Beat Breakdown #4: No Country for Old Men

thumbnail_poster_color-NoCountryForOldMen_v2_Approved_640x360_132876355824

PLOT SUMMARY

In the grand tradition of Coen Brothers films, the story revolves around an average Joe whose avarice overpowers his common sense. Upon inexplicably stumbling across an inordinate amount of money that doesn’t belong to him, our protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is beset by Mexican cartels, the inescapable reach of the law, and the relentless, unstoppable pursuit of a cold-blooded hitman. 

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 5-12) While hunting in the desolate Texan desert, Llewelyn Moss discovers the aftermath of a brutal shootout between members of a Mexican drug ring. A payoff, Moss presumes, went spectacularly awry, leading to a collection of dead bodies and an unattended leather case containing two million dollars. Naturally, Moss snatches the goods, setting the stage for a brutal tale of retaliation and greed. 

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 50-55) The first major plot point actually occurs fairly late in the script. Moss, in one of his rare moments of forethought, flees his home with the money in tow. He rents a motel room in the next county over and hides the case in the air vent in his room. Unbeknownst to Moss, the case is outfitted with a tracking device which leads the hitman, Anton Chigurh, right to his doorstep. After slaughtering some Mexicans in pursuit of the case, Chigurh attempts to confront Moss directly, only to find that he has escaped with the money during the confusion.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 60-65) A gunfight between Moss and Chigurh serves as the film’s midpoint. What we have here is a battle of wills; Moss perhaps represents the futility of defying fate, or maybe blind greed and the inevitable consequences thereof, while Chigurh represents the physical manifestation of death, coming irrevocably to execute cosmic retribution. Moss wounds Chigurh and escapes, succeeding only in buying himself a little more time. Both Moss and the audience know, however, that nothing can really stop the predator Chigurh from eventually catching his pre

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 80-84) The second plot point wraps up a sup-plot involving another hired operative, Carson Wells, who claimed that he could offer Moss and his wife protection from Chigurh and the cartel in exchange for the money. Moss, apparently determined to continue making phenomenally poor decisions, declines Wells’s offer. Though Wells insisted that he was the only one who could be relied upon to offer protection from Chigurh, he’s easily eliminated in his own hotel room. During a brief telephone exchange between Moss and Chigurh, the assassin promises not to harm Moss’s wife as long as the money is returned promptly. 

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-100) The climax of this particular film is an interesting one, as we end up in a sort of bait-and-switch situation. The protagonist, whom we’ve mostly followed since the beginning, is killed-off without ceremony. Llewelyn Moss is thus revealed to be what is generally referred to as a “false” or “decoy” protagonist, meaning that the emotional core of the film also changes, in addition to the main thrust of the message. It’s revealed that the true protagonist is the beleaguered Sheriff Bell, whose town has been shocked by the violence wrought by Moss and his ill-gotten wealth. 

DENOUEMENT 

(Pages 112-118) After the subversive reveal of the true protagonist, we’re left with Sheriff Bell as he tries to make sense of the slaughter that he’s been witness to. In his own gruff, unsentimental way, Bell seems to find some strange solace in the fact of the inherently uncontrollable and senseless savagery that seems to saturate the starkly binary, law-and-order world in which he lives.

Beat Breakdown #3: 12 Years a Slave

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll take a look at the 2013 biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards.

12-Years-A-Slave-Movie


To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

In the antebellum US, a free black man is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery. What follows is a harrowing odyssey through the American south as our brave protagonist, Solomon Northup, is stripped of his dignity and is forced to survive at the mercy of a sadistic slave master. Throughout his ordeal, Solomon experiences both incredible suffering and unexpected compassion as he seeks a way to reunite with his wife and children.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 13-16) After some brief exposition during which we’re introduced to Solomon and his family, we move quickly to the inciting incident; that is, of course, Solomon’s kidnapping. As his wife and children travel, Solomon is propositioned by two seemingly trustworthy men who suggest that he accompany them to Washington, so that he may exhibit his skill as a violinist. It soon transpires that this prospective business venture is only a pretense, however, and Solomon, in his revelry, is poisoned and rendered unconscious. He awakes in chains, and in short order is subjected to the first of many instances of physical and psychological abuse.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 38-40) After Solomon’s imprisonment, he makes the acquaintance of other erstwhile freemen who, like him, have been ignominiously kidnapped. Together, the prisoners are transported via steamboat from Washington to Norfolk, where they are to be sold at auction. After being forced to wash and dress, Solomon is presented to prospective buyers, not as a man, but a product. Presently, a slave master named William Ford makes a bid for Solomon, purchasing him for one thousand dollars.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 55-57) While on the Ford plantation, Solomon and his fellow slaves are tormented by one of Ford’s malevolent overseers, John Tibeats. Tibeats delights in exercising petty authority over the slaves and especially resents Solomon for winning Ford’s favor. When Tibeats’s long-standing hatred boils over, it soon comes to blows between the two. Tibeats, momentarily defeated, vows revenge against Solomon. Ford intervenes in an attempt to save Solomon’s life, selling him to a new plantation with a new master, and likely saving his life in the bargain. It soon becomes clear, however, that Solomon’s new master does not share Ford’s benevolent sensibilities.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 111-116) What follows is an emotionally distressing descent into the maelstrom, as it were, as Solomon endures the savage cruelty of his new master, Edwin Epps. Solomon witnesses others slaves being whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, and is even asked to mercifully end the life of a fellow slave who is frequently sexually abused by Epps. The second major plot point, however, coincides with the arrival of Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. Bass confronts Epps about the treatment of his slaves, prompting Solomon to ask Bass to secretly deliver a letter to his home in Saratoga Springs. Bass, considering it his duty to help the disenfranchised Solomon, vows to aid him.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 118-121) The climax occurs shortly afterwards. While Solomon works in the fields one day, a carriage pulls to a stop outside of Epps’s estate. A sheriff and a certain Mr. Parker, whom Solomon was acquainted with in Saratoga, dismount and address Solomon, who doesn’t immediately recognize him after such a long period of separation. After the sheriff positively identifies Solomon, the two men hustle him into the carriage amid Epps’s impotent protestations. Immediately before departing, Patsy, the same slave who once begged Solomon for death, embraces him in an emotional gesture of finality. Solomon rides away from Epps’s plantation, still trying coming to grips with the fact that his tortuous ordeal is finally over.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 121-123) The climax is followed by an extremely short period of falling action, which is in turn followed by a few brief expository title cards. Solomon arrives home, visibly aged and hesitant to enter a home that now seems almost alien to him. The film has such a beautifully understated ending, which consists of perhaps three our four line of dialogue from Solomon. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, Solomon finds himself unable to maintain his façade of strength and stoicism any longer. On the verge of breaking down, he says simply: “I apologize for my appearance. I have had a difficult time of things these last few years.” With his family surrounding him, Solomon finally sees the end of the twelve long years of suffering that had separated him from his loved ones as we fade to black.

Beat Breakdown #2: Nightcrawler

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll be taking a look at the 2014 neo-noir crime thriller Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 87th Academy Awards.

nightcrawler-poster


To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The story follows mysterious loner (and psycho) Lou Bloom as he skulks around Los Angeles in search of gainful employment. With the often reluctant help of world-weary station manager Nina, Lou begins skulking with a purpose as he embarks on an ignoble crusade to capture LA’s most shocking crimes on camera. Lou takes to his new position as a “nightcrawler” with admirable zeal, but is Lou driven by good old professional integrity, or perhaps something infinitely more sinister?

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 6-12) The film begins with a bit of exposition, introducing us to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, our wiry-looking protagonist with a superficial smile and unnerving presence. As Lou cruises around LA one fateful evening, he happens upon a grizzly scene involving two police officers pulling an unconscious woman from a blazing car. As Lou gapes at the scene, spellbound by the flashing lights and shattered glass, a news van screeches to a halt, depositing a hassled cameraman who immediately begins filming the wreckage. Lou, still enraptured by the profane pageantry a day later, idly sits at home flipping through daytime news channels. Suddenly he stops, frozen, as a report of the wreck from the night before flashes across the screen. We can practically see the infernal cogs inside Lou’s head begin to turn, as the seed of turmoil takes root.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 17-23) So the seed of turmoil has grown into a shrubbery of mischief as Lou acquires the camcorder and police scanner that are the staples of nightcrawling. Gardening metaphors aside, Lou’s luck eventually turns when he manages to get an unrestricted, close-up shot of a shooting victim, complete with graphic brain-chunks a reasonably-sized pool of blood. Naturally, this kind of footage is just what the KSML-TV News crew is looking for. In short order, Lou makes the acquaintance of the station manager, played by Rene Russo, who cuts him a check for his work. Rene encourages Lou to continue his nightcrawling, and offers him this piece of advice: “…to capture what we air, think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

MIDPOINT

(Pages 46-49) To punctuate Lou’s meteoric rise in the world of nightcrawling, Nina when they meet for dinner at Cabanita—which has been called an authentic taste of Mexico City. Nina’s pretensions are shattered, however, when Lou reveals the sociopathic tendencies hiding behind his facade of wholesome professionalism. Lou effectively blackmails Nina into engaging in a romantic relationship, despite her protestations and, in the process, sheds more light on his motivations and goals. In Lou’s own words, he “wants to be the guy who owns the station that owns the camera.” All that’s left for the audience to do is wait for the volatile mixture of complete ethical bankruptcy and psychotic single-minded ambition to come to a head—in assuredly spectacular fashion.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 60-70) It’s business as usual for Lou, who’s taken on a new employee in an effort to minimize his effectiveness while on the job. With Lou now firmly entrenched in the administrative culture of KSML, he’s got find a story worth reporting, lest he lose his position of power over Nina. While pursuing a possible story late one night, Lou picks up another conveniently located crime on the police scanner. Without a moment to lose, he hightails it to the scene, arrive even before the police. Abandoning even the pretense of journalistic integrity, Lou enters the scene to find a murdered family, quickly and efficiently recording the whole thing, naturally. Racing back to KSML to sell the story, Lou promises Nina that the story isn’t over, and that she can expect the follow-up to boost the tin-pot station’s ratings to unprecedented levels. Unbeknownst to Nina, Lou secretly captured the license plate of the perpetrator’s car, meaning that he alone knows where to find the suspects, and subsequently that he alone can break the story.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 81-97) Not twenty-four hours later, Lou has tracked down the suspects and, along with his employee, Rick, plan to tail them, only calling in the cops at the opportune moment. The suspects, a pair a burly gangsters, arrive at a busy restaurant—the perfect place to film their “dramatic” arrest. Rick, however, is given pause for thought as he considers how dangerous this operation might turn out to be. Undeterred, Lou proceeds to tip off the police, already in the prime position to capture the arrest on film. The police arrive shortly, and it’s immediately clear that the suspects have no intention of coming quietly. A thrilling, high-speed chase through the busy Los Angeles streets ensues, ending in the suspects’ car overturning. What follows is difficult to describe in a non-visual medium, but essentially, Lou notices that one of the suspects is still armed, despite his near-fatal crash, and motions for Rick to go over to him and start recording. The suspect, injured and with nothing left to loose, shoots and fatally wounds Rick and Lou captures his last moments on camera. With this, the audience realizes who and what Lou really is, and that there’s nothing he won’t sacrifice to achieve his ends.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 98-108) Rick’s death serves as the emotional high-point of the film, and all subsequent action does little more than reinforce what the audience already knows about Lou. There’s a truncated police investigation surrounding the killings and the video “evidence” that Lou recorded at the scene, but since the police can’t prove anything, it’s little more than a formality. The film’s ending is appropriately nihilistic, but in a sort of knowing way, as if it’s simply the conformation of something we had known all a long. In the final scene, Lou stands before his new employees, imparting a few words of wisdom before they drive off, documenting and causing mayhem of their own, extensions of Lou himself, as if they were his own treacherous tendrils extending, groping blindly, searching, and gleefully seizing upon and exposing violence and discord in the dark Los Angles night. Lou leaves his new employees with this: “I can tell you from experience that the surest way up the ladder is to listen carefully and follow my orders. You may be confused at times, and other times unsure, but remember that I will never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.”

What the Hell Is Mumblecore?

Mumblecore Article

I was idly browsing Wikipedia the other day, because I have that kind of time, and I came across a term that I had never heard before: mumblecore. I admit I was a bit perturbed at first; it was a completely foreign concept, and I consider it a point of pride to stay abreast of most developments in film. In an effort to remedy my ignorance, I quickly read on. Wikipedia offers this strict, technical definition:

“Mumblecore is a subgenre of American independent film, characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue. The term mumblegore has been used to describe films mixing mumblecore and horror gore.”

The article goes on to list a few of the more notable filmmakers that are involved in the movement, including Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton, Marc Duplass, Jay Duplass, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, and Ry Russo-Young.

Although there are exceptions to every rule, it seems as though there are a few demonstrable elements, which together constitute a legitimate mumblecore movie: a small budget (generally under $10 million), a heavy emphasis on improvisation, realistic-sounding dialogue, plots concerning the lives of characters who are usually young and single (often in their twenties or thirties), and sometimes, but not always, a limited soundtrack.

Though it’s a bit difficult to nail down exactly where and how mumblecore originated, many proponents of the genre suggest that it was born from a desire to depart from the tired and cliché plot structures, specifically designed to attain mass appeal, that are common in bigger-budget Hollywood productions. Some mumblecore filmmakers profess to draw inspiration from the works of French New-Wave director Éric Rohmer, perhaps most famous for films like My Night At Maude’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), and The Green Ray (1986).

Rohmer’s technique and narrative style tends to focus primarily on the thoughts of the characters, rather than their actions. His characters were generally young and well-educated, and often engaged in long, meandering conversations with one other, concerning topics as eclectic as philosophy, relationships, and the ideal vacation spot. Rohmer disliked the close-up, as he believed it was disingenuous and non-representative of how people actually see one another. He likewise omitted the use of non-diegetic music (i.e. soundtracks), considering it a violation of the fourth wall.

The reliance on ‘realism’ and the emphasis on exclusively diegetic storytelling were ideals that mumblecore filmmakers eagerly adopted, having understandably grown disillusioned with the bloated, creatively shallow studio mechanism.

While most fans of mumblecore cite Rohmer as a chief influence, there still seems to be a bit of a debate among mumblecore diehards concerning the emergence of the first ‘true’ mumblecore film. Some point to Claudia Weill’s somewhat obscure 1978 film Girlfriends as the unofficial beginning of mumblecore, while others suggest that Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan is a more likely candidate, despite its being a big-budget production. Even director Richard Linklater, though generally not considered part of the mumblecore movement, nonetheless made meaningful contributions to the stylistic leanings of the genre with his films Slacker (1991), and Before Sunrise (1995).

There is one man, however, whose name is buried deep within the annals and sacred texts of mumblecore, and is revered above all others as “the Godfather of mumblecore.” That man is Andrew Bujalski, and his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha is popularly considered the legitimate vanguard of mumblecore proper.

Apart from the popular “comedy-drama” plot format, there have been a number of forays into the broader genre of horror, with varying degrees of success. Adam Wingard’s 2013 home-invasion horror flick You’re Next remains a pretty popular entry in the mumblegore sub-sub-genre, though I remember having some mixed opinions about it at the time, and the horror compilations V/H/S and V/H/S 2 are likewise part of the mumblegore stable, but I’m personally not a fan of either. Ti West’s 2009 cult flick House of the Devil comes a bit closer to the sweet spot, but still has some pretty serious pacing issues, and seems to have trouble telling the difference between atmospheric tension and just having nothing happen for forty-five minutes. And that’s not to say that horror and mumblecore don’t mix, but the fact is that creating effective horror is a delicate and subtle science, and it takes more than a camcorder and a couple of improvised lines to make it work.

I’ll admit it—I haven’t seen a ton of mumblecore movies in my time, but I have seen enough to know that I can wholeheartedly respect the intention, even if the execution remains a little hit-and-miss. I did, however, have the good fortune to see Aaron Katz’s mystery film Cold Weather (2011), which I can heartily recommend, as well as Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010).

In my opinion, an important thing to keep in mind while watching a mumblecore movie is that the filmmakers are often trying to bring across a feeling of helplessness or confusion, while the agency of the characters to improve their respective situations are often limited. The films can admittedly be a bit disheartening towards the beginning, I know, but I would recommend that the viewer power through it, as it often transpires that beneath the characteristic bleakness, there often lurks a certain lighthearted silliness and childlike sense of abandon, almost as if to say, “maybe things aren’t great now, and maybe they won’t even be okay by the end of this movie. But we’re all still alive and kicking around—and that’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?”