Wednesday, September 8, 2010

By Virtue Fall

Genre: Crime Drama
Premise: (from IMDB) A newly-released ex-con seeks revenge upon his mentor who framed him for a crime he didn't commit.
About: I said I had an Oscar winning screenwriter this week but I just remembered Up in the Air lost out to Precious at the Oscars, so I guess I don’t. Still, the co-writer of Up In The Air is easily one of the hottest scribes in town, having over 15 projects in development. That’s a nice bump for a guy who just a year ago had only two produced credits to his name, “The Longest Yard,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” Turner’s used his newfound buzz to not only get this latest script sold but attach himself as director. The project’s been getting a ton of heat and is said to have Eric Bana and Collin Farrell attached. Turner doesn’t believe in screenwriting books or seminars (“If you’re being taught the same skills as [everyone else], then what’s the point? Find your own answers,” he says.) However, he’s a huge reader, still reading a screenplay a day. As a young screenwriter, Turner wrote a dozen screenplays before sending any of them out.
Writer: Sheldon Turner
Details: 117 pages – January 9, 2010 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).

I have to admit, I struggle to enjoy any movie in this genre.

So why am I reviewing this script? Because people have been knocking down my e-mail door ever since the project was announced begging me to review it. There are so many people fascinated with cops, fascinated with the FBI. I don’t know why but all these movies tend to blend into each other for me. Just like I was saying in my review of Drive, in order to get my attention with one of these movies, you have to do something really different, and while By Virtue Fall takes some interesting chances, they weren’t enough to sway me from my usual reaction to these kinds of films.

The story centers around two federal agents. The first is Matthew Vanetti. He’s the Golden Boy, the one with the bright future, the one who does everything by the book. Matt’s partner and good friend is Danny Sloan. Danny is a drunk, a fuck-up, a corrupt agent who can be bought with a hot cup of coffee and a jar of applesauce. The two live on opposite ends of the spectrum, with Matthew ready to marry his soul mate and Danny barely able to keep his marriage together.

Unbeknownst to Matt, Danny is selling federally confiscated firearms to the big badass in town, Jericho Trower. Somehow – though I still don’t know if Danny does it on purpose or not – the feds find out and think Matt is responsible for dealing the guns to Jericho, not Danny. As a result, Matt gets sent off to jail for five years, losing his job, his reputation, and even his girlfriend, who apparently only loves him until he’s behind bars.

The story then follows both characters in their respective positions. The former Golden Boy slowly descending into prison life, shaving his head, blanketing himself with tats, pumping himself up, while Danny the alcoholic stumbles into a series of lucky breaks and begins ascending the Federal ranks, getting back together with his wife, and becoming a big shot at the agency.

But Danny can’t shake what he did to his best friend and partner, and has a hard time sleeping at night. He knows that if Matt ever found out the truth, he would come after him in a second. Indeed, Matt is like a caged animal waiting to be let loose. He holds everyone accountable for the deceit that put him here, and when he gets out, he’s going to make them all pay.

Besides the subject matter not being my cup of tea, my big issue with By Virtue Fall is the thin plot. There’s no inherent goal driving the story here. We’re simply watching two people’s lives laid out in front of us and while I enjoyed the ironic turns for both, it was really hard to stay interested when neither of the characters were pursuing anything.

I suppose our interest is driven by seeing what Matt’s going to do to Danny and the others once he gets out, but I had trouble getting excited even for that. I mean, it’s not like Danny killed Matt’s wife and framed him for it. It’s a gun-selling charge. In the grand scheme of motivation, it never seemed like that big of a deal to me. I understand that if he was framed for something like murder that he’d be stuck in jail for a lot longer than five years, which would’ve upset the timeline, but it would’ve infused the character with a lot more motivation. It may have even opened up some new story possibilities. Matt’s framed for killing someone close to him. He gets a 50 year sentence. The only way to get revenge on the people who killed his [wife/son/whoever] is to break out. This would’ve added a lot of drive to the story. If Matt’s planning an escape, it makes him more active, which makes him more interesting, which gives the story more momentum, and that goal I was looking for.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to see here. I have a feeling that fans of The Departed (another script I felt had little driving the story) are going to like this quite a bit. It’s fun to watch the transformation of these men, especially Matt, who becomes a completely different person. And while there’s no clear character goal, I think Turner would argue that our desire to see these two finally square off in the end is what’s driving our interest. Indeed, he may have a point, and since I’m far from an expert on this genre, I’m not going to argue that.

You know one of the things I think I learned while reading this is that crime scripts have the unfortunate handicap of not reading well. There are always a lot of characters – a lot of people to keep track of – and there are usually a lot of double-crosses or intricate character interactions that occur as the script goes on. Onscreen, when you can see the characters’ faces, it’s easy to remember who’s who. But on the page, it can be really tough, so you’re always rereading things and going back in the script to confirm that what you think is happening is really happening. This happens every time I read one of these scripts, which may explain why I rarely like them.

I wanted to enjoy this. I like Sheldon Turner’s writing style. It’s just for me personally, I wish there was more plot pushing the story.

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

What I learned: One thing I’ll give credit to Turner for – he knows how to get big actors attached to his project. One of the things I’m paying more attention to these days is not just how to sell a script, but how to GET A MOVIE MADE. The quickest way to do that, obviously, is to write a part (or parts) that big actors want to play. A or B list attachments mean go-pictures and I think that’s what separates a lot of the top professionals from the rest of the pack. While story-wise, this script is light, it definitely has two characters that actors would want to play. Why? Well, the transformations of course. You have one character who’s a clean-cut do-gooder who transforms into a tattooed juice-head killer. And the other is a stumbling drunk who turns into a successful star for the government. Actors love shit like this, getting to play both ends of the spectrum, because it stretches their acting muscles. So I’m not surprised Farrell and Bana signed onto this.