Now that there’s ten Best Picture nominees, no one is really sure what counts as a contender.  Not that anyone was really sure beforehand, I suppose.  In any case, the point is that when I say The Hurt Locker is a contender for a Best Picture nomination, it means very little.  Except, of course, that the film received critical praise, isn’t in a genre the Academy tends to ignore, and for the moment, still has buzz surrounding it.

But enough of that, let’s get to what no one wants to know: what I thought of the film.  As per Golden Grouches custom, I don’t shy away from a few spoilers, so I’m leaving the rest of the post after the jump.

My first reaction may have been to feel a whole lot of sympathy for the marketing department, because I’d have no idea how to sell this film.  There’s not really a story, in any normal sense of the word.  After a brief prelude in which we are introduced to Guy Pearce, see the approach to disarming a bomb in Iraq, and bid farewell to Guy Pearce, much of the rest of the movie is Jeremy Renner vs. bombs, with the two other men in his unit (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) often seeming to join with the rest of Iraq in being nothing more than a distraction.

The marvel of The Hurt Locker is how Kathryn Bigelow, directing from Mark Boal’s script, manages to generate such a consistently compelling and pulse-pounding film.  Sure, disarming a bomb is a frequent go-to device in cinema to create tension and drama.  But generally only after sympathetic characters and settings have been established.  Here, that’s not really the case.  The rapid demises of multiple characters, including Guy Pearce and later Ralph Fiennes illustrate no one is expected survive for long (aided, no doubt, by the shock of seeing the name actors die so quickly).  Intriguingly, we learn very little about Jeremy Renner’s character other than his reckless dedication to taking down bombs, so while we surely don’t want to see him die, it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise.

In a sense, the film (like, say, Band of Brothers) succeeds by elevating war to an accepted state, rather than leaving it as an incidental character.  In any number of recent war films, things tend to happen because of the war (meaning a character will explicitly or implicitly bemoan the war’s existence as if it were the antagonist).  Or, alternatively, the war will be cited as a reason someone has changed.  Here, it is taken for granted that the war exists, and the characters have to operate within its framework.  Which feeds into the lack of a coherent story, because war, especially as it pertains to the bomb defusal crew, isn’t a consistent narrative so much as a series of missions.  And, sure, the missions have a literal beginning, middle, and end, but that’s only a function of time, not poetry.

The difficulty, of course, with not having much of a story is the ever-present risk of losing focus.  And while I think the film is overwhelmingly taut, I did find my mind wandering a few times during the movie.  I grant that is partially personal preference; I make no secret of my love of plot.  I also should clarify that when I say The Hurt Locker lacks story, I’m not suggesting that nothing happens.  Rather, there’s no story in the traditional sense.  Very little character development, no real bad guys, not much resolution.  In any case, as mentioned, my hat is off to the filmmakers, and to Renner, for creating such generally enthralling tension, but they fall short of perfection.  I was entertained and impressed, but not transfixed or mesmerized.

A good barometer for my thoughts on the 2009 season will be The Hurt Locker‘s placement on my list of movies.  As the film is very good, but not excellent, the closer it floats to the top, the fewer top films there will have been.  The lower it sinks, the better year it has been.  Obviously, it is crazy early to be discussing Oscar chances.  This film will absolutely be in the discussion come nomination time, and honestly, I think it has a pretty decent shot of getting in.  My guess is this film is of a type the Academy would be comfortable nominating with the extra slots.  Indie, well-received, critical approval, some-but-limited mainstream crossover, relevant.