There is a moment in any dramatically meaningful story where the hero must look down the long barrel of the gun and face an emotional truth he would normally do anything to avoid. It comes in The Hurt Locker when Sergeant William James comes face-to-face with the part of himself that cannot live without the rush of battle (even when it means abandoning the wife and baby that need him back home). At the start of The Hurt Locker, cocky James would be hard-pressed to admit anything wrong with his overly gung-ho, risky approach to war – but the end of the film sees James in vulnerable acknowledgement of the destructive, dysfunctional part of himself that simply can’t say no. It’s how an episodic, freeform movie like The Hurt Locker generates its dramatic power: our hero takes his crusade to the absolute end of the line where he has no choice. James’ final reentry into war isn’t the same kind of casual, unconscious choice he makes in the first act – no, it’s the ultimate, defiant statement of a man who knows he harbors a death wish and goes for it anyway.
So, how exactly does a movie like Hurt Locker get this day of reckoning on its feet? It starts with an established core conflict that lays the groundwork for the entire movie. In this case, The Hurt Locker opens with a quote that defines the battle lines of its core struggle – “the rush of battle if a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug” – and then provides us with a hero who breathes life into this struggle through committed dramatic action. All the events of The Hurt Locker hang on the tenuous balance between James’ potent and lethal addiction to war: on one hand, his derring-do sets a new standard of uncompromised bravery and quick-fire effectiveness; on the other hand, his overzealousness masks a latent death wish that endangers not just his own life but also the lives of those around him. The movie then uses escalating dramatic danger to press James into a place where he has no choice but to finally confront the inner demons that compel him to such high-stakes action. It is in this final moment of reckoning that our hero makes a choice that defines the movie’s thematic conclusion; if James didn’t take his crusade all the way to the end of the line, if he didn’t take it to the heights of bravery, if he didn’t push it to a place of maximum danger, we would never have the same nuanced understanding of just how potent and lethal the rush of battle can be; if James never came face-to-face with a dangerous part of himself, we would never understand his bravura as a hauntingly complex addiction.
- What is the core conflict powering every moment of your story forward?
- Does your hero embody this conflict through committed dramatic action?
- What is the escalating danger that pushes your hero to the point of no return?
- What monumental truth does your hero face in his final moment of reckoning?
- What is your hero’s ensuing choice in the wake of that reckoning?