Monday, July 5, 2010

The Wettest County

July 4th weekend is over. Well, sorta. Only America can figure out a way to make July 5th the official July 4th holiday, so I guess the holiday weekend will be over tomorrow. In the meantime, here's Roger, who I hear had a wonderful weekend experience. I tried to get details but details were in short supply. I thought I heard something about multiple women but you'll have to ask him at the end of his review for The Wettest County.

Genre: Period Crime Drama
Premise: The story of a moonshine gang operating in the bootlegging capital of America –- Franklin County, West Virginia –- during Prohibition.
About: The latest collaboration between The Proposition creators, Nick Cave and director, John Hillcoat (The Road). “The Wettest County” has recently been re-titled to “The Promised Land”, and Ryan Gosling, Shia LaBeouf and Amy Adams are attached to star. For those of you that don’t listen to good music, Nick Cave is the frontman for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (also The Birthday Party) and a pretty darn good novelist to boot (And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro).
Writers: Nick Cave, based on the book by Matt Bondurant

I don’t know if I’m the best person to review a screenplay written by Nick Cave. I have a signed copy of The Death of Bunny Munro (a gift from Professor Stark), I love The Proposition and my idea of romance is the murder ballad Henry Lee performed by Cave and his duet partner, Polly Jean Harvey. I even gleefully enjoy his Michael Moorcock Eternal Champion rendition of Maximus in his quizzical (and rejected) Gladiator sequel script. So I suppose this makes me a Nick Cave apologist in the film world, but I’ll fight the urge to be blindly generous in this review of his adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World.

So this is the tale of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers?

Yep. Franklin County, West Virginia is pretty much the capital of illegal liquor distribution in the crime wave-laden Prohibition era, and the brothers Bondurant are the criminals painted as heroes in this deliciously violent crime drama.

In an opening sequence I love, we meet Jack, Howard and Forrest in a pig enclosure when they are children. Jack is the youngest of the trio, and he is about to kill for the first time. Forrest, the eldest, and Howard, the brute middle-child, already seem well-versed in the realm of delivering death, and they expectantly watch their brother walk up to a sow and shoot it in the eye. But, pigs can be hard to kill, and after shooting it again point-blank, Jack cries in frustration when it doesn’t die. But his brothers are there to slit its throat and we learn the difference between Jack and them, “Blood and violence? My brothers had a talent for it. A gift. They were susceptible to its needs. Me, well, I guess my talents lay elsewhere.”

We span several years, the Spanish Lady Flu and a World War, and after the boys survive all this, people in Franklin County whisper that these boys are immune to death. Immortal. The flu almost took Forrest, and in what of the most original character details I’ve ever seen in a screenplay, we learn that it’s left him “haunted and bent crooked and in certain lights his skin looked strange and blue.” Howard returned from war a changed man, and he now deals with the horrors he saw with drink and a bit of the old ultraviolence.

Jack is still the baby of the bunch, making rotskull with his friend Cricket (a boy deformed by rickets), a whiskey brew possibly concocted out of swampwater and tadpoles while his brothers Forrest and Howard supply a radical corn whiskey dubbed White Lightning to all the thirsty folk in Franklin County.

Forrest runs The Blackwater Station diner on the county-line, and he uses the locale to sell White Lightning (drinking it distorts sound, and the imbibers just about go deaf to the resulting sensation of sheet metal being ripped in two) to travelers passing in and out of the way-station. Howard acts as both delivery man and enforcer, even welcomed at the Sheriff’s Office.

Jack is enchanted with the lifestyle of city gangsters like Floyd Banner, stylishly dressed men brimming with ambition and a get-shit-done attitude. While Forrest is content to run his business quietly, not so much concerned with expansion but with self-preservation, Jack is stricken with a vision that will turn Forrest and Howard’s bootlegging operation into an empire. The only problem is that Jack is not a man of violence, and his brothers want to protect him. Their way of protecting him is not letting him into the family business.

The Bondurants then become something of legend when Forrest survives an attack by two city gangsters, apparently walking twelve miles in the snow with a horribly gashed throat to the local hospital. These guys entered his place of business and threatened his lady friend, Maggie, with violence. It’s a bit of a mystery to how he survives the ordeal (which plays out wonderfully in the third act), but it’s the catalyst for a tender love story that is a nice parallel to all the bloodshed in the main story.

Of course, all this attention makes them the target for Carter Lee, the Commonwealth’s new corrupt attorney who wants to manage all the bootleggers and provide them safe passage in return for a fee.

Lemme guess. Forrest isn’t interested in this business partnership?

Not at all.

Things get interesting when Carter Lee’s right hand man, Charley Rakes, a jackal-like evil Deputy, arrives in Franklin County to challenge the Bondurant brothers and their legendary hard-boiled status. Not only does Rakes threaten Maggie, he decides to go after the weak link in the chain.

He goes after Jack first.

What’s interesting is that our protagonists are anti-heroes, and not necessarily likeable ones at that. But when an evil fucker like Rakes arrives on the scene, we instantly choose a side, and it ain’t with Rakes. How bad is this guy? Well, it’s easy to hate a man who tortures a boy with rickets. And it’s easy to hate a man who does what he does to Jack.

Jack’s newly mangled face sends a clear message to Forrest and Howard.

They’re next.

So, it then becomes a battle of wills between the Carter Lee, the evil Deputy Rakes, and the Bondurant brothers. While all the other bootleggers are integrating themselves into this new system, the Bondurants make a stand to challenge this system.

And this is when they allow Jack to become a blockader, which is pretty much a runner between county-lines of their liquor supply. This makes him vulnerable to bandits, corrupt cops and city gangsters like Floyd Banner and his syndicate, The Midnight Coal Company.

How does it end?

Well, accordingly, it’s pretty much a slow build-up to bloodshed between the lawmen of Franklin County and the Bondurant brothers. I’m not sure what the point is, other than that it’s taking a stubborn stand for your own volition.

However, the script seems to be more of a character study than a caper, so it has a relaxed pace. There are lots of scenes that are not immediate to the plot, but more to the atmosphere and tone of the story. I particularly enjoyed Jack’s courting of the local Mennonite preacher’s daughter, Bertha Minnix, and the scenes involving Cricket and his harebrained bootlegging schemes.

Out of curiosity, I want to see how “The Wettest County” measures up to Carson’s 13 Qualities of a Great Script:

1)AN ORIGINAL AND EXCITING CONCEPT – To be honest, I wasn’t so much as interested in the logline as I was in the fact that Nick Cave was attached as a writer. Bootleggers? I don’t know if it’s across-the-board exciting, but in the historical context of Prohibition (resulting in the greatest crime wave in American history) it’s definitely interesting. Especially when you learn that the setting, Franklin County, manufactured more illegal liquor than anywhere else in the United States. Factor in that the Bondurant brothers were the characters at the center of this conflict, and then, yeah, it seems pretty exciting.

2)A MAIN CHARACTER WHO WANTS SOMETHING (AKA “A GOAL”) – The Bondurants are all interested in money. But how much and what they’ll do to achieve it is the center of the conflict. Jack wants a lot of money, and more importantly, he wants a rich lifestyle; Forrest just wants to run a business. Howard is the man stuck in the middle.

3)A MAIN CHARACTER WE WANT TO ROOT FOR – Frankly, Jack’s greed overpowered his need to be accepted by his brothers, and I found him thin. However, I respected and rooted for his older brother, Forrest, because he was a man of principle and honor. An eerie blue man who verily survived a beheading and can fight with iron knuckles but is shy around women? I’m rooting for him, and I only root for Jack because he’s related to this man.

4)GET TO YOUR STORY QUICKLY – On page 12 we learn that Jack wants in on Forrest and Howard’s business. Okay, that’s the main story. If you want more conflict, between pages 32 and 40 we learn that Carter Lee wants to control the flow of the Bondurant’s business, and we are introduced to the villain, Charley Rakes.

5)STAY UNDER 110 PAGES – Nope. This is 133 pages. For a screenplay, it’s very prosaic. Kiss of death if the screenwriter isn’t gifted of language, but Cave is, so it’s a rich, even a sensual read.

6)CONFLICT – A young brother trying to break into the family business when the elder brother is trying to keep him out. Greed versus contentment. Bootleggers versus corrupt law men who want a cut of their business. And of course, the conflict always seems about money when for the men involved, it’s always about something else: Principle versus precedent. Lots of conflict.

7)OBSTACLES – Forrest is an obstacle to Jack. Jack is an obstacle to Forrest. Rakes and Carter Lee are obstacles to the Bondurant brothers. The Mennonite preacher is an obstacle to Jack and his desire to court his daughter. And, the nature of the Bondurant business is illegal so they have to go out of their way to protect themselves.

8)SURPRISE – There’s lots of foreshadowing in this thing, so I would say I wasn’t surprised a ton. However, I couldn’t predict the resolution and the most tension-laden and surprising sequence for me was Jack and Cricket’s first blockading run.

9)TICKING TIME BOMB – We don’t really get a concrete ticking clock until page 79, when the brothers decide they have to move their supply across the county line or Rakes is going to destroy it all. As a result, this thing has a pretty leisurely place. The focus isn’t so much on the demands of the plot, but the character moments. This is either the script’s strength or weakness.

10)STAKES – Everyone’s life is on the line. What starts out as about money becomes something else for Forrest and Rakes. But I get the sense that this isn’t the case with Jack, almost like he peaks with ambition and greed, and it doesn’t go any deeper with him. I was a bit puzzled by why these guys were so obsessed and dogged about bootlegging.

11)HEART – Forrest is the only guy that seems interested in something other than money. Sure, Jack courts Bertha Minnix, but he seems primarily interested in showing off his money to her.

12)A GREAT ENDING – There’s a sentimental and poignant ending, but it doesn’t feel like it’s completely earned. Forrest and Maggie’s story is the most moving, and it seems like something out of a murder ballad.

13)THE X-FACTOR – The Nick Cave factor. The original material of Matt Bondurant’s novel seems perfectly coupled with Cave’s unique voice for the bizarre, the Biblical, the violent, the lovesick and the mad. His gift of mythic and lyrical storytelling shines in this screenplay.

“The Wettest County” is an odd script. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you’re a fan of Cave and Southern Gothic literature. An initial impression tells me it eschews many of the rules and beats you’ll find in most specs. The protagonists aren’t particularly “likeable” or “sympathetic”. Instead they are intriguing and enigmatic. Even if I don’t always like them, I still want to know their story. A page turner that moves at a leisurely meditative pace, promising a cinematic translation of the prosaic imagery and violence found in a Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy novel.

If I had to compare the idea of this script and its vision as a finished film by John Hillcoat to another movie, I would point to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I can imagine a film that will seem inscrutable to some, but a sublime experience to others.

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

What I learned: Omens. A sign in the natural world signifying the advent of change. Their mere existence in a story suggests that maybe something supernatural or beyond a character’s control is at work. As a narrative device, an omen’s purpose is to create foreshadowing, tension and dread. As a foreshadowing tool, they can also be used to subvert and control reader expectation, or bait and switch an audience. Screenwriters don’t seem to use them as much as a novelist or playwright, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work in a screenplay. “The Wettest County” (and Karl Gajdusek’s “Pandora”) doesn’t shy away from omens. Two are so startling and weird I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the imagery from my head. One is of Jack and Howard trying to remove a dead calf from a suffering cow. They have to saw the legs off the calf in order to remove the corpse, and eventually the cow dies and we discover that this dead calf has six fucking legs. It’s grotesque, and it all takes place during a conversation about the villain, Charley Rakes. The other omen is a dog that has frozen to death, standing up, outside of its pen because the other dogs didn’t let it inside the kennel. When Jack describes its death, he might as well be describing himself and his brothers, “Those dogs didn’t know better. It’s just plain bad luck.”