Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A straight-laced but depressed cop goes on a mission to find out who killed his daughter.
About: On the eve of the announcement that Mel Gibson is reteaming with Shane Black, we get his thriller, Edge of Darkness, an adaptation of an old BBC mini-series, in theaters this Friday. This is the first project Mel’s starred in in a long time, and there were whispers it was because he was blacklisted in Hollywood after his drunken rant a few years ago. For awhile, DeNiro was actually attached to this project, but dropped out a few days into shooting because of “creative differences.” Usually, we never find out what these “creative differences” are, but in this case, we learned that it was because DeNiro didn’t memorize his lines! How cool would that have been, seeing Gibson and Deniro work together? Aww man, what could’ve been.
Writer: William Monahan
Details: 127 pages (undated)

Monahan holding up the little gold guy, looking as uncomfortable as I've ever seen a man.

Let me start off by saying I have no idea which draft this is because there’s no title page. Its 127 pages implies it’s a draft from earlier on in the process though, so this is likely a little different from the final film.

Surprising as it may sound, I’ve never read a William Monahan script before. "Surprising" because if there’s one writer who I’m continually told other writers are in awe of, it’s Monahan. The thing is, I haven’t been impressed enough by his movies to seek out any of his scripts. Despite a few nice scenes and a couple of good performances in The Departed, I thought the story was all over the place. I know some people think I'm batty for saying so, but look at Kingdom of Heaven, which also supports the case that his stories are unfocused (and yes, I saw the extended cut as well – which turned unfocused and short into unfocused and long). Body of Lies would’ve been a bad direct-to-video title had it not been for Scott, Crowe and DiCaprio’s involvement. So I was struggling to figure out just why people were so impressed with this guy.

Ten pages into Edge of Darkness, I found out. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but Monahan has a command over his words that brings even the most mundane passages alive. The thing about Edge of Darkness is it’s so relentlessly depressing that you want to give up by the end of the first act. But Monahan’s writing – the way he builds mystery, the way he builds character, the way he writes dialogue – keeps you pushing down deeper into the darkness…and enjoying it. Make no mistake, this script is about one thing – death – and never has the subject matter been so exciting.

Craven is one of those salt-of-the-earth blue collar honest Boston guys who happens to be a cop. Problem is, he’s Irish. And us Irish aren’t very good with emotions. So when his beautiful MIT-educated daughter, Emma, comes home, there are echoes of an un-nurtured relationship there, but neither of them are able to express it because of that damn Irish DNA. The irony is, this is the last chance they'll get to break the code, to give in and emote, because there is something wrong with Emma, something very wrong.

Less than a few hours after getting home, she's vomiting worse than a coed after her first keg party. Even now, Craven can't muster the courage to ask her what's wrong, and it isn't until she's barely able to walk that the two realize, maybe we should get you to the hospital NOW. The two make it on to the front porch when a man in a ski-mask and a shot gun screams out “Craven!” and pumps a couple of shots into Craven’s daughter. She dies instantly. He runs.

Initial investigation presumes a botched attempt on Craven’s life. Happens to cops all the time. Criminals they put away come back for their own brand of justice. But there’s a problem. Craven doesn’t have any enemies. He’s one of the good ones. As Monahan writes in his dialogue, Craven could “put you away for life and you’d agree that he had a point.”

But Craven knows what these men don’t know. His daughter was the target. They did something to her. But why?

It’s no coincidence this script is titled Edge of Darkness. As far as Craven is concerned, his life is over. He just has one more thing to do before he crosses over to the other side – find out who killed his daughter, and make them pay.

The reason a non-procedural fan like myself enjoyed this procedural is because it’s not another Mel Gibson driving around kicking the shit out of a bunch of deadbeats snoozer. The mystery here, which involves Emma’s employment at a secret nuclear government facility perched atop Boston, clashes blue collar with big government, and watching a nobody cop take on an establishment that normally eats nosy guys like Craven for dinner, is, for lack of a better phrase, funner than shit.

Come on! There are clearly too many edges and too much darkness in this picture.

Some of the story devices used here are as old as the medium itself, but boy do they work. These government officials are used to being able to make one phone call. “Chief, tell your guy to back off.” But Craven’s not answering to the Chief anymore. He’s gone rogue. So watching him inch his way up the company ladder, discovering the truth behind why his daughter was on the verge of dying when she came back to him that day, and outsmarting everyone in his path, is like watching dawn turn into daylight.

Now I’ll be the first to admit, what they were covering up wasn’t as cool as I wanted it to be. (Spoiler) My advice to anyone writing this kind of story. Please, for the love of God, don’t include tree-hugging environmentalists in your conspiracy. The second you involve any sort of environmentalist group into a hardcore thriller, it's like asking the Backstreet Boys to play halftime at the Super Bowl. It weakens everything. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because the real reason we're here is to watch Craven get revenge, one asshole at a time. And in that respect, Edge of Darkness is a 70 yard touchdown.

"You talking to him? You talking to him??" 'Uh no Mr. De Niro, it's "You talking to me?"

Lots of things to like in this script. A risky but neat device Monahan uses is to have Craven talk to his daughter during the mission, even though she’s not there. We hear her voice, helping him along, and it’s a great little tool that both strengthens our understanding of how much he loves her, and constantly reminds us why he’s doing this.

Also, Monahan’s style reminds me of Esztheras’ in that once he hits a conversation, he doesn’t gum it up with unnecessary description. When a reader says, “It was 125 pages but it read like it was 90,” this is what they mean.

Edge of Darkness is still hard to read because of the thick stench of death around every Bah-stan corner. Everybody here is either dead, dying, wants to die, or trying to avoid death. It’s a little overwhelming at times and would probably be too much to take if the story weren’t so entertaining. I guess I should be happy that I’m still alive after reading it. And I am. It’s a tough and depressing script to get through, but worth it.

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

What I learned: Edge of Darkness combines two key storytelling devices that work extremely well. Revenge and the Underdog. We like to follow characters who fight back after they’ve been wronged (Taken, Gladiator, Kill Bill). And we love watching an underdog take on a much stronger opponent (Rocky, Braveheart, Die Hard). Combine that with a highly sympathetic character (he just lost his daughter), and you've got a winning formula.

Watch only if you want to see the entire movie.

Completely unrelated comment of the day: I do not have a single solitary need for the Ipad. It would not improve my life in any noticeable way whatsoever. I don't even understand why it was made. It doesn't do anything that other devices can't already do. And yet, I want one. I hate my consumer side.