By Sean Collier
August 10, 2009
Every year, dozens of films claim to have a breakout star. Any movie, big or small, without an above-the-marquee lead would like you to believe that it's going to shoot its protagonist into the stratosphere; usually, this is nothing but advertising, and the previously-obscure performer settles for being slightly less obscure.
If there's any justice in the world, though, the marketing for The Hurt Locker will hold true. While the reviews for the Iraq war drama have been uniformly glowing, the lion's share of the praise has been heaped on star Jeremy Renner. Renner, a incredibly gifted performer with natural charm and the look of a star, has been happily flying under the radar for ten years. The Hurt Locker should be his shot at mainstream recognition.
In his review of The Hurt Locker, Richard Corliss of Time described Renner as "a young Russell Crowe." While flattering, that description is misguided in two ways. Renner is not young; he's 38, and something of a veteran by this point (Richard Corliss just hasn't seen any of his stuff, apparently.) And Russell Crowe, when young, was not as good as Jeremy Renner. Crowe only occasionally is as good as Renner now.
Renner first gained some notice as the star of a low-budget Jeffrey Dahmer biopic (creatively titled "Dahmer".) The 2002 performance garnered Renner an Independent Spirit Award nomination; The Hurt Locker is his second such nomination. He slummed it in the forgotten 2003 actioner S.W.A.T. before going on an indie run, including Asia Argento's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and the Icelandic drama (yes, they make movies in Iceland) A Little Trip to Heaven.
In 2005, Renner took on the toughest and most memorable role in the Charlize Theron vehicle North Country, as well as a particularly striking role in the criminally underappreciated indie drama Twelve and Holding. Two of Renner's more prominent roles came two years later, alongside Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and a lead role in the zombie sequel 28 Days Later.
If Renner is going to break out – and he's stated in interviews that he may not even want to – it'll be because of The Hurt Locker. This is, in large part, due to the film itself; The Hurt Locker is the first really good movie about the second Iraq war, a gritty, nihilistic, vital entry into a stale war genre. And, with all due respect to a talented supporting cast (including fellow Spirit Award nominee Anthony Mackie,) the film belongs to Renner. His performance as war junkie bomb expert Sgt. William James not only carries the charisma and presence of any marquee actor you care to name, but also demonstrates that Renner possesses a remarkably thorough understanding of the film around him. Unlike many stars, Renner seems to want to embody every aspect of a complicated story; he effortlessly carries the film on his back.
The Hurt Locker seems to be after the Slumdog Millionaire model of sleeper success; like Slumdog, it quietly followed a critically acclaimed limited release with a long stretch of buzz-drawing advance screenings before a slow expansion. And, with the Academy Awards Best Picture pool inexplicably expanding to ten films this year, it's almost a lock to get a best picture nomination; Renner will probably be nominated as well. It's unlikely that another movie can play Little Film That Could quite as well as Slumdog did, especially so soon; furthermore, The Hurt Locker is quite far from the victorious, feel-good story that Danny Boyle's film was.
However, Slumdog didn't have a star like Renner. Dev Patel was talked about as a potential next big thing, but he doesn't have the charm and talent of Renner, nor was his performance as memorable. Slumdog as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but The Hurt Locker is Jeremy's film.
Renner has stated repeatedly that he's perfectly happy drifting back and forth from big releases to arthouse films, and it's likely that he'll continue to do so regardless of the attention that The Hurt Locker garners. However, if a bleak indie action flick can find an audience for itself, fame may thrust itself upon Renner whether he wants it or not. The Sundance circuit will miss him; mainstream Hollywood, though, could gain a superstar.