The Write Stuff

Among the hundreds of dreadful films that were released last year, there was a handful of surprise games. What made them stand out? As usual, dynamic scripts.


Many critics singled out 2001 as one of the worst years for movies since the heyday of the nickelodeons. It is true that we witnessed a deadening slew of expensive, truly terrible movies encompassing The Mummy Returns, Evolution, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Planet of the Apes, just to name a few, with the highest-profile being the overhyped Pearl Harbor. Some of these movies made a fortune, a tribute to the sleight-of-hand skills of studio marketing departments, but it's hard to believe many viewers found them satisfying. What was the common denominator linking these stinkers? Most of them had a combination of dazzling special effects and wretched scripts.

Everyone in Hollywood pays lip service to the idea that scripts matter, but when studio chiefs are trying to engineer a blockbuster, they don't really take writers seriously. If they did, how could they have allowed Tomb Raider (which had half a dozen credited writers) to degenerate into a murky morass of pointless pyrotechnics? While not quite in the same stupefying category, the script for Pearl Harbor was all too typical of the dumbed-down writing found in Hollywood spectacles. Every plot development was crushingly predictable, and the characters were ciphers. Consider the romantic triumvirate of Pearl Harbor: Kate Beckinsale was spunky, Ben Affleck was cocky and Josh Hartnett was loyal. Those single adjectives summarized their dramatic identities.

Despite the high-profile clunkers that cast a pall over 2001, though, the year did have quite a few memorable movies. What's particularly interesting about these films is that all of them sprouted from electrifying scripts.

Perhaps the most astonishing of these movies was the year-end prize winner, In the Bedroom, a character drama brimming with intensity. Director Todd Field began from a harrowing short story by Andre Dubus and fleshed it out (along with cowriter Robert Festinger) into a riveting tale of loss and revenge. The adaptation required invention and courage in confronting such pitilessly hard-edged material. Field altered the story to include the Maine seaport culture that he knew firsthand, and this precisely observed social milieu helped to ground the movie. Field highlighted the subtle class conflicts that lie just beneath the surface of many American communities, and he zeroed in on the tension between an upper-middle-class couple (Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) and the working-class woman (Marisa Tomei) dating their son (Nick Stahl).

In spinning this tragic tale of how the parents' worst fears are realized when their son is killed by his girlfriend's estranged husband, Field built tension meticulously so that every violent cataclysm grew convincingly out of the fabric of envy and grief. He also paid attention to every nuance in the family relationships. Wilkinson subtly encouraged his son's dalliance, living vicariously through this hot-blooded liaison. Spacek, in contrast, did not try to conceal her disapproval, and Stahl pursued the romance partly to rankle his overbearing mother. After the murder, when the husband and wife lashed out at each other with savage recriminations, we could see the truth in each of their accusations. The strength of the screenplay is that it dramatized all the minuscule mistakes and misjudgments that led inexorably to catastrophe. When the parents, frustrated by the legal system, decided to take their own revenge against their son's killer, the movie might have degenerated into a kind of tony Death Wish. But Field refused to provide any catharsis. This act of vengeance only created greater torment for the survivors. There are no simple heroes or villains among the denizens of In the Bedroom; the characters have the complexity that you find in a great novel.

Monster's Ball was another intimate, sharply drawn character study. When writers Will Rokos and Milo Addica originally wrote their script more than five years ago, the dark story frightened studios, who kept asking for changes that the writers refused to make. Their script finally found a home at Lions Gate Films, and the finished movie created a convincing portrait of people caught in dead-end lives--a bigoted death row guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and an angry black woman (Halle Berry). The writers presented these characters with curiosity and openness rather than condescension, perhaps drawing on their own background as actors to find believable behavioral touches as they charted the painfully slow growth of this pair of outcasts. Arguments between Thornton and his sensitive son (Heath Ledger) and a drunken seduction between Thornton and Berry unfolded unpredictably, with startlingly abrasive moments that rang true. The disturbing outbursts of violence seem integral to a story about stunted people shattered out of their complacency and propelled to break through the barriers that have imprisoned them.

The sleeper hit of the year was The Others, a ghost story of remarkable subtlety and, to my mind, a perfectly achieved suspense thriller. Instead of coming out with guns blazing like most contemporary horror films, it took time to establish the sinister aura of a creepy old house haunted by otherworldly inhabitants, and then gradually tightened the vise. In its emphasis on spooky atmosphere rather than visceral jolts, The Others recalled a couple of '60s movies of understated menace, The Innocents (adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote from Henry James's classic story The Turn of the Screw) and the original version of The Haunting. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar conjured an eerie mood without relying on the grisly violence or eye-popping special effects so fashionable today. But the movie's hypnotic spell began with Amenábar's beautifully constructed original screenplay. He was careful not to reveal at first why there's so much tension in the big, cold house in which Nicole Kidman and her son and daughter live. He sprinkled clues throughout the film--the children are allergic to light, the father has mentally checked out--but cleverly introduced more credible reasons for the unusual goings-on. The movie was suffused with a slowly mounting mood of dread that might have pleased even Henry James. The surprise ending reminds one of The Sixth Sense, but it has its own nightmarish power.

The Bosnian film No Man's Land, writer/director Danis Tanovic's absurdist tragicomedy, dramatized the futility of war in vivid, concrete terms that were skillfully orchestrated in the script. A Bosnian and a Serb soldier find themselves stranded along with another soldier pinned on top of a land mine that cannot be disengaged without blowing him to bits. As UN peacekeepers, journalists, and other combatants try without success to free the man from his booby trap, the Bosnian and the Serb are forced to communicate but unable to overcome their deep-seated hostilities. Ultimately, the film depicts the hopelessness of rational action in an insane conflict, but it doesn't play like a heavy-handed message movie because Tanovic injected a note of originality in the form of black comedy. As the Bosnian soldier hands a cigarette to his trapped comrade, he mutters sardonically, "I hope you'll die of cancer."

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