UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Tom Sees You Two Taylor Sheridans and Raises You a Brad Ingelsby

Tom Stempel reviews two Taylor Sheridan films: 'Tom Clancy's Without Remorse' and 'Those Who Wish Me Dead' and Brad Ingelsby's 'Mare of Easttown'.
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Tom’s, and Everybody Else’s.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (2021. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, screen story by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, based on the novel by Tom Clancy. 109 minutes)

Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, New Republic Pictures, Amazon Prime

Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, New Republic Pictures, Amazon Prime

Now that the muck and mire of Awards Season is over, finally, it is not surprising that we are now getting in April what in normal times would have been a January movie. A January movie, for those of you who have missed my previous references to it, is a movie that is definitely not good enough to get into the awards race, and is released in January as a counterpoint to all the heavy hitters trying to grub up votes. Sometimes they are a lot of fun. This one isn’t.

I think this one may have been intended as more than a January movie. It is based on a novel by Tom Clancy, who wrote books that became best sellers and highly profitable movies, such as The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994).

Without Remorse, the novel came out in 1993 and was the origin story of John Kelly/Clark, who had been featured in other Clancy novels. The novel went into his experiences starting in Viet Nam. According to items in the IMDb, the novel was sold to the movies in 1993 for $2.5 million, but then went through many different unsuccessful attempts to make it into a film. By the time of the current production the original novel had become rather dated. In 1993 Clancy could base it on the Cold War, which was only just over, but now it is much, much later. Hence, the need for a “screen story” by its current writers.

The film is set in the present, with no reference to the Cold War, although the bad guys are still Russian, which with Putin in charge sort of works. But the general framework of the Cold War is not there, a problem that many adaptations of Clancy novels have to deal with. Clancy was not a subtle writer and the nuances of the post Cold War era were simply beyond him.

Some critics have complained this film strays too far from the novel, but to make it at all convincing, and it is not that convincing, in the present day, it had to be changed. The changes do make it flatter than it might otherwise been.

As you may have guessed, I have not read any of the Clancy novels. My late wife, who loved mystery stories, tried to read one of Clancy’s books, but gave up halfway through, put off by his fascination with military equipment. He also had a respect for the military, so in his novels, the technology nearly always works and the American military is a great organization, except for the occasional bad guy.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing Real and Fictional People]

That carries through in the screenplay for this film. Jack Kelly is a Navy SEAL whose team is sent in to rescue one of our spies, but the mission is a setup. Eventually, Russian operatives start killing off members of his team after they are back in Washington (highly unlikely; Putin is more devious than trying something clumsily obvious like that). The Russians kill Kelly’s pregnant wife by accident and, guess what, he is out for revenge. Action scenes ensue, a lot of them.

By the time everything gets sorted out, the film spends the last ten to fifteen minutes setting up what everybody hopes will be the sequels. January movies often don’t think that far ahead, but we live in a world in which everybody is thinking of sequels and series. At least one critic said that he assumes the sequels will be better. Maybe, maybe not.

Have you been impressed that so far I have not mentioned that one of the screenwriters is one of the best screenwriters now working, Taylor Sheridan? He wrote, among others, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) and he created and wrote episodes of the series Yellowstone (2018 on). You can read one of my more detailed takes on him here. He is the main reason I watched the film, but there is very little that is distinctively his in the script. He is particularly good at writing very classic masculine men, and we get some of that in here, but not with the texture we get in Hell or High Water or Yellowstone.

Better luck next time, as in…

And Now a Good Taylor Sheridan Movie.

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021. Screenplay by Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt and Taylor Sheridan, based on the book by Michael Koryta. 100 minutes)

Those Who Wish Me Dead, BRON Studios

Those Who Wish Me Dead, BRON Studios

One thing that bothered me about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino was that Scorsese seemed to think he was making a tragedy. Scorsese’s beloved East Coast gangsters try to take over Las Vegas and fail. It apparently never occurred to him that for people living west of the Hudson River it was a comedy: Goodfellas Go To Vegas and Get Their Clocks Cleaned by a Bunch of Cowboys.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is the anti-Scorsese movie. There are two hitmen working for a boss (Tyler Perry, of all people, good in one of his serious roles) who wants them to kill a young teenage boy. The boy may have information his father, a forensic accountant, has dug up for an Attorney General. Lots of chasing happens and the hitmen come to two very different bad ends, and we are very happy to see them go, since they started a forest fire to distract the law.

Yes, the information is the Maguffin of this picture. The father has written down two pages of stuff and given it to his son Connor. Like all good Maguffins, we never find out what it is, although the film skips over the fact that---SPOILER ALERT--- since Connor spends some time hiding in a stream, the ink on the pages may have become completely unreadable.

In the novel, the setup is a little different. Connor has just witnessed the two hitmen kill somebody. The two hitmen in the novel were psychopathic twin brothers and readers on Amazon.com thought they were the best thing in the book. Here they are not twins, but more conventional nasty people. I am not sure if the writers had left them as they were in the book they would have stolen the movie, but they might have.

[UNDERSTANDING SCREENWRITING: Writing for Performance]

In the novel, Connor is the main character and we meet the other supporting characters through him. The writers have eliminated several characters and built up the part of Hanna. She is a firefighter who helps Connor escape. In the novel, we do not get to meet her until the middle of the story. In the script we start with a nightmare she is having about her not being able to rescue three children in a forest fire, which she wakes up from. Then we get Connor and his situation being set up. Then another Hannah scene with her sitting around the male firefighters and holding her own. Listen to her explanation as to why she will not sleep with one of them. She is then assigned to a fire tower in the middle of the forest, at least partly because she is suffering from PTSD. That leads her to Connor.

So why have the writers built up the part of Hannah? Simple, folks. They wanted to make it the star part, figuring the boy would not be enough to carry a big picture. Taylor Sheridan was called in to help on the script, but when the original director dropped out, he offered to take over directing the film. The money people were hesitant. According to the IMDb, Sheridan asked them, “What if I could get Angelina Jolie to play Hannah?” They said yes, knowing full well he could never get her. So he called up Jolie and got her. She has limited her film performances in the last few years, but she was smart enough to see it was a great part for her.

Sheridan and the other writers have not only written a great part for her, but great relationship scenes for her and Connor. He is played by the young Australian actor Finn Little. The chemistry between him and Jolie is terrific.

One thing that bothered me about some of Sheridan’s early work was that his women characters were not that strong. In Sicario the woman FBI agent starts out as a tough person, but then turns into a wuss. She did not appear in the sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018). Then Sheridan co-created the television series Yellowstone, with one of John Dutton’s daughter as tough or tougher than his sons. Hannah is a bigger step for Sheridan. I can hardly wait for his adaptation of Little Women.

By the way, you can learn a lot about survival in the forest in Those Who Wish me Dead. Connor’s father tells him if he gets lost to find a stream, follow it to a river, and find a town on the river. The best piece of advice comes from Hannah as she is building a fire to keep her and Connor warm. She tells him every teenage boy should know how to build a fire. I will leave it to you to see the film and hear her explanation why.

Speaking as we were of star parts…

Mare of Easttown (2021. Written by Brad Ingelsby. 403 minutes)

Mare of Easttown, HBO

Mare of Easttown, HBO

Several columns ago I reviewed Brad Ingelsby’s 2020 film The Way Back. You can read the review here. It was about a former high school basketball star who led his team to the state championship. Jack has fallen on hard times and drinks “A LOT,” as I said in the review. He gets hired to coach the basketball team at his old high school. Jack has some success, but his drinking gets the better of him, although there is a small light at the end of the tunnel.

Some of these elements show up in Ingelsby’s limited series Mare of Easttown. The title character, Mare Sheehan, is a police detective who still lives in her hometown. She was also a star basketball player, famous for making a shot that won a game. But that was a long time ago and Mare hates being reminded of it, since she has not done anything as spectacular since then. Her detective work is very routine, but she gets bugged a lot by Dawn Bailey because she has not found either the body or the killer of Dawn’s daughter Katie.

Then another teenage girl is murdered and everybody begins to think there is a serial killer loose in Easttown. Mare is assigned to the case.

One thing I loved about The Way Back is that Ingelsby wrote a great star part for Ben Affleck as Jack. He has written an even better star part for Kate Winslet as Mare. It gives her A LOT to do, and many nuanced emotions to play, and even if you see just bits and pieces of it, you can see why people are raving about her performance. As screenwriters, you should study what all Ingelsby gives her to work with.

One of my complaints about The Way Back was that Ingelsby did not write a lot of good supporting parts. That is not true here. The film was 108 minutes long, and Mare is 403 minutes long, so Ingelsby gives you a whole town of interesting characters. One problem I always have with traditional British “manor house” murder stories is that they have a limited number of suspects. Here Ingelsby has given us an enormous range of small-town types, any one of which we might think had something to do with the disappearance of Katie and the murder of Erin. The script is as much a study of the town as it is a murder mystery. Ingelsby is great at connecting the town to Mare’s investigations in a variety of ways.

Most of those characters are related to each other and I sort of wish HBO had put a genealogical chart on their website so we could refer back to remind ourselves who is related to whom and who is not related to whom. One week I did not watch the Sunday night showing and I did not catch up with it until the following Thursday. By then I had lost some of the relationships and it took me a bit to get back into them. Families in all forms are a major thematic element in the series.

[LEARN: Creating Authentic Emotional Conflict]

Since Ingelsby has written such a complex set of characters, and since everybody involved figured Winslet was going to be at her best, the other actors realized they had to bring their A games. Boy, did they. I’ll mention just two. Jean Smart plays Helen, Mare’s very cranky mother. Smart gets as much as you can out of the variations and zingers Ingelsby has given her to work with. Helen and Mare are almost always at odds with each other. The great payoff for that is a scene after they have gone to a memorial service for a friend. In the middle of the service, the husband of the deceased feels the need to unburden himself by telling everyone that he once had an affair with Helen. Then we get Helen and Mare driving home with Mare, for the first and only time in the series, roaring with laughter. Helen is upset, since she can’t remember exactly how many times she had sex with him, so how serious could have been? More laughter from Mare.

Mare’s best friend is Lori, played by Julianne Nicholson. While Smart gets to snipe from the sidelines, Nicholson’s Lori is solid as a rock, and Nicholson said in an interview that she realized that Winslet was going to be flying around and it would be best for Lori to stay still. Which she does, brilliantly.

Until the end. By the end of Episode Six (of Seven), we think we know who killed Erin (Katie, meanwhile, has turned up alive in an out-of-nowhere subplot. Look at Katie’s mother’s scene with Mare after Katie has come back alive: another example of Ingelsby’s nuanced writing). Near the beginning of the seventh and final episode, we learn that suspect didn’t. Someone else confesses, but watch Winslet as Mare watches the man confess: what does she do that makes us suspect something’s not right? No, I am not going to tell you because I don’t know. Was there a flicker of Mare’s eye? Was it something else Winslet does or does not do?

Even after the confession, there is more to come, including two great scenes with Winslet and Nicholson. As with everything in this series, you cannot look away. Ever.


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