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The Hurt Locker Beat Sheet

By on January 18, 2010 in Beat Sheets

Each week, we’ll upload a Save the Cat!® Beat Sheet Breakdown of a current Oscar hopeful, continuing until this year’s broadcast of the 2010 Academy Awards®.

“The Hurt Locker” breakdown was written by Save the Cat!® contributing editor Jennifer Chang:

mv5bnzewnzq1njczm15bml5banbnxkftztcwntk3mte1mg_v1_sx90_sy140_Finding a copy of The Hurt Locker to rent at your local Blockbuster this weekend may have been nearly as hard to do as — dare I say it — diffusing a bomb. With an explosion of praise from every film critic under the sun and with more award nominations being added to its arsenal with each passing week, it’s no wonder that there is nary a video store around that hasn’t been raided of its Hurt Locker stock.

The independently produced and financed movie hailed in The New York Times as “the best American feature film yet made about the war in Iraq,” does an exceptional job of presenting the grim reality of the war without taking a stance on it. This ain’t no Avatar, folks.

The central conflict is not what you’d expect; true, the heroes of the film — the members of an elite U.S. bomb disposal squadron — face the threat of enemy fire at every turn. However, all this is peripheral to the title character’s personal battle with his addiction. You see, William James lives for the rush of disarming explosives. War is his drug of choice, and the story unfolds around his pursuit of the next fix.

So let’s examine the beats. Yes, The Hurt Locker hits all 15 of them as cleanly as if they were locked targets. Fair warning: spoiler alert!

Opening Image: We meet Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge as they aid team leader Thompson on a mission to disarm a roadside bomb. Though surrounded by Iraqi civilians — any one of whom may be a potential remote bomb detonator — the men are calm, in high spirits and full of bravado.

Theme Stated: Despite their training, their sophisticated technology and their tactical expertise, there’s a snag in the mission. A moment of misjudgment and hesitation spells tragedy for Sergeant Thompson.

Set-Up: Enter Sergeant William James, the bomb tech sent to replace Sergeant Thompson. James and Sanborn meet for the first time and it’s clear that James is strangely unconcerned that the fate that befell his predecessor can easily befall him.

Catalyst: James’s modus operandi is revealed on his first mission. He’s reckless. He blatantly ignores both procedure and direct orders from Sanborn. And when an Iraqi in a taxi speeds up to him with questionable motives, James is cool and unflinching as he faces him down. The mission is a success, but James’s team members get a better sense of who they’re dealing with. It makes them uneasy.

Debate: Elridge sits down for a psychological assessment with the camp’s doctor and asks, “Be all you can be? What if ‘all I can be’ is dead on the side of an Iraqui road?” Meanwhile, in a tense discussion between James and Sanborn, Jame’s demons come to light. Unlike Eldridge, he has a cold disregard for personal safety – and the safety of others. The question is if he’ll continue to let himself lose touch with his own humanity in the days to come.

Break Into Two: With only 38 days left in their tour of duty, James’s team is deployed to evacuate civilians from the site of a potential car bomb. Even when the evacuation is complete, James remains fixated on discovering the bomb and disarming it. His success is praised by a Lieutenant, though he has endangered his team in the process.

B Story: A clear tension is emerging between Sanborn and James. Sanborn is primarily concerned with keeping his squad alive through their tour. James’ methods and goals, however, run counter to that end.

Fun and Games: On a mission in the desert, the squad stumbles into a firefight between Iraqi snipers and British contracted soldiers. The standoff is intense and drawn out, but ultimately concludes with the squad returning to Camp Victory… well, victorious. There’s celebratory drinking. There’s roughhousing. There’s soul-bearing; James tells the others that he has a wife and infant son waiting for him at home.

Midpoint: Now with only 16 days left, the squad is sent into a building that they must clear. They make a gruesome discovery: a “body bomb,” fashioned out of the corpse of a young boy James believes is one he befriended. His addiction gains strength; he calls off an order to blow the building up so that he can needlessly disarm the body bomb himself.

Bad Guys Close In: James’s most formidable “bad guys” are all within. He begins to lose himself, straying from the base and choosing blindly to go on a one-man mission to ferret out those responsible for the body bomb. It is fruitless.

All is Lost: In this dazed and scattered state, James leads his squad on an emergency mission to assess the site of a suicide bomb explosion. Speculating that the bomb may have been detonated remotely, he rashly takes his men into town to hunt down the imagined culprits. In the process, they come under fire and Eldridge is wounded.

Dark Night of the Soul: In the aftermath, James appears shell-shocked. Before the injured Eldridge is transported off the base, he calls James out on a basic truth: he risked the lives of his teammates so that he could get his “adrenaline fix.”

Break into Three: With only 2 days left before their duty is done, James and Sanborn are called out to a military checkpoint where a suicide bomber has experienced a change of heart. The two have no choice but to investigate the bomber up close. Hightower surprise? The bomb strapped to his body is on a timer, and it’s attached with steel locks.

Finale: James’ addiction takes hold, and even with the odds stacked against him, he attempts to disarm the bomb, waiting until the last possible seconds to flee from the blast. On the ride back to camp, Sanborn confesses that he is finished. His next mission will be to start a family. It is clear here-and in the subsequent scenes depicting James in his role as a family man-that he does not share Sanborn’s desires. In a heart-to-heart with his infant son, James admits that he loves only one thing.

Final Image: We are left with an image of James back in Iraq, back in his bomb suit… reunited with the one thing that gives his life meaning.

Filmed under the masterful direction of Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker is gritty, gripping, and remarkable in its authenticity. Powerhouse performances by actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, plus whip-smart writing make this one to watch as award season is upon us. But for all its flash and bang, it’s good to note that The Hurt Locker takes a ground-breaking premise — and builds it around a solid story structure. The story is what compels us as an audience. After all, without it, wouldn’t we simply be left with 131 minutes of things going “boom”?

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  1. beau says:

    I’m not sure, but I think the Debate segment was with Eldridge, not James.

    Also, in the Break Into Three segment the guy wasn’t a suicide bomber. He was captured and forced to wear the bomb. At least, that’s the story he tells.

    I could be wrong.

    Otherwise, good breakdown.

  2. anne says:

    Beau ~ Thanks for the save! You are right – we fact checked and realized that we had switched the characters of James and Eldridge in the Debate section. Correction made!

    In terms of the bomber, that seems to be up to interpretation. Reading the screenplay, it feels as if the bomber lost his nerve; therefore, we referred to him as a “suicide bomber”. However, as this is very loosely handled, your interpretation is also valid.

    This is a great example of Cat! work at its best! Exchanges of ideas! Collaboration! Meow!

  3. Art Fuller says:

    Great job breaking this movie down. It was gripping to watch and the screenplay is well done.

  4. William says:

    This plan to do beat sheets would be even better if they listed the GENRE with it. :))))

  5. anne says:

    Great comment, William!

  6. OK since nobody else seems eager to jump.
    I say “Monster in the House”
    1.the monster-disregard of proceedure
    2.the house-the bombs impact area
    3.the sin-a selfish adrenaline fix
    All you have to do is work with a guy like James one time and you will see his monster coming the rest of your life.

  7. anne says:

    Captain, those are interesting thoughts!
    What about the rest of you Cats? What genre do you believe “The Hurt Locker” is?

    Post your ideas! We’ll reply with our official take as we prepare to load our next blog!

  8. Naomi Naomi says:

    Fun game! It’s been quite a while since I saw The Hurt Locker so I may not remember it well enough to hazard a guess, but it seems to fit the parameters of Institutionalized pretty well, no?

  9. Josef Lemoine says:

    Someone in the forum (jinchoung) said “Superhero”:
    1. a hero with special powers – James’ unparalleled bomb-defusing abilities
    2. a curse – James’ dependency on adrenaline
    3. a nemesis “of equal or greater force, who is the ‘self-made’ version of the hero” – War. Death. Insurgents that sacrifice lives to kill, while James sacrifices his peaceful home life to keep people alive.

  10. bkos says:

    This movie seems to contradict the “transformation machine”. James appears to be the protagonist, yet he does not change. I’ve noticed this trend in other recent movies such as: The Wrestler, Observe and Report, Big Fan. Or am I missing something?

  11. Jack says:

    Great breakdown.

    I would argue that AVATAR (which just won Best Picture at the Gloden Globes) follows the SAVE THE CAT beats pretty darn closely too. Maybe even more clearly.

  12. Al Rodriguez Al Rodriguez says:

    Bkos — It doesn’t necessarily contradict the “transformation machine.” Both Ram the Wrestler and James the Bomb Defuser change — but it’s a momentary change, a sort of “Last Temptation” beat where they see what their lives would be like if they went ahead and changed. Ram sees a chance at a life with a good woman and a daughter’s love; James returns to the states and is a father. But neither scenario gives them what they truly need. In fact, this is the rebirth into awareness that They Are Who They Are, and that they are in fact incapable of change. Or rather, they change back to their true selves. It’s a powerful moment of awareness on part of the character. Before, neither hero understood the reasons why, but now, he does. That’s what he comes away with as he leaps off the top rope or strides towards the IED.

  13. Uh huh but the dude was not in the opening scene

  14. anne says:


    Wow! What great discussions! Please keep them coming … and step back and look at this amazing exchange of ideas…it is almost like being in a room full of Cats! meow!

  15. bkos says:

    Thank you for that insight. Brilliant!

  16. anne says:

    @ Captain – the Opening Image does not always feature our protag; it can also be an image of a World. Think of “The Dark Knight” and the opening sequence within that – it is pages (and minutes) before we see our hero.

    There are many, many scripts written with a direct intro to the protagonist and his/her situation, and, yet, there are many that use the Opening Image to establish a World and the Rules within it. “Fargo” is another wonderful example, as is “Psycho”.

    The route can be direct – “Where The Wild Things Are”, “The Blind Side” – or indirect – “Inglorious Basterds”, “The Hurt Locker”.

    However the first beat is used, it is all Cat!-tastic!

  17. Josef Lemoine says:

    Interesting stuff, Anne – the importance of the hero’s world changing, not necessarily just the hero him/herself.

    So with the Hurt Locker, are we seeing how the world is different, better, changed by having a somewhat crazy, yet gifted guy like James in it? If so, I’d say that supports the Superhero argument.

  18. anne says:

    We’ll reveal our .02 soon. Until then, keep up the dialogue! This is Cat work at its best and is fascinating stuff!

  19. Sara says:

    Can someone beat out Avatar next????? would love, love to see that!!!

  20. I don’t blame you for wanting to change the channel Sara but please not yet.
    The only theme stated in this movie is “It was made by the US Army”
    Sanborn is the Protagonist who arcs from being a tough ass to crying about going home “God bless him”.James is a likeable talented monster but he is and he never changed.

  21. jin says:

    hey sara, well, i wrote this before i saw the movie just based on the trailers… it came pretty close!



  22. Josef Lemoine says:

    Captain Perry, I’ve got to disagree. James is the protagonist, because his actions determine the course of the plot. Sanborn follows James, not the other way around.

  23. Josef Lemoine says:

    Also, I think the theme stated comes with James’ entrance, when he says:

    “Camp Victory? I thought this was Camp Liberty?”

    What is the nature of winning in the chaos of war? What is the nature of freedom when one is afflicted by addiction? I think this is really what this story is about.

  24. Josep,
    I thank you and appreciate your opinions but in military jargon which is as close as it gets to being a cave man, LIBERTY means “time off”, and a dude who volunteers to put on a 300 lb suit and drag himself over to a bomb is called something else by soldiers, Cave men, and 5 year olds.If He looks, walks, and acts like a monster he is,and the only things seperating him from being a superhero is his motivations.
    God do I wish that my favorite caveman were around to help me out here.

  25. Josef Lemoine says:

    Admittedly, I’m not a military guy, but I can still see how James could be viewed as a selfish, destructive beast – the problem is that he’s dedicated to saving lives, not destroying them, and he’s the best at it (at least in the world of this story). Yes, he puts his men in danger, but does he not do it for the greater good? Is the world, as a whole, not better for him accepting his natural, God-given ability? Think of all the lives he saved and compare that number with those he intentionally killed. There are plenty of superheroes who inevitably sacrifice the lives and well-being of those close to them – Hancock, Peter Parker, Jason Bourne, James Bond in Casino Royale – but their worlds return to order when they, like James, accept their powers and embrace their responsibilities.

  26. Chris White says:

    I also would like to see a beat breakdown of “Avatar”!

    Does anyone want to tackle it? (from the actual movie & not just the trailer, of course) LOL

  27. BJ says:

    We’re on it! AVATAR Beat Sheet will be appearing in this blog space soon!

  28. Jose Jose says:

    Though there are great arguments why “The Hurt Locker” can be a Superhero or Rites of Passage genre, I believe it’s Institutionalized. James is part of a specialized group of the military (bomb squad), and he’s constantly choosing to do things his way, which is not what “company men” Sanborg and Eldridge would do. In the end, his choice to leave his family is not a curse but a sacrifice he makes to continue doing what allows him to “live.”

  29. You guys have got to remember,”We are CATS, WE are not squirrels” and have a longer much longer attention span.I personally could not stand the movie
    “Hurt Locker”but I am bound and determined to understand what makes it tick because I am a professonal writer and absolutely cannot turn loose of a challenge in my craft.NOW next week ,if it’s the movie we beat up, I’ll go see this “Avatar” and let you know what our whole group thinks cause Chip and Summer are checking it out tonight. Captain

  30. bkos says:

    It is an Institutionalized movie even though the protagonist does not change?

  31. Naomi Naomi says:

    From STC! Goes to the Movies re: the Institutionalized genre:
    “Often these concern work situations or closed societies with their own rules, ethics, and bonds of loyalty.”

    You have (1) a group, (2) a choice, and (3) a sacrifice.

    And it all comes down to, “Who’s crazier, them or me?”

    I have to admit, I do think HL shows elements of both Superhero and Institutionalized, because the two genres have an element of sacrifice in common.

    Thanks Jose for supporting the “I” side of the debate 🙂 …I was starting to feel like I’d gone off the deep end.

  32. So you are comfortable with the Protagonist not changing and the institution not changing,and everyone ends up worshiping a loose cannon.

  33. William says:

    I haven’t seen it, but I read the Beat Sheet.

    This sounds like an Addiction Passage.

    The protagonist doesn’t have to conquer the addiction. Have a look at Barfly with Mickey Rourke in 1987.

    Mickey admits he’s a drunk. He has a chance to end all that and live a healthy life as a writer. In Act III he rejects all of that for a live in seedy bars getting beaten up every night by other drunks.

    Mickey says… “Anyone can be a non-drunk…It takes talent to be drunk”

    This may be a similar case… An addict has a chance to change, but misses it and allows himself to be consumed with his addiction instead.

    This could be superhero, but I don’t see that in this Beat Sheet.

    It could be Golden Fleece (end of Tour?)

    I really would like to see administration here who wrote the Beat Sheet to tell us what the genre is… Blake did that with Wedding Crashers too… he put the Beat sheet up but there’s no genre listed…


    If it don’t have a genre, then it ain’t a BS2 I say…

  34. Naomi Naomi says:

    I’m comfortable with the way the movie explores the different aspects of the institution via the various characters, their attitudes, and choices.

  35. Jose Jose says:

    I think Al Rodriguez said it best earlier, just because our hero decides to pursue who he is, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t change. That moment of realization that James had, that Ram in The Wrestler had, even Hawkeye in MASH had, is enough of a change. James now knows why he is what he is.

    There’s a moment where James asks Sanborn – after Eldridge is wounded and confronts him, after James dangerously risks his life with the man strapped with explosives – why is he what he is? In the end, as he explains it to his son, James finally learns the answer. He only loves one thing – and that’s what brings him back. But now he knows the answer.

    As Naomi pointed out, “who’s crazier, them or me?” And our hero either “joins them, burns it all to the ground, or commits suicide.”

  36. You all are fun,Thanks

  37. jin says:

    biggest hit against institutionalized is that it doesn’t feature any of the 3 endings for institutionalized:
    – conform
    – burn it down
    – suicide

    blake got it really right. it is these options that make the story a commentary on institutions.


  38. Anne says:

    Hi Jin ~

    Suicide does not have to be literal in that the protagonist does not *have* to end his life physically; it can also be used in a figurative sense – which is what happens at the end of “The Hurt Locker”. James, in essence kills his former self – the husband/father/brother, and creates a *new* James, for whom only one thing matters when he returns to his mission.

  39. If we are going to bend all the rules why don’t we all just do Art films.

  40. jin says:


    that would be correct if the movie was about the institution of FAMILY. but it’s not. the “suicide” (either literal or figurative) has to be in context with the institution being discussed in the movie. having a one-off scene with his family doesn’t count as being what the movie is about.

    the -suicide -conformity -burningitdown has to be in context to the institution of the film.

    again, my take is that this movie is NOT about institutions. it makes no commentary or statement about the groupthink of the military.

    it’s about an extraordinary force surrounded by mere mortals and his inability to have a family life is his curse.


  41. jin says:

    “As Naomi pointed out, “who’s crazier, them or me?” And our hero either “joins them, burns it all to the ground, or commits suicide.””

    but he doesn’t “join them”. what the protag represents is NOT the military institution. most of the peeps he has to work with (i.e. regular military) thinks he’s nuts.

    he’s BEYOND them. the military is not his cause that he learns to bend a knee to.

    for him, the action is the juice.

  42. Anne says:

    Great thoughts, Cats!

    We love to make this blog opens for ideas and debates. We will always provide you with the STC! system applied – and give all of you the freedom to discuss, explore and learn – as we did, each and every day, at the Cat! headquarters.

    I am certain that Blake is thrilled to see the discussions continue – with the wonderful air of collaboration and respect that is the signature of the Cat! system. Great work!

  43. Naomi did not say “Who’s crazier-them or me” Blake did, page 221
    “save the Cat goes to the Movies” and I dare you to read the next four pages.

  44. Naomi Naomi says:

    Wow, you guys are serious debaters!

    @ Captain Perry – The genres are a way to help you think about, understand, and discuss story structure. But that doesn’t mean that every person who writes a movie follows every single parameter set out by Blake, and maybe to their detriment, maybe not. There are variations within the genres and subgenres because filmmakers make different choices. (Take a look at all the cousins listed in the book.) Oh, and I certainly wasn’t trying to take credit for that “who’s crazier” quote.

    Couldn’t the institution we’re talking about be the group that the hero joins? Because the rules of the group are that you do this job, but you also know that there’s a line — you look out for the safety of your team first so that you can all go home to your families, because hey — it’s just a job. Is he crazy for loving that incredibly dangerous job so much, or are they crazy for trying to have that AND an expectation of safety or normalcy? Ultimately, the hero sacrifices his normal life. I think in the end, he “burns it down” (figuratively, of course). He knows that the group — the institution — was wrong: you can’t have it both ways. As Blake said, “It’s about the many.” And what the hero figures out is that he doesn’t want to be a part of this group that leads a double life. He wants to chase that danger, that thrill. Could the hero be a “Brando”? Like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Could that guy who was killed by the goat herder or whatever (sorry, it’s been so many months since I saw the movie) be a “Company Man”? That guy was so convinced that he knew what it was like out in the field — trying to counsel that younger soldier and everything — until the day he went out with them and was killed for his ignorance — for not understanding that this institution is c-r-a-z-y. (And wasn’t he kind of effete, which goes along with the oft-seen sterility in a Company Man, as discussed in the book as well.) Maybe the institution revolves around the belief that you can be a soldier as a day job and then just switch it off and go home to your wife and kids, no problem. And our hero chooses not to go with the group because he doesn’t share that belief. Maybe he knows that’s the harder path. I didn’t say it was a good choice, but he “breaks the rules” and he goes his own way.

    “The real lesson, and what these tales teach, is the peril of not paying attention to that voice inside. Like all good stories, this genre offers a deeper message: Our orders come from a higher source! Not tradition, not our parents, not the caveman in charge of the group. We who listen to our inner spirit are propelled by a power that can overcome all.” (pg 224)

    Alright! So now that I’ve used up all my writing time furthering this debate, let’s hear another point of view! I love it here! 🙂

  45. Naomi, truthfully,
    They could have put a monster suit on William James and given him no speaking parts just grunts and gestures and this movie would not have been affected.Oh I’m sorry they did the suit.

  46. Naomi Naomi says:

    @ Captain Perry — It’s worth exploring HL as a MITH (or Superhero, or other genre), but I think your explanation of the elements is a little off. From your post above:

    I say “Monster in the House”
    1.the monster-disregard of proceedure
    2.the house-the bombs impact area
    3.the sin-a selfish adrenaline fix

    The monster would be an actual being or force. So if, as you mentioned in your last post, James is the monster, the sin belongs not to him but to those who invited him in, i.e. his squad or the Army or whatever. So we need to figure out what sin did they commit that allowed him into their lives. Like the greed of Amity’s leaders in JAWS.

  47. jin says:


    but does the movie actually talk about the issues that you’re discussing?

    is the movie really about an institution in any real way? does it talk about the individual vs. the group in any sustained way?

    what would you say is hurt locker’s statement on the institution of military?

    actually, i would argue that it is precisely because HL is NOT about the institution of military that it allows this war movie to thrive at a time when war movies are FAILING.

    movies about the military right now are too on the nose and too preachy. people smell that from a mile away and avoid them.

    but hurt locker is only really INCIDENTALLY about the military.

    what it’s really about is ACTION JUNKIES.

  48. jin says:

    oh, and also – “the brando” can’t be a perpetual condition for the protag right? the fact that he’s a brando leads to one of the 3 endings.

    so the ending of the hurt locker seems to be taking the institution “on his own terms”.

    but that’s not an option.


  49. Naomi Naomi says:

    @ Jin — I guess I’m confused by how much a movie has to specifically spell out its take on an institution in order to qualify for the I genre. You’re right — if HL did so, we would all think it was bad, on-the-nose writing. But does American Beauty specifically discuss the institution of family? Does One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest specifically discuss mental institutions, or is it just incidentally taking place in one? How about 9 to 5 or Office Space — about life in an office as institution, or just movies that happen to be set there? I would argue that good Institutionalized movies don’t have to include a lot of dialogue discussing what they think of the institutions, because the entire movie itself is a discussion of the institution. Oh, but I actually don’t think HL is “about” the military — I think it’s about that particular group of men that does a very dangerous job and still tries to have normal lives when they’re not doing the job, and how this one guy can’t get himself to go along with the idea that you can be both good at the job and still hold onto your humanity enough to maintain a normal life too; he can’t go along with the group. But, to your point — if the movie is “about” ACTION JUNKIES, wouldn’t that be an Institutionalized movie anyway? Kind of the same way you could say Pushing Tin is about air traffic controllers, i.e. guys-who-thrive-on-a-high-stress-job?

  50. Naomi Naomi says:

    By the way, have we set a record yet for number of responses in a comment thread? 😛