Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jar City

Genre: Crime/Mystery
Premise: The murder of an old man opens up a bleak trail of long buried secrets and small town corruption for a worn out police detective and his squad.
About: Overture Films has purchased the remake rights to Jar City, a popular Icelandic mystery film that was good enough to nab a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. Michael Ross, who penned the remake, is also writing "Near Dark," the remake of Kathryn Bigelow's vampire film. His first writing credit was the horror film Turistas. Before that Ross was an editor on such films as Wrong Turn and 2001 Maniacs. Going back further, he assistant edited Meet Joe Black and Jerry Maguire, and was an assistant for Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket. Jar City landed on the 2008 Black List with 4 votes.
Writer: Michael Ross
Details: 127 pages – October 29, 2008 draft (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).

With all the hoopla over “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” I was totally down for another mystery in the same vein. Someone suggested I read a script that made some noise a couple of years back called Jar City, which contained a lot of that dark moodiness present in other films from that part of the world, such as the Millineum trilogy and “Let The Right One In.”

The American adaptation plucks us out of Iceland and puts us in the deep south Louisiana town of “Bayou Cane.” 30-something Daniel Thibodeaux is living every parent’s nightmare. His six year old daughter, after a long illness, has died of a rare blood disease. Daniel is devastated but to make things worse, he feels that he is somehow responsible, that his blood is the blood that gave her the disease. Work, love, and his day-to-day life are no longer important to him. All Daniel cares about is finding out how this disease made its way into his daughter so that maybe he and his wife can have another child someday.

Across town, in a seemingly unrelated event, an old man is found dead in his basement, bludgeoned to death with some kind of instrument. 50 year old Martin Ford, a veteran detective, assumes it at first to be some squabble over owed money, probably drug-related. But after going through the man’s things, Ford finds an old polaroid picture of a girl’s gravesite from 30 years ago. It’s the first in a set of clues which indicate that this murder goes much deeper than an old dead man in a basement.

Ford is dealing with his own personal demons as well. His daughter, 19 year old Eva, is a junkie who will do anything to support her habit. Ford must make the difficult decision every day to either give her more money for her habit, which he knows will someday kill her, or allow her to get that money on her own, which he knows means prostituting herself. In some cases, the very perps he’s taking down are the same ones paying his daughter for sex.

The script jumps back and forth between Daniel’s search into his daughter’s blood disease and Ford’s search for the old man’s killer. The emphasis, however, is put on Ford’s thread, as that’s where the main investigation is.

Ford eventually locates the sister of the child whose gravesite was in the polaroid. She implies that the old man, along with the sheriff and a couple of other men were running around town raping any girl they could find. She believes that the dead girl is the illegitimate daughter of one of these men. So Martin begins a process of elimination to figure out which one of the three men was the rapist. On top of that, their involvement still doesn’t explain why the girl died in the first place, which is a mystery in itself.

Concurrently, we learn that there is a long running blood disease that has been killing off the people of New Orleans which dates back to the first settlers of the area. Daniel begins to believe that his daughter’s death is somehow related to this disease. But that doesn’t make sense, as his bloodline has nothing to do with those initial settlers.

Eventually, these two storylines clash, and we get our sort-of big twist ending. Now it took me a couple of times through to understand what had happened but if this is indeed the twist, I must say it feels like a cheat. (MAJOR SPOILER) What we learn is that the two storylines were not, actually, running concurrently, but that the Daniel storyline had already happened, so that when the flashback “reveal scene” comes to see who killed the old man, it turns out, in fact, to be Daniel, at the end of his investigation into who was responsible for his daughter dying of the disease.

It all makes sense, but the deliberate manipulation of time at the audience’s expense feels more like a writer manufactured twist than the more satisfying story-related kind. So I felt a bit cheated.

Overall though, I think the script has some good things going for it, especially the tone. I don’t know what those Icelanders eat over there, but they sure know how to write “creepy.” There’s a pervading sense of hopelessness simmering underneath the story, and it’s done in such a way where the story doesn’t drown underneath that depression, but rather it accentuates that creepy vibe.

You combine that with a heavily layered narrative, and this isn’t just another run-of-the-mill procedural. This thing runs deeper than a desert well. I mean the writer is clearly trying to say something about birth and parents and children and death and how things aren’t always how they seem. Now I’m not going to pretend like I understood all these layers, but I knew they were there. :)

Despite all this, I’m still asking myself, “Why didn’t I enjoy this as much as I feel I should’ve?” And I guess the big problem for me was that the investigation itself was pretty average, hampered in part by the confusing dual-storyline. Everything works here. But the lack of any exceptional twists and turns makes it almost too “real world,” like you’re watching this thing unfold over a few days via articles on the news . I was expecting to be shocked at some point. But that never happened.

The biggest issue with the script, however, is that Ross (or, I should say, his source material) depends too heavily on the twist, and doesn’t put in the necessary legwork to make it resonate. Daniel has nothing to do here. His investigation chugs along at the speed of a Louisiana afternoon and after awhile you start to wonder why we’re even cutting back to him at all. It became clear to me after the reveal that the only reason we were spending time with Daniel was so that we didn’t forget him once the ending came. There is virtually nothing for him to look into during his scenes and that left an entire 25% of the movie feeling empty and pointless.

This was a hard one to get a handle on. Jar City had just enough juice, just enough mystery, to keep me reading til the end, so for that reason it’s worth checking out. But it only barely gets a passing grade as I wanted more back from my investment.

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

What I learned: Whenever you’re writing a script with multiple storylines, like Jar City, you have to make sure each storyline warrants its existence. This is easier said than done, because it’s the nature of these multi-storyline beasts that some story threads are better than others. But the reason these movies don’t usually work is because 2 of the storylines are great and the other 3 suck. To avoid this, treat each storyline as if it were its own individual movie. In other words, Daniel’s investigation into his daughter’s blood disease doesn’t have enough going on to support its own movie. Your job is to make that storyline deep enough and compelling enough that you COULD base a movie solely on that. Never leave one of your story threads out to dry. The audience can sense it and they’ll turn on you.