Screenplay Review – My Dark Places
Premise: As a publicity stunt, a successful crime novelist tries to solve the thirty-seven-year-old murder of his mother, from whom he was estranged.
About: Apparently, this script has been around for quite a while. The last time I checked IMDB, the project was listed as “in development.”
Writer: Jan Oxenberg. Based on the autobiography by James Ellroy.
Details: 125 pages. Draft date: June 18, 1999.
The script, penned by TV writer/producer Jan Oxenberg, takes that basic premise and creates a character study out of it, an exploration of an outwardly callous, fast-talking joker whose constant barbs at his mother’s expense never really hide his confusion about his relationship with her. The story opens in 1958, when James Ellroy is just ten years old, and his father, Armand, is actively trying to get dirt on his promiscuous ex-wife, Geneva “Jean” Ellroy, so that he can prove she’s an unfit mother and therefore win custody of James. Right away, we see that the relationship between Armand and James is much more reminiscent of that of best friends than of father and son. We get the sense that they survive by propping each other up—that they’re in life together till the end. Nothing is taboo between them; they’re just two guys hanging out, cooking frozen hot dogs and talking about the shaved pubic region of a woman in one of Armand’s girlie mags. They also discuss James’s mother, for whom Armand has little respect and isn’t shy about dissing in front of James. At one point, James refers to his mother as a “hairy bitch whore,” and Armand just laughs. It becomes obvious in just a couple of quick scenes that they’re a team trying their damnedest to take her down.
As juxtaposition, Jean is presented as a beautiful woman prone to serial dating—looking for attention but not commitment, thanks to having been in a loveless marriage with a man who could offer her neither. When we meet her, she’s dancing with a Swarthy Man in a tacky desert inn. She’s talkative, flirty, coming onto him in every way she knows how. But he seems bored with her, unwilling to give in to her advances. They drive out to a diner, then to a secluded wooded area near Arroyo high school. And there he strangles her to death.
One of the things that immediately stands out in this script is its deft ability to shift between tones. Irreverent humor, hard hitting crime fiction and pathos take turns vying for our attention, letting us know that there’s always something deeper going on here. After a while, however, the tones blend together, and we realize that the division between them was always arbitrary at best—a product of our own minds. For instance, an early moment of irreverence turns into something much deeper in the long run: when James finds out about his mother’s murder, his reaction is not one of shock and sadness—he smiles as a photographer takes a picture of him. Moments later, he again refers to his mother as the “hairy bitch whore,” right in front of photographers, detectives, and his mother’s neighbors. It’s a simple reaction from a child whose first impulse is to feel relief because he can now be with his dad, unconditionally. And it hits hard for us because it’s a jarring moment. The kid doesn’t understand what just happened… or does he? We’re not quite sure. Do we have a sociopath in the making? Or will James grow out of it? It is in these initial scenes that the script establishes its voice and signals to us that it’s going to keep us on our toes for the duration. And it is here that the script becomes impossible to put down.
From the murder, we transition to 1995, where the adult James Ellroy, now a successful crime novelist, is at a book reading and signing with his girlfriend Helen, also an author. Ellroy is now a smart-alecky, verbal wordsmith dazzling his audience with colorful, improvised turns of phrase, which are very “crime noir detective” in their temperament. While this bit of bookstore theater is taking place, Henry Stans from Unsolved Mysteries bursts into the room and confronts Ellroy about participating in a period piece episode about Southern California unsolved murders, in which an entire segment will be devoted to his mother. Not surprisingly, Ellroy wants nothing to do with this at first, telling Stans that “the only person who exploits my mother’s death is me.” Apparently, Ellroy hasn’t grown out of his disdain for the woman his father turned him against. At the very least, he’s developed a frosty self-defense mechanism designed to keep that part of his early life firmly in its place.
But Helen, Ellroy’s confidante and conscience, convinces Ellroy to learn more about his mother. Believing he can get some publicity out of this, Ellroy acquiesces. So they fly out to Los Angeles to take part in the Unsolved Mysteries episode, and there Ellroy hires retired homicide detective Bill Stoner, who is known for solving cold case murders. Stoner’s first impression of Ellroy is that he doesn’t give two shits about his mother, especially when he watches Ellroy interacting with the actors portraying young James and his mother in the dramatic reenactment for the show’s segment. At one point Henry Stans asks Ellroy what he thinks of the actress playing his mother, and Ellroy replies, “She doesn’t look cheap enough.” Stoner is immediately put off—to him, this is all just a publicity stunt. To make matters worse, he and Ellroy clash, Ellroy making it quite apparent that he doesn’t want Stoner’s pity—just his help.
From there, the script flips back and forth between Ellroy and Stoner’s 1995 investigation and sequences dealing with young Ellroy and the original investigation. It’s not a revolutionary structural device—some might even consider it trite—but it works well for this story. Young Ellroy’s relationship with his mother is obviously strained due to her sleeping around and his father’s constant criticism of her, but what is also obvious is how much she always cares for Ellroy, no matter how he treats her. And on some level he knows this. Always has. There’s a scene early in the 1995 investigation where Stoner and Ellroy are in an interview room looking over the old file on her murder, disorganized and overflowing with notes and crime scene photos, and Ellroy, prone to bouts of OCD, straightens out the papers, creating neat stacks. Stoner pitches in and helps him, and it’s a surprisingly touching moment because it’s the first time we and Stoner really see Ellroy’s human side. From there, the beat where Ellroy sees the crime scene photo of his mother’s corpse hits hard. Ellroy tries to play it off and remain professional and detached, but Stoner notices that something more is going on. Throughout the script, Stoner tries to figure out which Ellroy is the real one: the human being with genuine emotions or the smartass who seems not to care about his mother. And as the story progresses, and Ellroy’s obsession with this investigation grows, we and Stoner understand that Ellroy is far too complex to be pigeonholed into either category.
There’s a wonderful motif: a collage of Jean’s death Ellroy has plastered over the walls of his hotel room, consisting of crime scene photos, newspaper clippings, a police sketch of the Swarthy Man based on interviews with two witnesses, and other evidence. As Ellroy’s obsession grows and the case becomes more personal to him, the collage becomes denser, more and more obsessively ordered. Toward the end of the script, the nature of the collage changes as Ellroy picks up old photos of his mother from her relatives. It transforms from a detective’s wall to a tribute to her, no longer about publicity for his book or his attempts to play detective and solve a crime. It’s now about his love for his mother.
The investigation itself is wonderfully played as Stoner and Ellroy plow into old leads and question old witnesses, each bringing his own unique personality to the proceedings. Also, there are some great little details in scenes that in less capable hands might play out in a boring, same-old-same-old way but are made livelier by unique and creative touches, like one in which Ellroy and Stoner interview a 14-year-old girl whose grandmother was a carhop at a diner where the Swarthy Man took Jean. The girl tells them that her grandmother passed away a couple of years ago; that she had brain cancer and died in a beauty salon. And the kicker is that she apparently hemorrhaged while she was getting her hair done. Such a seemingly small detail adds a great deal of richness to the story. Ellroy and Oxenberg have created a vibrant world here—a crime story infused with voice.
A lot of the dialogue is incredibly sharp and entertaining, but not in a way that draws attention to itself—in a way that breathes life into the characters. At one point, Stoner reveals to Ellroy that “Freeways are the Southern California victim drop zone of choice.” He then goes on to say, “I hate ‘em. One thing I swore was, once I retired, I’d never drive these freeways again.” Yet here he is, doing just that, and it’s a sign that he’s unable to retire… that he may never be. There’s another great line when Ellroy interviews his mother’s old neighbor/landlord that lands perfectly thanks to what we’ve learned about his past. When Ellroy was a kid, he used to compulsively stab the banana tree in front of his mother’s place with a knife, to the point where his mother’s landlord had to call in a tree surgeon. As such, the landlord couldn’t give Armand the full deposit back after Jean’s death; she had to take fifty dollars out to pay to have the tree revived. Thirty-seven years later, adult Ellroy introduces himself to the landlord as “James Ellroy. The kid who ruined your tree.” And these types of exchanges pepper the script, giving us insight into the people who populate its world. Not one line of dialogue is a throwaway.
The investigation comes to a climax in a scene where Stoner and Ellroy confront the man their investigation has finally led them to, almost by accident. He’s their prime suspect—a man who used to work with Jean. Now 75, he’s still muscled but skinny. In the face of Ellroy’s accusations, he’s scared to the point where he pisses himself. (SPOILER) But it turns out he’s not the perpetrator. (END SPOILER) And here we discover the script’s true purpose. It’s not really about Ellroy solving his mother’s murder as much as it is about his coming to grips with the fact that she truly loved him. In the process, he also makes peace with his own feelings about her, including some confusing childhood sexual fixations. There’s a great moment at the end when he and Helen are in his hotel room, facing his wall of photos, and he addresses his mother directly, telling her, “Swarthy Man took you away from me. I want you to meet the woman who brought you back.”
Irreverent yet moving, straightforward yet complex, My Dark Places is a subtly wrenching glimpse into an obsession that transforms over the course of its narrative as Ellroy allows the layers of emotional armor, secured into place over thirty-seven years, to drop off piece by piece until all that’s left is a vulnerable human being, abandoned early on by the world (including his father, who passed away when Ellroy was 17) and forced to fend for himself. The script is infused with a voice that strengthens the story rather than distracts from it, and characters actors would no doubt want to sink their teeth into. I hope that after floating around for over a decade, most likely stuck in every circle of development hell at one point or another, it finds its way to movie theaters someday soon. Unfortunately, I fear that its dark approach and constantly shifting tone might make this impossible, especially in the current climate. With that in mind, I strongly recommend that anyone who likes crime dramas, specifically those penned by Ellroy, give the script a read.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Character, character, character. My Dark Places works so well because every scene not only reveals something about Ellroy but revolves around why Ellroy is the way he is. There are no faux-clever, throwaway lines of dialogue; no meaningless actions. The script is strictly about this human being, and even at 125 pages, it is tight.