Monday, November 2, 2009

God Is A Bullet

A funny thing happens when you start reading a lot of scripts. You become a little jaded. Your standards begin to inch up. That initial giddiness of reading a future piece of celluloid wears off. Is that what's happened to Roger? Or has the material simply not been up to snuff lately? While you ponder that, I'll ready my next installment of The Reader Top 25. Expect that around 6am Pacific Time. Also, expect a couple of reviews from the newly announced winners of the Nicholl Fellowship later this week. I know you guys are wondering what your scripts lost out to. Stay tuned and you'll find out. And now, Roger's review for "God Is A Bullet:"

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A policeman teams up with an ex-cult member to find his missing daughter.
About: Nick Cassavetes wrote this draft of the script. However, Ehren Kruger (writer of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen) is set to take on the latest rewrite. The rights to the book were snapped up by Bold And The Beautiful head writer Bradley Bell, who will produce alongside partner Daniel Bobker. Kruger is also responsible for penning Torso, which will be shot by David Fincher.
Writers: Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook, My Sister’s Keeper, Alpha Dog, John Q). Based on a novel by Boston Teran.

Warning: This script ain’t pretty. You’ll probably get sick on the 2nd page when one of our heroes, Case, is shoved into the skinned torso of a cow. I don’t think my co-writer even made it that far. (“I started reading the first page and it was so dark I stopped.”) But that’s just a flashback, and this story has a lot of ‘em.

Supposedly, Teran’s life remains in danger because it’s purported that “God is a Bullet” is based on fact. If it is, color me scared shitless.

Who is Boston Teran?

It’s a name comprised of two cities, which is a tip-off that it’s probably a pseudonym (like Reno Vegas, or Jerusalem London). Rumor-mill palaver says it’s the nom de plume for a successful mystery author. All I know about the guy (or gal, as some people confess) is that his/her’s latest manuscript, entitled “The Creed of Violence” was leaked to Hollywood producers before a publishing contract was even signed and supposedly everyone went apeshit in a war to buy it.

Although people who have read ARCs of that novel say it rocks (and at the time of this writing it’s been out for a week or so), “God is a Bullet” is Teran’s first novel and as a screenplay I don’t feel like there’s any restraint shown in its quest to be noir.

It’s certainly hardboiled, but it’s so pervertedly earnest and over-the-top I got lost in its maze of mass murder and gang-rape. I have to admit, it’s a strange read indeed when the guy who made the “The Notebook” and “My Sister’s Keeper” achieves a Takashi Miike level of depravity.

It’s like the story hits noir, isn’t satisfied, and buries the needle until it reaches Japanese shock horror.

Which, in this case, isn’t a good thing. After last week, I tried to choose something that wasn’t horror, but dammit, horror keeps choosing me.

What, exactly, is noir?

It depends who you ask. Authors and filmmakers seem to be divided on the subject. Paul Schrader says it’s not a genre, that it’s defined by tone and mood. He also says the film noir cycle starts with 1941’s “Maltese Falcon” and ends in 1958 with “Touch of Evil”.

Which this reviewer thinks is bullshit, because people are still making film noir today. (“The Dark Knight”, anyone?) I’m a student in the school that believes noir is a genre unto itself, which can be melded to other genres, defined by the quest for personal redemption against the atmosphere of a sophisticated moral darkness.

It’s more than atmosphere.

Noir is conflict.

Noir is being trapped in Hell, and trying to claw your way out.

And I think noir characters that try to return to the light oughta have a code they live by. If not, then fucking anything goes with no regards for consequence, and “God is a Bullet” has a protagonist that doesn’t so much throw his code out the window, but never had one to begin with.

What’s the play, Rog?

A satanic Manson-like cult called The Left Hand of Darkness kidnap Gabi Hightower after they torture, rape and murder her mother and step-father. Yes, it’s particularly gruesome and the first ten pages are a force of nature.

Bob Hightower is Gabi’s cop father, and he teams up with Case Hardin, an ex-junkie and ex-cult member who lives in a Hollywood halfway house. Case is easily my favorite character, a gal so wounded and consumed with her quest for redemption she reads like a twisted Sarah Connor on meth-amphetamines.

Case escaped Cyrus’ clutches (the leader of the cult) and feels compelled to help Bob find his daughter after she hears about the murders on the news. The ones who walk on the Left-Handed Path are so elusive Case knows that she is the only one who can help. And we understand that this is her destiny, her end-game.

Her redemption.

Cyrus is a sick fuck. He makes “life sculptures” out of human beings and likes to pin Tarot cards to the corpses he leaves behind. He indoctrinates converts with drugs, gang-rape (there’s so much gang-rape in this script it becomes a motif), and nasty psycho-sexual satanic rituals.

Bob’s daughter, Gabi, is a fourteen-year old girl, and she experiences all of this.

Multiple times.

And you can’t help but wonder if Bob should put a bullet in his daughter’s head if he and Case ever rescue her.

Case takes Bob to the Ferryman, Hell’s doorman. Most of his limbs have been replaced by prosthetics. “As he comes hitching forward, he’s like some biomechanical entity.” The Ferryman supplies Case and Bob with not only artillery and tattoos to transform Bob from one of society’s “sheep” to an outlaw So-Cal “wolf”, but with information concerning Cyrus’ whereabouts.

Cyrus is on rat patrol, working “the border between Calexico and Yuma, picking up drugs brought across the line by wetback mules”. Presumably, this is how he funds his Charlie Manson lifestyle. And with this information, Bob and Case are off to the border to hunt cultists.

Surely there’s some double-dealing and bad mojo along the way, right?

Yep, and this is where the script feels not only pedestrian, but excessive. Most noir stories have some upper crust citizens who turn out to be corrupt, perverted, or just morally evil. In fact, I think the strength of good noir is exploring the concept of corruption, of evil.

And this is where “God is a Bullet” slaps you in the face, kicks you in the balls, and ejaculates in your hair while telling you that these characters are so stained they’ve crossed over into the realm of caricature.

I wanted to burn all of my clothes and scour my skin with bleach after I read this script.

Enter John Lee and Maureen Bacon. John Lee’s the Sheriff of Clay County, California, and Maureen is a wealthy business owner. This is where the plot gets convoluted.

Sam (Gabi’s stepfather, the guy who got his penis cut off in the first few pages?) was fucking Maureen. John Lee likes young boys, but he does not like Sam fucking his wife. So John Lee gets Cyrus and his gang to kill Sam, except things spin out of control when Cyrus and his “war children” hump everything to death and claim Gabi as their new toy.

Who woulda thought that a FUCKING PSYCHOPATH CULT LEADER would have caused so many problems, huh?

Things get even more snarled when we discover that John Lee, and Gabi’s grandfather, Arthur (Maureen’s business partner), have ties to Cyrus that go all the way to the “Furnace Creek Cult Murders”. Apparently, Cyrus’ pseudo-mother owned some fertile Clay County real-estate that these upper crust citizens wanted. So Cyrus kills this woman and Arthur arranged it so the land became his.

All this just proves my theory that the only people who can make me give two fucks about real-estate are Raymond Chandler, Charlie Huston, and James Ellroy.

With the Bacons, you have a woman who likes to have affairs and a man who likes to have sex with boys. There’s something to the dysfunction that makes it feel like the writer is trying too hard. It’s too much...whenever you’re writing about moral darkness, you have to have a counterpoint.

There has to be light.

A drop of light makes the darkness seem blacker. You have to have a point of reference, of comparison. You keep piling on the fetishes and it ruins everything.

The good people that lurk in the background, that live in the community, are not explored. This is only the representation of light, or good, and they are depicted (to use cult-speak) as “sheep”.

Our heroes are so stained they grapple with moments of extreme existential horror and at moments, give in to it. Bob goes from desk-pushing pussy to kill-em-all commando like the writer flipped an abrupt magical switch, and it doesn’t feel like a journey, but a cop-out.

So what happens?

Somewhere in the middle, I disconnected completely from the story. It was for a variety of reasons, but plot-wise, I feel like the screenwriter wrote all of our characters into a corner.

Cyrus is the type of villain that always has the upper hand. Case concocts a plan to hit him in his wallet (and I kept asking myself, does this guy even care about money?) by double-crossing his main drug guy and stealing the money. And they’re going to exchange the money for the kid? It doesn’t feel right. Cyrus has spent his whole life living off the grid, surely he has resources stocked up. He’s toted as the big bad wolf, the ultimate hunter. And our heroes gain the upper-hand by forcing an old-fashioned “money for the hostage” exchange?

I don’t think so. If Cyrus is really smart, he’d just kill the kid. Hunt down Case and Bob. I mean, he sends one of his “war children” to hurl a rattle-snake that’s been loaded with speed at Bob. It’s an absurd scene, but it conveys that Cyrus can strike at any moment, in any way he wants.

Instead, they meet him, they give him the money, and he points them on their way. A van full of his “war children” kick Gabi out, and let them go. Only to start hunting them at night fall. Um, again, they could have just killed Case and Bob right there.

But anyways, this hunt sort of turns into a sunburnt Route 66 So-Cal Road Warrior, and this perked my interest. Yet, after it ended, I still wanted to shoot myself in the face.

To use a noir pantheon analogy, “God is a Bullet” is more perverted Ross Macdonald than classy Raymond Chandler.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[xx] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: As I read this script, I got the sense that “God is a Bullet” is the type of novel you read to be blown away by the language, the description and prose-poetry of the thing. So much so that you understand that the author spent most of his energy on the poetry than on the story and plot. A script like “Big Hole” pulls off the Cormac McCarthy prosaic descriptions because it knows when to use it, and when not to. But this script is a good example of cryptic hipster dialogue gone overboard. It attains self-parody. Some lines work, and when they do, it’s pretty cool. But when they don’t, they really fucking don’t.