the year’s best-reviewed film so far — and while I dislike the way people use Metacritic as a Solomon-like arbiter of quality, a score of 93 is indicative of major across-the-board approval.

All of which is all well and good, but no guarantee whatsoever of Academy attention. (You think “Goodbye Solo” is going to crop up in their top 10? Dream on.) But as the Los Angeles Times’s John Horn points out, the film’s commercial performance is slowly but steadily bolstering its profile. Our own Chad Hartigan may have recently described the film’s admittedly modest box-office as somewhat underwhelming, but Horn sees it differently:

With domestic ticket sales of more than $7 million to date, “The Hurt Locker” is hardly a blockbuster, and isn’t going to help stem the summer’s plummeting sales, in which box-office returns have been down four straight weeks compared with a year ago. Yet Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s film is on track to gross $15 million or more in its total theatrical run — an exceptionally strong performance given the film’s subject matter and its absence of recognizable stars.

Just seven weeks into its run, “The Hurt Locker” has performed better than most recent dramas about Middle East conflict. Acquired by Summit Entertainment, the new studio behind the “Twilight” franchise, at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival for $1.5 million, “The Hurt Locker” already has outperformed 2007’s “In the Valley of Elah” ($6.8 million domestic theatrical gross), will soon go by 2008’s “Stop-Loss” ($10.9 million) and even could surpass 2007’s “Lions for Lambs” ($15 million), which starred the A-list triumvirate of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Okay, so it doesn’t need to be said that outperforming “Lions for Lambs” is hardly cause for popping the champagne. But in sliding-scale terms, its a healthy enough achievement — and besides, after “The Reader” and “Frost/Nixon,” we all know that voters place increasingly less stock in numbers these days.

All of which makes me think that, whatever its chances in other categories, “The Hurt Locker” is looking more and more like a nominee we can write down in ink rather than pencil. With 10 nominees, it’d be surprising (and problematic) if at least one of them didn’t emerge from the year’s first half — and apart from maybe “Up” (which, from where I’m standing at least, doesn’t seem to be attracting quite the same intensity of critical endorsement that “WALL-E” did last year), it’s difficult to see what other early-2009 titles could surpass it. Horn, for one, thinks that its summer release works very much in its favor in building an awards-season profile:

Instead of opening “The Hurt Locker” soon after the Toronto festival, Summit placed it smack in the middle of the summer, directly opposite “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The idea was simple: Give critics and cinéastes who had been knocked senseless by summer’s mass-appeal onslaught a movie that excited them. As laudatory word-of-mouth built, Summit slowly added the film to a few dozen more theaters each week.

Journalists embraced the movie, so Summit was able to generate reams of free publicity. In the last few days, “Hurt Locker” feature stories have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Modesto Bee, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Santa Fe New Mexican.

With critical backing and thematic weight on its side, it seems to me that the film only needs to avoid commercial-disappointment territory to enter the Academy’s good books. Kathryn Bigelow and Jeremy Renner may have a harder time breaking into the Academy’s club, but of the films already out in the open, theirs is leading the pack.

→ 15 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

15 responses so far

  • 1 8-06-2009 at 10:11 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    I saw it, really liked it to my shock, id say a nom for film editing maybe, and probly a lock for best picture, though if it didnt make it that would mean this is avery strong year for movies if their are 10 better pictures to fill its gap. I think it can’t win, and will fade in other categories, but best pic looks good.Although I dont think I could ever rewatch it

  • 2 8-06-2009 at 10:51 am

    j said...

    I daresay that Up’s reviews are more promising than Locker’s even on MC because 53% of the former’s scores are perfect, vs. 45% of Locker’s. People do always say that the #1 choice is what matters most, and a greater # of people thinking a movie’s perfect would imply that it would be a likely #1 choice for many.

    And on RT, Up gets an 8.4 average rating from top critics, vs. Locker’s 8.2.

  • 3 8-06-2009 at 11:13 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    “Although I dont think I could ever rewatch it”


    With 10 nominees, I don’t really see how it couldn’t get in, and as of this moment, it’s the most likely candidate to do so. (Considering 8 of the top 10 on Tapley’s list have yet to be released).

    And if there is any justice, Renner, Bigelow, Boal, Mackie, etc. will follow.

  • 4 8-06-2009 at 11:15 am

    red_wine said...

    I think so too. A movie with as much passionate critical support couldn’t possibly, or shouldn’t possibly miss the nomination. I think the end of year critics awards will fly in thick for this one.

    But Up remains the most acclaimed film of 2009(by reviews that is), and will remain so till the year’s end. It is also the most acclaimed film in France this year(according to a French site). The reaction to Up is less orgasmic than Wall-E perhaps because Wall-E was a very big movie, with big ideas, big sweeping visuals and over-reaching ambition. But Wall-E had a comparatively smaller group of passionate supporters whereas Up is actually overall more loved.
    But still in the final reckoning, I think The Hurt Locker will eventually win out as it will have a strong showing in the Top 10’s come year end will likely do better in critics polls. But I wouldn’t underestimate Up. Freed of their reserve of lauding an animated movie after Wall-E, and perhaps surprised as well that how much the fellow critical community loved it, the reviews have been very vocal about Up with stratospheric praise.

    Some of the other critically lauded works are Goodbye Solo like you said, Anvil, Sugar, Food Inc, Summer Hours, In The Loop and Star Trek(love for which is slightly misplaced I think. Its not nearly as good as the critics are saying it is).

  • 5 8-06-2009 at 11:25 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I think it’s a lock.

  • 6 8-06-2009 at 11:25 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Also, some moron decided to move the release date here in the Netherlands from next week to f*ing december. WTF?

  • 7 8-06-2009 at 11:31 am

    Loyal said...

    Though I expect both films to get in, Up is more of a lock than Hurt Locker.

    Considering the rule change was made in part because of the WALL-E snub, I would be amazed if Up wasn’t in. Hurt Locker would simply join a long list of great little films that just missed out.

  • 8 8-06-2009 at 11:42 am

    Marshall1 said...

    Actually, I don’t think UP and Hurt Locker are locks. First of all, the reason why Academy creates the best animated “ghetto” is to prevent something like Beauty and the Beast happening again. Also, I think the support for Hurt Locker is very limited. There are critic groups and fanboys supporting it, but would the Academy people eat it up? Personally, I think I like Hurt Locker, but not loving it. So far, I don’t have a favourite movie this year at all…….*sigh*

    But I do think UP has a better chance because if you strip away the colorful animation, the story is very Academy friendly. I dare say that many of the members feel more closely identified with the story of UP rather than Hurt Locker (most of them probably lost someone they love a long time ago etc. etc)

  • 9 8-06-2009 at 11:42 am

    RichardA said...

    It possibly is a lock for the 10, but it sure would miss if there were 5–which “really” proves that the 10 is a failed experiment in being inclusive of more popular movies loved by all. It’s just another movie that’s considered as “not been seen” by most.


  • 10 8-06-2009 at 12:01 pm

    Speaking English said...

    I would be very very very very surprised if this movie managed to stay in my Top 10 by year’s end. I wouldn’t be disappointed if it made the Academy’s 10, as it is a good film, but it’s hard to imagine none of the upcoming anticipated films would top it. It’s already only my #5.

  • 11 8-06-2009 at 1:29 pm

    Lance said...

    A COMPLETE LOCK – it’s 98% on rotten tomatoes which is an incredibly high score and many of the critics call it one of the best movies in years. They LOVE this movie. It will probably sweep the critics awards and easily make the top ten at the oscars.

    Besides that, the Oscars love a good war movie – look at their track record…and it’s a war movie that has a great subtext. In addition, it’s got a two gimmicks – it’s the first great movie about the Iraq War and it’s directed by a woman who could be the first female to win a directing Oscar. I think the only question is whether it will win.

    The biggest problem with it winning, is that it’s peaking too soon (it’s still summer) and some other movies could easily peak at a better time, like January or February.

    Anyone calling an animated movie a lock for Best Picture needs to review Oscar’s history.

  • 12 8-06-2009 at 4:21 pm

    Marshall said...

    I think critics loved “Up,” but “Wall-E” had more of a political message that they really put themselves out there to sell.

    I love “The Hurt Locker” (just see my in-depth review:, but I don’t know if I can call it a lock. I get the feeling that this could be the “our movie” of 2009 instead of “their movie.” It may be too soon for them to accept Iraq; all the critics loved “United 93” in 20o6, but the Oscars couldn’t get behind it as a movie. And that was 4 1/2 years after 9/11. We were still in Iraq when the movie was made.


  • 13 8-06-2009 at 6:04 pm

    Chris138 said...

    I’ll be pissed if this movie isn’t nominated in major categories this year.

  • 14 8-07-2009 at 8:26 am

    Glenn said...

    “I think it’s a lock.”

    Oh god Chad, how can someone who writes for an Oscar website say a think like that. Don’t we all know that in August there are no locks unless you’re looking at a Helen Mirren or a Saving Private Ryan. An edgy, arthouse, little-seen Iraq war movie with no stars? It won’t be a lock until it starts winning best picture prizes all over the country and Academy members are all but forced to watch it.

    Saw it today though and it is indeed very good. Not quite sure I got all the love radiating from people about it, but it’s so well done and the underlying themes (“war is a drug” and such) are abundant.

  • 15 8-07-2009 at 8:59 am

    PJ said...

    Not necessary to hold Metacritic in utter devotion either, but numbers-wise “The Hurt Locker” is this year’s “WALL-E” (so far). The Best Picture expansion was apparently meant to accommodate movies with such unanimous critical approval, thus if “The Hurt Locker” isn’t nominated, the Academy can consider its experiment a complete failure.