Monday, June 4, 2012

Screenplay Review - Child 44

Genre: Spy/Thriller/Drama
Premise: In the Soviet Union, post World War 2, a Soviet agent suspects a man of killing and mutilating dozens of children.   
About: This script is based on the book of the same name.  This 2008 draft (which made the Black List) was written by Richard Price, who wrote many episodes of The Wire.  The part-time novelist also wrote the films, Ransom, Sea of Love, and The Color Of Money. 
Writers: Richard Price (based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith)
Details: 136 pages

I’ve been hearing about Child 44 forever.  Writers have told me they love the book. Writers have told me they love the script.  Writers have told me they love love LOVE this story. 

But I’m not going to lie.  Spies?  Russia?  The 1940s?  I’d rather ingest copious amounts of bath salts on top of the John Hancock building.  And by the way, these drug dealers are getting lazy. Can’t you come up with a better drug name than “bath salts.”  That sounds like something your grandma rubs on herself every day at 2:30pm.

Where were we?  Oh, yeah, the Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s.  This is where we meet a bunch of kids chilling out in the middle of a forest.  These kids are known as the alphas (the older ones) and the betas (the younger ones).  I guess back then, food was scarce in Russia, so these abandoned children were left to scour the forest for happy meals.  The Alphas made the Betas do all the hunting.  And when they didn’t come back with goodies, they tortured them by making them squeeze sponged water all over themselves.  Not sure how this was considered torture but it might have been an early precursor to waterboarding.  

600 unimportant character names later and it’s 1951.  Our hero, Leo Demidov, is 28 years old and lives with his super-hot wife, Raisa, who doesn’t like him.  Leo’s kind of arrogant though and not privy to her feelings.  He assumes she’s having the time of her life.  I mean, who doesn’t love Leo?

Leo works for something called the ‘MGB,’ which I’m guessing is an early version of the KGB.  He snuffs out people who are sympathetic to the opposition and makes them disappear.  BY KILLING THEM.  Leo doesn’t exactly love the henchman lifestyle, but hey, Soviets got bills too yo.

But then Leo gets a shocking assignment.  He’s told to survey someone the government is certain is a spy.  HIS WIFE.  Duh duh DUHHHH! Yup, turns out Grumpy Raisa is hanging around some shady Westerners, reading books that talk about freedom n’ shit.

So Leo starts looking into his wife, a wife he realizes he’s never known, and when pressure comes down from the big guys to take her out, he decides to stick with her instead.  The MGB doesn’t take kindly to this and banishes he and his wife to another town or something. 

It’s there where Leo comes across a dead mutilated child in the woods.  This isn’t the first time he’s run into a dead mutilated child actually.  He saw another one back at his old town.  Since both bodies were found by the train tracks, though, the assumption is that they met their fate via the front of a choo-choo train.  But Leo suspects there’s a lot more going on here.

So Leo starts looking into their deaths and eventually learns that dozens of dead children have been found near train tracks over the last few years, all of which have gone down as accidents of some sort.  Leo realizes that there’s a serial killer on the loose.  So he goes to his bigshot employees and tells them he wants to look into this, but nobody wants to deal with a child serial killer in the government.  There are way bigger fish to fry.

So Leo divides his time between reconnecting (or connecting period) with his wife and investigating these child murders.  It’s a tough road for our hero since no one wants him to do either, including his wife.  Then again, if it were easy, we wouldn’t have a movie now, would we?  

The short and skinny about Child 44?  I didn’t like it.  Not so much because of the writing.  The writing was solid.  I mean, we have conflict coming at as from almost every direction here (conflict coming from the party, from his wife, from his division re: investigating the murders) but my main problem with it was that Child 44 felt like two totally different movies.

You have two hooks here.  You have an MGB agent who learns that his wife may be a traitor. That’s its own movie.  Then you have a child serial killer in 1950s Soviet Union.  That’s its own movie. 

By combining these two, the script doesn’t know what it is.  But more importantly, one of these storylines undercuts the other.  There is so much emphasis put on whether Raisa is a traitor, that the serial killer storyline feels like an afterthought.  I’m serious.  It honestly feels like something to fill up time.  I don’t think you can have a major serial killer plot in your movie and have it be the second most important thing your hero deals with. 

On top of that, this script takes FOREVER to get going.  I guess the whole “Alpha and Beta” flashback opening was unique, but I kept asking myself, “Did we really need to burn 10 pages on that?”  It is sort of paid off in the end, but I don’t know.  I fell asleep 3 times during the opening act.  That’s not a good sign.

I’m trying to figure out why people like this script so much and I guess it comes down to a few things.  First, it’s very specific.  This isn’t like tomorrow’s script where everything feels made up on the spot.  There’s a texture and a richness to this universe that’s all very…explored.  And to some, those dual plotlines complement each other, creating a challenging non-traditional storyline. 

But to me they…don’t.  And a few other things didn’t work for me either.  First of all, I hated Raisa.  She was so bitter and boring.  I mean, you hated Carolyn from American Beauty, but at least she had personality.  At least she was funny.  Raisa is just…super boring.  Why am I rooting for a guy to reconnect with some bitch who hasn’t smiled in 10 years? 

And as far as the murder investigation went, there was something very “low-stakes” about it.  At first the implication was that the government was covering these killings up.  That had me intrigued.  “Why?” I wanted to know.  Then we learn that there’s no cover-up at all.  The government just doesn’t want to waste resources on child killings.  Hmmm, I guess I’ve been conditioned through Hollywood filmmaking to want more there but, even if I hadn’t, I’D STILL WANT MORE THERE.

And motivation-wise, there was something missing.  Why did Leo want to solve these child murders so much?  I suppose wanting justice for murdered children SHOULD be enough, but from a movie motivation point-of-view, I didn’t understand why Leo was the ONLY person who cared about it.  What was it in him that wanted to solve all these murders whereas everyone else could care less?  Why why why?  I wanted to know why and the explanation I got was a guy sort of doing his job. 

I also wanted to get to know at least ONE of these kids.  Then I could’ve had a personal connection with them and cared about them being avenged.  We didn’t get to know the captured girl in Silence Of The Lambs THAT well, but we got to know her enough to care for her life.  Well, I actually know some people who were rooting for Buffalo Bill in that movie.  But that’s a review for another time.

And why, exactly, when Leo sticks up for his wife – who’s possibly a spy – do they just send him off to another town?  Aren’t we supposed to fear this regime?   Isn’t this the terrifying Communist Soviet Russia???  If the stakes are going to be high, shouldn’t we fear death?  But the big punishment for being a spy is, apparently, having to move 20 miles out of town??  I don’t know.  That doesn’t seem very scary to me.

I didn’t really get any of this script.  I’m sure the spy-heads will tell me why I’m wrong.  I know a certain recently sold screenwriter who LOVES this script.  And boy do I know what it feels like to love something that much.  But I just couldn’t get into Child 44.

[  ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] not for me
[  ] worth the read
[  ] impressive
[  ] genius

What I learned: Get into your story as late as possible.  I didn’t see the point of wasting the first 10 pages on a flashback that introduced a dozen characters we’d never see again and cover backstory that wasn’t entirely necessary in understanding our main character.  I guess you could argue that it’s a setup to the ultimate payoff in the end (of the murderer’s motivation) but you could’ve set that up in a number of less intrusive ways. 

What I learned 2: Be wary of competing concepts in a story.   It’s best to stay with one, or else the two will overshadow each other. Is this a movie about an agent who learns his wife is a spy?  Or is it about an agent who’s inspecting a child serial killer?  I still don’t know.  Dueling concepts can sometimes work if there’s a natural thematic connection between the two, but I never saw the connection between a spy wife and a child murderer.