Truby On Structure: Mystic River, Runaway Jury & Intolerable Cruelty
Posted by John Truby on
Warning: If you haven't seen these movies, the following article contains spoilers which may impair your viewing pleasure.
Mystic River is a classic example of what is referred to as an "actor's movie." Big monologues, gnashing of teeth, tearing of scenery. Being an actor's movie is not necessarily a bad thing. Big stars want to be in them. And actor's movies often win Oscars in the actor-heavy Academy. But that doesn't make them great movies. Mystic River is a hybrid script, combining drama with the detective/crime forms, where the seams show. And the closer you look at the script the more you see how failures in story structure and genre make this highly ambitious film ultimately disappointing.
Mystic River uses the classic technique of showing the three lead characters as boys, when one of them is molested. The rest of the story therefore has to turn on how one boy's ghost haunts all the boys as adults. But this central connection is never made. Yes, the molested boy, Dave, is a broken man. But the other two, Sean and Jimmy, seem to be no different than they were as kids. And Dave's horror has no real effect on them as adults.
In short, the ghost creates drama, but it is irrelevant to the drama in the present. When the detective/crime genre is added to the drama, the viewer keeps looking for the connection that will make each pay off to its fullest potential. This never happens. Thus, the crosscutting between these two tracks in the body of the film simply doesn't work.
On one track is the investigation, but this has a clumsy set-up as well. The script is so heavy-handed in suggesting that Dave committed the murder of the girl, that we know he obviously didn't. Clearly this movie is going to be about, among other things, false accusation. But this way of introducing theme is not good for surprise and plot. We may not know who did it, but we sure as hell know it wasn't Dave.
As this investigative line plays out, we dig into another ghost concerning Jimmy's past life of crime. But none of this is played out in the present, so it has very little revelatory power. What's worse, to keep the false accusation line alive, the writer has Dave's wife tell Jimmy she thinks Dave killed Jimmy's daughter. This is so overwhelmingly stupid and unbelievable that the moment comes across as a plot contrivance, immediately kicking the viewer out of the movie-going experience.
The second track of the film is provided by the drama of losing a daughter. This gives the actors a lot to chew on. But the drama is ultimately hollow because the girl has not been a character in the present and she has had no effect on any of the major characters except Jimmy.
The full disappointment of the movie comes after Sean tells Jimmy who really killed his daughter. The false accusation theme is pretty much dropped. Jimmy's wife, suddenly sounding like a modern-day Lady MacBeth, tells him he could be the king of this town. And Sean's estranged wife finally talks to him on the phone and returns. None of it makes any sense. But it does suggest that this film could have really expanded at the end had it been set up properly at the
Mystic River shows the potential power as well as the many pitfalls of writing a transcendent crime story, detective story or thriller. Combining one of these genres with drama so that both lines work through each other is extremely complex (see the Detective, Crime and Thriller Course). But just attempting it is enough to set your script apart and get you the attention that every writer in Hollywood needs to succeed.
John Grisham is a master of plot, specializing in the courtroom thriller. And in this complicated and underestimated writing skill, he has a lot to teach us. Runaway Jury sets up as a battle royale between Dustin Hoffman's Wendall Rohr and Gene Hackman's Rankin Fitch, with Fitch as the powerful opponent. Most writers would work their plot from there, using the hidden powers of the main opponent to provide most of the surprise upon which plot is based.
But Grisham adds another element that magnifies his plot tremendously. John Cusack's Nick Easter seems to be the innocent little guy who will, in classic thriller form, come under intense attack from the powerful opponent. But instead of using the reactive victim, Grisham gives Easter his own desire line, his own hidden agenda. The result: three sources of action and massive plot (see the Great Screenwriting Class for details on plotting, opposition, surprise, the reveals sequence and plot weave).
Intolerable Cruelty shows once again why combining love and comedy is among the most difficult tasks in fiction writing. Love wants to get close. Comedy wants to step back and make fun. If you don't find the right balance between the two, you're dead.
That's exactly what went wrong with Intolerable Cruelty. With all the smart satire and farcical comedy in this film, this is still at heart a love story between Miles and Marylin, which means there's got to be real emotion. You can't just tell the audience that characters have feelings for each other. Emotion must be set up, nurtured, brought into the story carefully.
That doesn't happen here. One - Miles doesn't trust Marylin from the beginning, given that she is a total gold-digger. Two - Marylin doesn't trust Miles, given that he is the ultimate sleazy lawyer. This is not a screwball comedy. But it does share the same story problem: how to make the love real while doing so much broad comedy. Screwball comedy knows you have to give the two leads time together. It has to be quiet time where they can respond to the deepest part of the other person, so the audience can see that they are capable of love and not just pawns of the plot.
Intolerable Cruelty also fails to set up the comic plot properly. In a story about two master scam artists, the scams better be ingenious and the artists better be smart. But Miles is unbelievably dumb, leaving himself wide open to a woman he knows has only one desire: to take revenge on him. This film has some very funny lines. But that is not enough. The key to any romantic comedy is setting the proper comic structure (for details, see the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class). Fail there, and nothing else is going to
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