Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Dark Fields

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A New York novelist gets hold of a rare underground wonder-drug that turns his life upside-down.
About: Starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, this film originally had Shia LaBeouf in the lead role, but that ended when he got in his infamous car wreck and destroyed his hand (which is, if I understand correctly, not a hand anymore, but reconstructed from bone fragments in other parts of his body – no jokes here please). The film will be directed by Neil Burger, who directed the identity-starved “The Lucky Ones,” (still not sure what that movie was about) and the underappreciated Ed Norton flick, “The Illusionist” (one of my favorite films of 2006). This is quite a departure for screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who’s written such movies as “Hairspray,” “Pay It Forward,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” The closest she’s come to writing something like “The Dark Fields,” is the remake of “The Thomas Crowne Affair.” Incidentally, I believe this is the best thing she’s ever written.
Writer: Leslie Dixon (based on the novel by Alan Glynn)
Details: 124 pages (July 12, 2006 draft)

 The Dark Fields gets it right.

All that voice over stuff we were (I was) complaining about the other day? This is how you do it. Get inside a character’s head and give us information we can’t get otherwise, all while pushing the story forward, and present it in a manner whereby it feels like a natural extension of the tone and style.

This script is funky, yet not so funky as to make it inaccessible. It showcases its mean streak, but never becomes cruel, giving it that elusive hard edge that can still be enjoyed by a mainstream audience.

It’s about a guy named Eddie Spinola, a slovenly writer who’d rather eat a box of Twinkies than get any actual writing done (uh hello…who wouldn’t??). And even when he does churn out pages, they’re about as good as a chapter from “Installing Rugs For Dummies.” His editor keeps him around out of habit, his ex-girlfriend is about to become his ex-everything friend, and his paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle is threatening to make the nut vending profession a viable option.

In short, Eddie’s a nobody going nohwere.

But then Eddie has a chance encounter with an ex brother-in-law (he used to be married) who’s got a hot new drug called MDT-48. A recovering cocaine-addict, Eddie’s not keen on downing a mystery pill, but the brother-in-law says this is some once-in-a-lifetime shit. Eddie figures “what the hell” and pops it.

Ten minutes later, everything changes.

MDT is a “genius” drug. That big doughy mess inside your head becomes a finely tuned network of protons and neurons. Everything in the world makes sense and Eddie takes advantage. He races home, effortlessly bangs out 90 pages of his next novel, turns it in the following day, and realizes just how powerful this pill is. His boss doesn’t just think the pages are good. He thinks they're J.D. Fucking Salinger good. He wants to ink a new deal with Eddie. Turn the novel into a series. Now now now. Eddie's entry into the hot commodity market is more instant than pop-tarts.

But Eddie’s already coming down from MDT. He’s already becoming dumber again. He needs more pills. So he goes back to the brother-in-law, only to find a little round hole in his head and a ransacked apartment. The indication is clear. Somebody else was looking for the MDT. The question is, did they find it? Eddie goes searching through all the remaining hiding spots, and in a fit of luck, finds them. 500 pills. Five hundred MDT pills. He pops another one. Snap crackle pop. He's a genius again.

With his newfound intelligence, Eddie says “fuck the publishing world.” He wants money, and lots of it. He visits a day trader, someone who skims 500 bucks a trade off fractional fluctuations in the market, a skill that takes years to learn. Eddie learns in ten minutes. He borrows money from a Russian loan shark and starts trading, turning 20,000 bucks into 1.2 million in six days. He’s hot, and getting hotter.

He manages to get the attention of one of the richest men in town, who’s putting together a multi-billion dollar merger. He wants Eddie’s help, and if Eddie can make it happen, he’ll pay him a 50 million dollar fee. As long as he’s on the MDT, all of this is cake. But then, things start happening. Bad things.

(Spoilerville) Time starts skipping. Eddie finds himself in one place, then a second later in another place halfway across town. In the minutes between MDT highs, he’s getting intense headaches, and his normal state is starting to feel vegetative, incapable of even the most basic functions. MDT is doing something to him. But what? He starts doing research. Learns there are others on MDT. Or were. Most of them are dead now. On MDT, you have a fighting chance. But if you stop taking it? Things start going wrong. To make matters worse, whoever raided his brother-in-law’s apartment has found him, and they’re chasing him. And Eddie’s running out of pills. What does he do?

The Dark Fields is a super-intense ride that gets all of the thriller elements right. And most importantly, it has a great main character. I’m not surprised at all that one of the hottest actors in town, who pretty much has the pick of the litter, chose to play this part. Eddie’s multi-layered (he goes from zero to hero), he’s flawed (he’s only smart because he cheats) and he’s fun (he spouts out voice over detailing the inner workings of his ongoing genius). In fact, in many ways, this feels like an adult super hero film – his super-power being that he becomes super smart. This is a great script to study when trying to determine what type of character attracts an A-list actor.

It’s also a great example of how to approach the end of your second act/beginning of your third. Everything that can go wrong for your character, should go wrong, problems and issues and obstacles piling up on top of each other, making it impossible (or seemingly impossible) for your hero to achieve his goal. And Dark Fields hits Eddie hard (running out of pills, gotta close the merger, chased by the Russian, chased by pill manufacturers). The deeper a hole our character is in, the more captivated we become as we wonder how he’s going to get out.

My only knock on the script is that it feels too much like one of my favorite scripts, “Passengers.” That script is famous for being written in the first person (which is why it hasn’t been made) and this script almost feels like someone realized if they tweaked that story and told it in the third person, that it could be a great movie. Therefore it wasn’t original enough to me personally to give it that breakaway recommendation. But it's still great. Oh, and one other minor thing is that I didn't dig the mini-twist ending. Kinda hard to buy. But it wasn't a big enough part of the movie to matter.

What matters is that this is a damn good script. So what are you waiting for?

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

What I learned: For every “power” or “advantage” you give your protagonist, there must be consequences to that power. It’s not interesting otherwise. Once consequences enter the equation, your protagonist is forced to make a choice, and it’s when our heroes are faced with difficult choices that they become the most interesting. i.e. Take the pill to become smarter to escape the bad guy, but increase the chances that you'll turn into a vegetable. We love guessing and wondering and hoping what our protag will do. To really take advantage of this tool, as the story progresses, keep making those consequences worse so that your hero’s choices become more and more difficult.