Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”


Shallow Grave is a prime example of how a director and an ensemble can turn a merely good screenplay into a just-about excellent movie. For those budding filmmakers and actors who despair at the fact that they don’t have that much liberty in deciding which scripts they’ll film, here’s a useful lesson in how to make a narrative your own. John Hodge’s script is slick and straightforward, in and out in ninety-one pages, yet somewhat too Beckettesque for its own good. Minimalism has an appeal to playwrights and screenwriters in that it gives actors the room to do their work—most of the work, in fact—and it lowers the risk of the writers’ egos worming their way into the texts. The script truly becomes the skeleton on which the rest of the body functions. Yet, there is a distinction between being minimalist and being threadbare, and some of the characters and dialogue on paper feel lazy insomuch that an actor would be vindicated in feeling (s)he was left to do too much work. And when the script does leave minimalism alone and try to inject some creativity into the proceedings, there are snatches of dialogue that seem so literary, it turns jarring and unnatural for talk—particularly for the talk of the Scottish middle-crust lowlifes at the center of this story. So the script is too simple, and even in that respect, it’s inconsistent.

Thank God it was Danny Boyle and not someone as uncompromising as me who saw the potential in this script and ran with it. Nothing in Hodge’s rapid-fire, slender prose can prepare a reader for Boyle’s trademark visual flair, which seems to have already matured by the time he made this film—his debut. The vision of the auteur who would go on to make Slumdog Millionaire was already well developed here, at once driven and focused, chaotic and under control—which is to say, the narrative is chaos, but the perception of it is control. The opening minutes make this abundantly clear. After a brief voice-over soliloquy, a main theme by Leftfield kicks in, and the camera sends us hurtling through the cobblestone roads of Scotland and up the spiral steps to the flat in which the three main characters live. Read the script’s first page, then watch the film’s first couple of minutes. The first is an introduction; the second is a hook. It’s exhilarating. Boyle’s sense of place is firm and kinetic. The script makes the flat feel like a rundown rental that one might find in a retirement community. In the film, it’s the stable residence of a trio of well-off laborers and good friends—one an accountant, one a journalist, one a nurse—and full of details on which the narrative hinges: the primary colors, the transom above a critical room, the tall ladder stretching into the loft. The normalcy and pleasantness of the space makes the story’s tragedy and its central trio’s downfall all the more palpable, descending from way up high and landing hard.

David (Christopher Eccleston) is the accountant, Alex (Ewan McGregor) is the reporter and Juliet (Kerry Fox) is the nurse. They’re looking for a fourth roommate, or are they? They treat the process of searching for a new flat-mate as a joke, a test designed to be impossible to pass, to make those who take it feel foolish. They invite prospects in, trick them into getting comfortable, and then barrage them with ludicrous inquiries and offensive insinuations. We see this in a snappy montage. Script and film alike treat this early scene as pitch-black comedy—showcasing three friends with the same mordant, self-deprecating sense of humor, who get off on alienating everyone around them, and perhaps too each other. The script seems to remain in the vein of crime comedy à la Snatch, treating everything as a madcap maelstrom into the gallows and aiming to surprise us with how insane, irredeemable and out of their depth these characters become. Boyle knows better. He deceives us with the comedy of the opening minutes, then transitions by turns into moral drama, high-stakes psycho-thriller, and ruthless Greek tragedy. A writer named Hugo (Keith Allen) shows up, and the gang actually takes a liking to him and grants him the extra room. Hardly any time passes before he is found naked and dead of a drug overdose (suicide or accident?) with a trunk full of cash under the bed—and it’s downhill from there.

Oddly and ironically enough, McGregor and Fox’s performances don’t expand from the script as much as they let the dialogue rumble through their mouths and bodies. The subtleties in the language—the farcical misunderstandings, the near-slips of tongue—often appear to go unnoticed by character and actor alike, and the ludicrous scenario that develops feels more present and immediate because of it. The Scottish accent often does a lot of the work. Neither screenplay nor actors overcompensate for each other, and this is to the advantage of both. Casting here is more crucial than acting, which is all the better to allow McGregor to flesh out Alex’s sneering assholery and Fox to inhabit Juliet’s downplayed, cool bonhomie. The most challenging role belongs to Eccleston (now a fixture on HBO’s The Leftovers). In the script, David as a character feels cluttered, joining in on his friends’ ostensible roommate vetting, then demonstrating himself as a stubborn workaholic and a man with deep pangs of conscience, before finally revealing himself as a haunting and rigid figure of willpower, cruel and disturbing. Eccleston solves this issue by layering him, depicting him first as an unknown and private man, passionate about his job and in the background, with something dangerous and evil lurking deep in his subconscious that he’d rather not unleash, for the sake of everyone around him. Only it is unleashed, and once it is…oh boy. As for the other actors, Allen is so good in his scant time on-screen that I wanted more of him, and Ken Stott provides a center of classic British moral gravity late in the film, in a small but crucial role.

There’s much about the story I’m not giving away, and you’ll thank me for that. Seeing the film before reading the script may have made the story’s pivotal shocks more jarring, but the experience was no less organic and no less harrowing. The traditional tropes of good people turned bad by money and of good friends turned enemies by money are well worn out. Shallow Grave is almost how Beckett—and for that matter his protégé Pinter—might have spun such tropes. As the narrative deepens, the characters grow more complex, every gesture they commit and every word they utter a layer cake of lies, impregnable intentions, secret motivations, and leering intrigue. They all want the money. They all want as much of the money as possible. They’re willing to do grave things to grab it. They don’t trust each other. Things come to a head; no one wins; everyone is screwed. The script’s conclusion wraps the matter up too hastily. Fortunately, in the film, it feels slowed down, the three actors engaging in a patient Mexican standoff of words, lies, insults, retreats, wheedles, cons and intimidations before exploding into violent outbursts. I’ll have to watch this film again to trace all of the layers under the surface of David, Alex and Juliet. Who are these enigmatic people? What do they want? How do they aim to get it? How does such a great friendship as the one they have fall apart so horribly? It takes a great film to make us ask questions like this—questions about the very fundaments of narrative and life. Shallow Grave is great.

Grade: A

Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”

Review and Script Analysis: “The Messenger”


For this new feature, periodically, I will first read a version of a film’s screenplay available online, then watch that film to see how its cast and crew have manifested it and how the finished film compares and contrasts with my perception of the script. The reviews of these films will hence emphasize the role of the screenplay in cinema and the filmmaking process, and how interpretations and visions of a screenplay can differ and interact with one another.

The Messenger takes as its premise a trope frequently abused in crime-, medical- and military-themed television and film. Most network TV, I imagine, has devolved into a series of tropes like that: clichéd setups that mainly serve to help up-and-coming actors gather footage for audition tapes, showcasing their ability to display the fundamental emotions of man. What results is an industrial contrivance of human experience—a pathetic attempt by commerce to reduce life into a series of über-familiar, easily arranged and packaged situations; and to reduce acting into a streamlined, unskilled, assembly-line job. Actors hoping to (at least eventually) create art are cheated into creating cheap products, consumed by their audience like cookie dough, released into the plumbing, and forgotten. The trope I want to discuss in this context is the Breaking of Bad News: the cop or the soldier going into the house to inform some folks that their child/spouse/parent has died in this and that way, followed inexorably by an anguished reaction from the loved ones. Even great films like The Right Stuff and Saving Private Ryan fall back on this set piece early in their running times. Part of The Messenger’s innovation is that it focuses on the army veterans who are given this unenviable duty, and turns them from traditional ciphers to fleshed-out characters, trapped in an obligation with no alternative that threatens to suck the life out of them.

The Messenger of the title is SSgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), an Iraq War hero, back home blind in one eye with a busted knee and a deserted girlfriend (Jena Malone), who is assigned to the Casualty Notification team to fill out the remainder of his service. Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson)—a Gulf War vet with a country drawl, hard marble eyes and a bitter, tightened curl for a smile—will be his mentor. Tony wastes no time in lecturing a beleaguered Will on the script they must follow for each victim’s family, on the points of etiquette, on all the bits of wisdom he’s picked up from experience. The process is—like most things in the military—a tradition, bound in ritual and performance. Time and again it is emphasized that the duty, no matter how agonizing, is an honorable one, and a necessary one, as Will and Tony are in competition with another, more impulsive group of performers who feel it their job to break bad news: the media. This is one of the few military films I know of where all the blood and carnage (well, most of it) is well off-screen, and none of it is necessary here. The whole film throbs with the aura of the army—the competition, the stories and memories, the death and pain, the tighter-than-tight brotherhood, the inescapable sense of commitment that swallows up entire lives. “This is a zero-defect mission,” Tony tells Will. “A pure hit-and-git operation.” These are men who view everything through the lens of fighting for the U.S. Beaten as they are, they’ll never leave the military.

As directed by Oren Moverman—a native son of the ultra-militarized Israel—and written by him and Alessandro Camon, The Messenger has an understanding of the scripted, essentially fictive (viz., literary, theatrical, cinematic, etc.) quality of Breaking Bad News, yet it never forgets that the emotions behind the script are genuine. There are five scenes in which Will and Tony do their duty, and none of them feel like a retread of a tired trope. They all have their own unique narrative and characters, which are so well written and well acted, they feel like excerpts from other, larger films, in which Will and Tony are merely bit roles that cannot be explored in depth. One such excerpt even has a famous character actor lending his talents to it. Another—this one focused on Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a war widow who turns out to be by far the most stoic of Will and Tony’s encounters—gets weaved deeply into the central narrative, as Will becomes fascinated by her strength and gets involved in her life. The other three fragments, however, do no more than intersect with Will and Tony’s story, functioning as miniature domestic war dramas in which our two protagonists are restrained to their rigid script. The Messenger in this way has the feel of a backstage drama, showing the inner lives of two men whose solemn duty is too often exploited for film cliché, yelling at us to recognize their humanity and trauma.

The film is just under two hours, yet its script is a terse ninety pages. Following the dictum that one page of script equals one minute of film, we should have an hour-and-a-half movie, but no—the brevity of what’s written allows the actors to expand on it. Morton does this most effectively. Her best scene comes in a monologue, in one minutes-long take, in which Olivia confesses to Will the moment when she became estranged from her late husband: “One morning, I opened the closet and one of his shirts fell off the hanger. I picked it up. It smelled of something awful. It wasn’t another woman, or cigarettes, or booze; I could have handled that. I smelled rage. Fear. …The man he turned into over there. The man I started hating.” Jeez—can you imagine what rage and fear smell like?! Now, realize that there’s a difference between reading that great patch of dialogue straight through and seeing Morton perform it. It’s breathtaking. (Also, kudos to Moverman and Camon for calculatedly avoiding the usual clichés of “another woman” and “cigarettes” and “booze.”) Foster has a few monologues—in particular, his war story, which he tells in catharsis near the end—which he could’ve afforded to slow down a little more and inject with a little more pathos. Plus, he occasionally (mostly in his scenes with Morton) gets a wild-eyed look that seems off-putting and out of character for Will. Otherwise, he’s solid. Harrelson’s acting choices are the most revealing. The script gives Tony multiple soliloquies in which he waxes rhapsodic about military funerals, the military-industrial complex, sex as an antidote to war, etc., and on paper, these speeches appear weighty and thematically fraught. Harrelson knows better. His mannerisms and mood expose those speeches for what they are: hot air, talk without walk, the lunatic ravings of an alcoholic three years sober and on the verge of a relapse. Believe the hype: it’s a masterful performance.

Some thoughts on Tony, since he is the film’s most famous aspect and the source of one of its two Oscar nods (the other being the screenplay): What drives him to commit to this horrible duty? He is a gristly soldier, almost trigger-happy, geared up to fight, claiming to be experienced, yet there is a constant acknowledgement that the Gulf War “wasn’t much of a war.” Does Tony know enough about combat to appreciate the toll of war, or is Casualty Notification all that he knows? Perhaps bearing bad news is how he registers combat, how he gets involved with and feels the war that he longs for. In full uniform, he insists on perfect decorum. His biggest divergence with Will regards their perspectives on touching the “next of kin.” Protocol demands that it be avoided, and Tony sides with that, yet Will understands that sometimes, there is a need for affection. Look at the physical interaction (which could’ve been a tad subtler) between Will and Olivia. Tony clearly expresses his disapproval of this—yet his sex drive and proclivity for one-night flings are strong for a guy his age. The dichotomy between Tony’s military persona and how he is when his guard is down is wildly broad. In the film’s final act, the two men take a break from their duties to go on a raucous vacation at a chalet in the woods. Tony returns to booze (a well-worn trope, treated sensitively and uniquely by Harrelson), and Will joins in, and the two have an intimate bonding experience during which the world around them and its idiosyncrasies don’t quite matter. The military creates the strongest bonds of friendship imaginable, and Will and Tony’s bond is no weaker than that formed between men who train and go into combat together, their discrepancies in age and personality notwithstanding. Finally, there’s a scene at the end where, after an hour and a half of exhibiting raw masculinity, the façade collapses and Tony breaks down in tears. Why? Has the toll of war and duty gotten to him at last? Is he an insatiable masochist, desperate for something more than what he got in Kuwait? Is it the alcoholism? Or is it simply a sudden need to be vulnerable and human?

Reading the script, I got a feeling that the narrative fizzles out in the final scene, and the film doesn’t really improve on that. Yes, Will reaches some form of closure and all but decides to embrace his new duty to the country—but let’s face it, there’s no way material like this can ever have a perfect ending. Lives and stories end, but wars and conflicts don’t, and neither do the odysseys of the world’s Wills and Tonys. Sometimes, we just have to run with that, and even when we don’t think we can, we do. The character actor to whom I referred earlier returns for one more scene later in the film, and I get a sense from that scene that there is a concrete possibility of healing for all the loved ones of the war’s dead. Will and Tony may not always see it. They, and we with them, see oblivious men and women casually going about their days only to be shattered by catastrophe. But they have lives and narratives that will persist—and so do our two leading men. Their duty is ugly but necessary. The Messenger is wise in depicting patriotism—American flags, yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, the recruiting effort, funereal ritual—without falling for it, because fervent patriotism too often confuses us into assuming that the dead of war died for their country. We don’t really know what they fought and died for. All we can say is that they died, and our condolences go to them. It’s difficult to do that—because it’s easier to embellish tragedy with saccharine notions of hope, religiosity and not dying in vain—but it is an essential good, and The Messenger is inherently moral in bringing the men who do that for a living front and center.

Grade: A-

Review and Script Analysis: “The Messenger”