Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Premise: The residents of a small Texas town are shocked when 7 local residents are killed in a bank robbery gone wrong. Although the culprits are immediately captured, they are kidnapped from the local jail and held for ransom –- the town now has to buy back their killers –- and this is when things really start to go awry.
About: "Pandora" was on the 2007 Black List with 2 votes (Seriously, guys, that's all? Seriously?) Gajdusek was the Story Editor for the awesome Dead Like Me and wrote Trespass, which Joel Schumacher is directing with Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman attached to star. A seasoned playwright, he's also a member of New York's New Dramatists.
Writer: Karl Gajdusek
Why the fuck is this not a movie?
Seriously. Is there someone to blame for this? Because it seems like a tragedy to me that this doesn't have a home. If I'm wrong, and it does, then good. But, why is taking so long?
We all needed to see this like yesterday.
There's a moral sophistication to this script that burrowed into my conscience. A multi-thread character study that doesn't so much unfold, but ratchets tighter and tighter until the narrative cracks apart, laying bare a town and its people as they individually wrestle with their sense of justice, vengeance and destiny. Lives fall apart, minds shatter, and even villains become heroes in this exploration of right and wrong, of good and evil. About halfway through, I had to put it down, just emotionally exhausted, and go find information about the writer.
I wasn't surprised to find out that Karl Gajdusek is a seasoned playwright (my favorite of which is We Animals Are, available on his website), because the character work here is exceptional. Often I go through screenplays just hoping that at least one character not only reads and feels three-dimensional, but is also rendered with truth and depth. This script just doesn't have one. It has like seven or eight.
And we visit them at a time when life seems so tense, so urgent, so important, it's like they know someone is about to judge them for what they did with their lives here on earth.
How does it all start?
Like evil always starts.
It's a quiet morning in Pandora, Texas. No one's paid much attention to the blue Ford Taurus that arrived in town the night before, much less when it pulls up to the Woodland's Trust Bank.
Not the Sheriff, Don Reese, nor his young Deputy, a former highschool football star, Jim Rice.
Nor ex-Marine, now general store owner, Harry Bell, nor his wife, Janet, who might also be having an affair with the Sheriff.
Nor the young widowed woman, Sarah Isles, who makes her living tending the derricks that suck crude out of the earth, who is having breakfast at Pandora Drug with the local wealthy businessman, George Hearst.
The re-united Claytons, a family of four who are reunited when their son arrives home from college, have no idea they're walking to their deaths when they enter the Woodlands Trust Bank.
Julie Clayton is the only person that survives the massacre inside the bank at the hands of Stockden and Edwards.
Stockden has been around the block, he's seen bad things. There's a "genocidal wisdom" about him. His partner, Edwards, is "young and empty". They reminded me of the two killers at the beginning of A History of Violence, and the stories have their own blood-red similarities.
We don't see much of the murders inside the bank, we get bits and pieces of via Julie's flashbacks throughout the story, but we are witness to the firefight that erupts between the Sheriff, the Deputy and Bell as they capture Edwards and Stockden during their getaway.
It's not without casualties.
The Deputy perishes, and we discover that everyone inside the bank has been murdered in cold blood (a concept we begin to question the deeper into the story we get.)
Stockden and Edwards are held in the cells at the Sheriff's office, and the town is cast into despair as they process the tragedy that has rocked their world.
Of course, the tragedy makes the news and that's when a thief at the end of his rope puts together a plan.
Who's the thief?
Jonas Jeremy Chance. I like the way he's described. In fact, I like a lot of the descriptions in this thing. "Broken every promise he's ever made...A big man to be feared when he's angry, a leader in his day."
You get the sense he needs last chance money, starting over money.
When we meet him, a safe-cracker whiz is telling him that his latest caper ain't gonna fly. Technology's gotten too good for his old-fashioned crew of snatch-and-grab con artists. Jonas doesn't like being told 'No' much, but what sends him into the red is when he finds out his sister, Debbie, has slept with this smart-aleck douchebag.
He beats him bloody.
See, Debbie is part of his crew. She's "foul-mouthed and fun". We understand much about their brother-sister relationship when she explains to Jonas, "When I drink, I get fun. When you drink, you let us down."
Her boyfriend is Cutts, "half Okie redneck, half rockstar." He loves taking other people's money. The last crew member is Oakley, a bear of a man who's seen it all.
They depend on Jonas as he's the brains of the group, and it's possible he's about to disappoint them again when he comes back with the whiz-kid's bad news.
That's when he sees the newscast on the bank robbery in Pandora, Texas. He sees footage of the townspeople staring at the jail. A bartender, also watching the footage, says, "I don't know what. But I tell you one thing. Those people...Not a one of them's gonna sleep until those boys is hanged."
And that's when Jonas gets the idea to break into the Sheriff's jail, kidnap Stockden and Edwards, and hold them for ransom. How does he know they'll pay?
Why, if they don't, he'll just let the murderers go free.
Do Jonas and his crew pull it off?
They even shame the FBI in the process.
But see, things get really complicated when we discover that Edwards and Stockden may be more than just murderers, more than just bank robbers. Jonas starts to question the identity of both men when he steals the case file on the murders and sees what kind of carnage these men are capable of first-hand.
The more he questions them, the more we realize that these men might be pure evil. It's chilling. It's disturbing.
But what's worse is, like all the other characters here, we begin to question if the townspeople of Pandora are really good ("Suffering doesn't make people good. It just makes 'em suffer.") men and women.
Specifically, the Claytons.
The Claytons are possibly harboring a secret, a dirty secret that reminded me a bit of the nastiness in Ursula K. Le Guin's short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which is about a utopia and the source of its success.
I not only love the way this tale explodes with violence, but I love the detail and care administered to every single character. From Julie wrestling with survivor's guilt, to Sarah Isles rising up as a heroine, to Jonas' redemption, I was just blown away by the "character arcs" in this thing.
It feels primal and raw.
It feels true
I don't know if I would categorize this as crime noir, maybe transcendent noir, but there's no denying it has a Texas-saturated Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop 1280) vibe. Sans derangement (but there is that), perhaps, but it's disturbing nonetheless. It's scary.
It has sublime pathos.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: It's funny. Hand an ensemble piece to a reader, and they're so brainwashed by the standard "one protagonist formula" they won't know what to do. Usually they'll suggest it needs to be written to the formula they know so well, because they have trouble processing the break from "Da Rules". It's a mentality I don't understand, as I enjoy a good ensemble piece. I enjoyed the emotional depths of "Pandora" so much I didn't care this wasn't about one character and their journey. This is about a whole town and the antagonists pulled into its orbit. The town of Pandora, Texas is a character unto itself, and because all the individuals that make up the collective are so intriguing, so flawed, so human, I was absorbed into the emotional tapestry woven by everyone's actions and reactions to the moral dilemma that challenged them. Everyone has an internal conflict that has a definite beginning, middle and end. This means, just like in real life, everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own stuff they're wrestling with, and it always takes courage to face it and overcome it. That's how a villain can become a hero. That's how a man or woman can redeem themselves.
So, how do you generate external conflict in a story that's about a collective of characters instead of just one protagonist? And how do you make it moving? Well, like I talked about above, you need characters that feel like real people that are flawed like real people. But the way "Pandora" does it is that outside forces, antagonists to the collective, invade the town for different reasons. Stockden and Edwards arrive, perhaps under the guise of a bank robbery, and their presence results in the death of seven townspeople. This forcefully pushes the collective into two kinds of conflict. Internal conflict: With themselves, surely, but also against the two robbers. External conflict: How do they push back against the two men that committed violence against them? Then another group arrives to kidnap these men and hold them for ransom, complicating the situation and presenting the collective with a moral dilemma. The moral dilemma cranks up the internal and external conflict for the collective until some kind of resolution, individually and collectively, is reached. So, character is still the engine that drives the story, but instead of one or two people, it's a group or groups of people driving the story, an ensemble.
Stark and I were talking about Carson's 13 Points on How to Write a Great Script, and it's like Stark says, "If you're going to break the rules, first you gotta know the rules. And then, your script has to actually be good." So yeah, there's that, too. And it's pretty apparent from reading "Pandora", that Gajdusek knows the rules.