Monday, May 23, 2011

A Walk Among The Tombstones

Genre: Crime/Drama/Noir
Premise: A retired detective is hired by a drug dealer to find the men who brutally murdered his wife.
About: The other day, I reviewed a new (old) script that made it on to my Top 25, After Hailey, by Scott Frank. Afterwards, I sought out more Scott Frank scripts hoping to strike gold again. This is an old screenplay by Frank that was originally supposed to star Harrison Ford. It was a critical moment in Ford’s career, if I remember correctly. He’d been making a series of blasé films and people were starting to question if he’d ever challenge himself again. This script was supposed to be him challenging himself. But alas, he pulled out at the last minute and the project died.  Frank, however, holds a deep passion for the script and believes it will still get made. --- Frank talks about what to do when you get stuck in your script in this interview: “If I get stuck it means I haven’t done my homework on the characters. I don’t know enough about the people in my story to write about them. So I'm just trying to make things up. If I’ve created real people, they start to develop a life of their own and take over the story from me at some point. What is inconsistent or dishonest to the people I’ve created sticks out. I also read a lot books that inspire me more than movies. If I’m stuck, I’ll force myself to stop—which is hard for me—and pick up a book. Something that inspires or relaxes me. Something that makes me want to write and that gets the juices flowing. Something that’s fun when you write, it's about play so you should have a good time now and then even though it's so damn hard.”
Writer: Scott Frank (based on the novel by Lawrence Block)
Details: 131 pages (revised 3/7/04) (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

When you bust out a script called “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” you’re not exactly expecting a quick read. You know it’s going to require a lot of concentration, a lot of thought, and a big time commitment. I’m not usually willing to take that risk unless I’ve heard a script’s amazing ahead of time, because most of these dark dramas can be found at the intersection of Depressing and Slow. But after After Hailey was so awesome, and with my Scott Frank love growing, I had high expectations for Tombstones.

So did it deliver?

Matt Scudder is a former cop who was forced out of law enforcement because of a screw-up stemming from a nasty drinking problem. These days, the haunted Scudder just tries to make it to the end of the week. He doesn’t do shit to the world and he doesn’t expect the world to do shit to him.

But that changes when a drug dealer named Kenny Kristo approaches him about the murder of his wife. Some nasty dudes not only kidnapped her and took 400 thousand dollars from him, but they didn’t deliver on their promise. Instead of returning his wife, they killed her, cutting her up into little pieces. Well, I guess technically they did give her back, just not all together.

Kenny wants to find these men and do to them what they did to his wife, so he contacts Scudder. Scudder refuses at first, but then Kenny plays the tape of the men raping his wife which they sent, and Scudder is in.

As he starts his investigation, he runs into an African-American teenager named TJ who always seems to be sick, always seems to be causing trouble, and is, overall, just a weird little dude (he keeps a backpack full of fresh vegetables with him at all times). Although I’m not sure how common it is to keep randomly bumping into the same person in a giant city over and over again, wherever Scudder goes, TJ’s not far behind, and soon the two develop a friendship.

In the meantime, Scudder is getting closer to our dynamic duo of killers (which consists of a very tall man and a very round man). When they target yet another drug dealer, Yuri (snagging his daughter), who’s an acquaintance of Kenny’s, Scudder realizes that this will be his only opportunity to take these guys down. He becomes point man on the operation, installing his own reckless brand of negotiating. When it’s all said and done, the big showdown happens in a cemetery, and either our killers or Scudder are going to go down.

Okay, I’m hoping that a lot of these problems are because this isn’t the final draft, but man, I’m not sure all these issues can be rectified. There are just so many things fundamentally wrong with this screenplay. I’m really disappointed. Hailey was so good. Tombstones, unfortunately, is a mess.

Let’s start at the top. As I’ve stated before with these kinds of stories, there needs to be some sort of personal connection to the case for the protagonist. So in Chinatown, Gittes falls in love with Evelyn Mulwray, making it more than just an in-and-out investigation. Or even in the more bubble-gum pop world of Taken, the protagonist is looking for his own daughter. If you don’t have that, there should at least be a logical motivation for your main character to get involved, particularly in something as dangerous as this. Here in Tombstones, I can’t make out a single definable reason why Scudder takes the case. He’s not doing it out of a sense of duty since he’s no longer a cop. He doesn’t need any money. He doesn’t know Kenny so he’s not doing it as a friend. He didn’t know the woman who was murdered, so there’s no connection there. The thing that gets him to sign on the dotted line is listening to the wife get raped, which kind of works but it’s not like something happened in Scudder’s past that makes him want to avenge all rapes. He signs on…well, so that we have a movie. And that was my biggest problem with Tombstones. There was no reason for our protagonist to get involved.

But if not knowing one client wasn’t bad enough, the final act actually goes one step further and introduces us to A NEW client, Yuri, whose story we’re even less invested in. Who the hell is Yuri? Why the hell do we care about Random Drug Dealer #2’s daughter? At least I experienced Kenny’s pain when he found out about his wife’s death so I could sympathize with him. I have no idea who Yuri is at all.

The next thing was TJ. Boy, this character was just a huge miscalculation. He felt like a “written” character from the get go: He illogically runs into our protagonist whenever he's in the city, he carries vegetables in his backpack, he tells you what’s on his mind whether you like it or not, he’s got sickle-cell anemia (which doesn’t have anything to do with the story if you were wondering). He was just a manufactured fake person from his very first line. And to top it all off, he had nothing to do with the story. If you took him out of the script, it wouldn’t affect the plot one iota, which is why every time he showed up you said, “Why are we wasting our time on this guy? He doesn't have anything to do with this story!"

The details here are also choppier here than a flight over the Rocky Mountains. For example (spoiler), late in the movie, Scudder finds out while questioning one of the main bad guys that, shockingly, Kenny’s wife was a cop. I admit I’ve never investigated anything in my life. But wouldn’t one of the first things you did in your investigation be a background check on the person murdered? One internet search would’ve probably told you that the wife was a cop. --- Also, our serial killers? The bad guys? One of them is seven feet tall. I’m sorry but you will never ever find a 7 foot tall serial killer. You don’t sneak around successfully pulling off murders if you’re seven feet tall. No matter where you go or what you do, every single person in the area is going to remember you. Serial killers are people who can blend in with the rest of the world. I'd be willing to bet that you could not find a single serial killer in history who was over 6 foot 2.  I don’t’ know. It was stuff like this that really bothered me.

About the only thing I liked in this script was the ending. Despite not caring about Yuri or his daughter, I have to admit that the trade-off in the cemetery was packed with tension and very well-written. I wanted to see the bad guys go down, particularly the “round” guy. But overall, this was a frustrating read for me. The goal here (find the bad guys) is ten times more clear than the goal in After Hailey, and yet the story has 1/10 the impact of that perfectly constructed script. It just goes to show that in the end, it’s about the characters and the relationships you create between them. If you have a character who doesn’t have any emotional connection to anything related to the case, you’re dead in the water, cause no one’s going to care whether he succeeds or not.

I admit that a lot of my frustration here comes from my high expectations, but man, this could’ve been so much better.

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

What I learned: A bit of a spoiler here. But it’s something I feel strongly about. Please. Never. Ever. Ever. Include a backstory where your cop accidentally shoots a kid. The moment we find out that Scudder’s career ended because he accidentally shot a kid when he was drunk is the end of the screenplay for me. It’s so melodramatic, so clichéd, so ‘been done before’ that it kills the character and by association the story.