Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rites Of Men

Genre: Drama
Premise: A working-class single father's world comes crashing down when his son goes missing.
About: Herman just sold the bank heist spec "Conviction" to Universal last month, which opened up the door to sell "Rites Of Men" a couple of weeks later.
Writer: Jonathan Herman

Rites Of Men is about a single father, Rett, and his introverted teenage son, Billy. Rett's a bit of a screw-up. Doesn't pay his taxes, much less his bills. But his saving grace is that he loves his son more than anything. When Billy starts growing up, gets himself a girlfriend, and starts spending more time with her than him, Rett is predictably hurt. His son means everything to him. But when Billy stops talking to Rett altogether, his hurt becomes concern. Something bad is going on in Billy's life and Rett tries to pry it out of him. But Billy won't budge. Whatever's going on, he's keeping it to himself.

After Rett gets Billy a car for his birthday, Billy heads down to Florida to spend the weekend with his mother. Unfortunately, he never gets there. Billy and his car go missing for weeks. It's every parents' worst nightmare. A few days later, they find Billy's body in some bushes. Rett's world comes crashing down. He is destroyed.

Months pass and Rett's life is one big alcoholic binge. The only thing he feels is hate. The cops gave up on his son's case a long time ago and it's left Rett with nothing but bitterness. It is by complete chance then that he happens to spot the very car he bought Billy. With a little investigation, he discovers the identity of the driver, a beautiful nurse named Carla. He cons his way into meeting her, discovering early on that she had nothing to do with Billy's disappearence, and starts to fall for her. He also befriends Carla's high school son, a teenager who reminds him a lot of his own son. Rett once again finds himself playing the role of father, and the three of them become a weird dysfuncitonal family with a hell of a lot of baggage.

But when Rett finds Billy's old girlfriend and realizes he may finally get some answers to his son's death, he charges blindly into a world that's much deeper than he could've imagined. As the pieces come together, a disturbing chain of events surfaces - the decisions his son made that led to his execution.

Rites of Men nearly made my Top 10. It's an excellent screenplay by an excellent writer. Technically, it blows most screenplays I read out of the water. The characters are all memorable, the emotion is real, the dialogue is great, the story never slows, it hits all the beats and yet it never feels structured. It's just a really good script. Remember "The Low Dweller," the script I reviewed a few weeks back? This was like that script, except entertaining. Herman really really knows how to entertain.

What yanked it out of my Top 10, and even my Top 25, was a late twist that was too convenient, followed by an ending that was too messy. I see this happen a lot with these scripts. A really smart set-up that loses itself in a blur of stabbing and shootings and geographic confusion - the writing equivalent of when a director shoots a fight scene in super close-ups so you can never tell what the hell is going on. It just didn't quite live up to the rest of the script, which always had me guessing.

But still man, this script was really good. Herman crafts tons of lines like this one, where Rett responds to an officer telling him to stay strong: "Maybe put your own child in a hole sometime. Throw a little dirt on top. See how strong it makes you."

Really top-notch stuff. This one's a keeper. Check it out.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is a good lesson. Too many writers try to break in with their low-concept scripts. But the reality is, even if these scripts are great, agents and producers know they'll have a tough time selling them, particularly if the person's a first-time writer and doesn't have the track record to justify the gamble. Herman busted in with a way more commercial bank-heist spec a few weeks earlier - something an executive knew he could sell. Now that Herman had a track record around town, he was able to bust out the less commercial "Rites Of Men," and people trusted him enough to buy it. Go in first with your high-concept or highly marketable idea. Once you've made the sale, then bust out the character piece. There are cases of doing it the other way around, but they're few and far between.