Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Isolate Thief

Genre: Period
Premise: In the dead of winter in the middle of the U.S. Civil War, a young man tries to hide the gold he stole from rogue soldiers who have taken over his remote house.
About: With 13 votes, The Isolate Thief was one of the top 2009 Black List scripts. Lefler has no previous credits or sales and has worked as an editor for the past five years.
Status of this draft: Unknown
Status of project: Development
Writer: Kevin Lefler
Details: 100 pages (undated)


What does it mean? To know that something inescapable is charging towards you. That no matter what you do, you will not be able to avoid it. We do such amazing jobs at eluding the things that scare us, that put fear in us, that when something comes along that we can’t evade, it’s one of the most helpless feelings in the world. The Isolate Thief is about dread.

It’s the Civil War era. Edmund Horn is a thoughtful but beaten down 21 year old who maintains an outpost in the middle of nowhere. It’s the kind of place you can live years in and never see another soul. Edmund’s parents used to live here too. But both of them have died, buried in the backyard. This place is too full of memories now, and Edmund plans to leave it once and for all, heading to San Francisco so he can watch the ships from the Far East dock in the bay.

Unfortunately a toothless gravedigger nicknamed Burial Perry comes snooping around, looking for some clothes and food to get him to the next outpost. This man’s a denigrate, the kind of guy you wouldn’t trust to hold a deck of cards. He ties Edmund up so he can take what he pleases. But when he sees that Edmund isn’t a threat, he becomes harmless, just another straggler looking to survive. What isn’t harmless, however, is the gang of murderers disguised as Union soldiers he has following him. It turns out Perry knows the whereabouts of some hidden treasure, and the terrifying Fiddler John Good will do anything to get it.

When Fiddler's gang does catch up to Perry and he doesn’t divulge where the gold be, he’s eliminated from life, and it seems like the conflict is over. Fiddler asks Edmund if they can use his house for a few days while they get ready for the next leg of their journey. Edmund obliges, and a seemingly cordial dance begins whereby Edmund plays host to these men as they prepare to move on. But as each day goes by, it becomes clear that Fiddler doesn’t really need anything else here, and that provokes Edmund to wonder what it is Fiddler wants from him.

What Fiddler’s not telling Edmund, is that he thinks he has the gold. And not unlike his title, he’s playing Edmund to get him to disclose some clues about where the treasure is hidden. The problem is, Fiddler’s not 100% sure Edmund has the gold. And for that matter, neither are we. These multiple mysteries have us doing our own investigation as we desperately try to figure out the truth before it's told to us. It eventually becomes clear, that whether Fiddler finds the gold or not, he’s killing Edmund, and that adds a whole 'nother layer of complexity to the story.

This aspect is what makes The Isolate Thief so good. We feel the dread that Edmund feels, as he begins to realize that these man plan to murder him. At the same time, he must keep up appearences that he doesn’t suspect anything, since the longer they don’t know he’s onto him, the longer he’ll stay alive. It’s like being in the back of a roller coaster as you’re going up the first hill. You hear the “click click click” “click click click” as you go up higher and higher, until you’re wondering how much higher it can possibly go, since you’re already all the way up – then out of nowhere, you’re THRUST over the edge. We never know when we’re going over that edge with Fiddler, and it scares the crap out of us.

The only problem with this kind of story is that it breeds passive protagonists. And Edmund is indeed passive. But whether that actually affects the enjoyment of the screenplay is up for debate. Most readers will spot a passive protagonist and blindly scream, “Bad! Passive protagonist equals bad! Change now!” But there are a few types of stories where it works and I’m thinking this could be one of them. I was so concerned whether Edmund was going to make it out alive or not I just wasn’t thinking about his passiveness. But for better or worse, the studio system likes characters who take charge at some point. And I’m sure they’ll make that argument here.

For a script that starts nice and slow, this ends with a bang. Really liked it.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is another great example of how to use subtext -- maybe the best example I’ve seen all year. Nearly every conversation in The Isolate Thief is about something seemingly mundane, yet carries a deeper meaning underneath. There’s this great scene late in the script where Fiddler is innocently explaining to Edmund how to use a gun, yet you know that what he’s actually saying is that he’s going to kill Edmund at some point. There are tons of scenes like this here, all very well crafted.