The Indie Month That Was
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
By Michael Lynderey
August 13, 2009
Slim July pickings, Bigelow goes to war, and Vardalos' long goodbye
Bigelow's solid Locker
The cinematic landscape of the past few years is littered with Iraq War movies that ranged from complete, partial, or mild disappointments at the box office. The list is long and sturdy - In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, The Lucky Ones, Lions for Lambs, Redacted. Their too-topical subject matter is usually cited as the reason for their failure, but I'm not so sure. Most or even all of these films received mediocre to mildly positive reviews, and worse - they were serious and somber awards-contenders that didn't end up getting any Oscar nominations, save for Tommy Lee Jones in Valley of Elah, so they didn't benefit from an awards-season boost at the box office. Clearly, there was more behind their low-key box office than simply a case of tackling a subject most people didn't want to spend a night at the movies with. It could've happened to any old dusty drama, and did.
I suppose the issue is resurfacing again with the release of The Hurt Locker, a new Iraq War-set film that's been quietly toiling away underneath the blockbusters of the summer, after opening in late June. The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who's helmed a lot of very solid thrillers that never went anywhere at the box office - Near Dark, Blue Steel, and especially Strange Days (Point Break, her one definitive box office hit, is an exception). Her new film is getting unanimous critical acclamation, with a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (only three lone critics voted "No") and a lot of "Best Film of the Summer" declarations. It stars largely unknown actor Jeremy Renner (whose performance has been praised through the roof), along with more seasoned thespians like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse. And it's about an American bomb squad in 2004-era Iraq.
So the question could be asked - if it wasn't about the Iraq War, would the Hurt Locker be doing better? So far, the film has played in a high of 535 theaters (not a full wide release) and grossed around $9 million. That's certainly a respectable performance, and the film could soon end up the highest grossing non-IMAX release of the year to play under 800 theaters (the current champ is Amy Adams' Sunshine Cleaning, at $12 million). But its per-screen average has recently dipped down into the $2,000s, meaning that the movie has probably already peaked. If the Hurt Locker is underperforming according to any definition, I'd say it's because of a general lack of interest in this kind of serious thriller, without any clear draws in the cast, and especially during summertime. The Iraq War theme may have something to do with it, but it's only one piece in a larger set of reasons. And besides, if it can beat an Amy Adams film, then the Hurt Locker must have been doing something right.