Premise: After a young mother’s teenaged daughter disappears one night, the mother rebuilds her life one step at a time.
About: We’re less than a month away from the 2016 Black List, so what better script to review than one from frequent Black List contributor, Brad Ingelsby (Into the Furnace, Run All Night)? This latest script of his finished with 13 votes on last year’s list. As of a year ago, it had Anne Hathaway attached to play the lead.
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Details: 123 pages
I have a love/hate relationship with the holidays.
I love the disruption.
I spend the majority of my life feeling guilty about not doing enough work. There’s always something that I haven’t done that needs to be done.
This time of year eases some of that guilt. Everybody makes a wink-wink agreement with each other that we’re not going to hold ourselves to March, June, or September work ethic standards. For once, you feel like you can breathe.
The downside of this is that it gives you more time to reflect. And that opens up its own can of worms. What if, upon reflection, you don’t like what you see? What if you’re nowhere close to your life plan? What if you don’t have your dream car yet, your dream spouse, your dream house? What if you don’t have two kids and a summer home? What if you haven’t paid off your student loans yet?
For this reason, Burning Woman may be the perfect script to read over the holidays. It’s all about life’s trials and tribulations. It’s about the passing of time and space and people and the desire to control what you can’t control.
But it’s tough, man. This script digs under your skin like a tick on crack. I guarantee you’ll feel something when you read it. The question is, does it reward all that you invest into it? The answer to that question will determine whether this script gets an “impressive” or a “genius” rating.
32 year-old Deb Connor got pregnant the second time she ever had sex. That mistake gave her her daughter, Bridget, who, not surprisingly, also got pregnant when she was 16. 17 now, Bridget has a one year-old son, Jesse, and is struggling with the reality that life’s fun cupboard has been closed.
One night, Bridget goes on a date with her ex, the father of her child, and never comes home. As the days pass, Deb becomes convinced that the ex did something to her. But the police can’t make anything stick with him, or anybody for that matter. Bridget has simply… vanished.
What follows is not what you’d think. Deb doesn’t buy a gun, learn Krav-Maga, and hunt down the killer. Deb just… lives her life the best she can. She keeps dating the wrong men. She struggles through community college so she can support her grandson. And she tries to keep it together.
Years pass and Deb eventually meets Chris – not the cool bad-boy type she’s gotten in trouble with in the past, but a sweet slightly nerdy guy who’s charming enough to convince her to marry him. Chris brings some stability to the household. He and Bridget’s son become close. Everything is going well. Or at least, as well as it can.
(spoilers) Then one day Deb gets that call. The one every person in her situation dreads. The police have found her daughter’s remains. They also know who killed her. All Deb has left is to speak to her daughter’s killer. She needs to find out what happened that night. Will it bring her peace? There’s only one way to find out.
This script is fucking beautiful.
And yet the closer I got to the end, the more I wanted to strangle it.
What makes this script so great is also what makes it so frustrating. We’re used to spouses with murdered family members charging off and getting revenge. Not only does this give us some measure of satisfaction, but it gives the script purpose. The plot is dictated by a goal. The character is actively pursuing something.
By not having that in place, Burning Woman doesn’t move like a traditional script. It’s slow. Characters sit down and talk to each other a lot. There’s no urgency because there’s no overall objective.
But because we don’t have that, we have something else: No idea what’s coming next. And that’s a superpower in storytelling, when the reader can’t outguess you. And as I looked up from the script at the midway point, I realized that’s why I was still engrossed. I had no fucking idea where this was going.
Make no mistake though. We still have that big open question that the audience wants an answer to: What happened to Bridget? We’re assuming we’re going to be rewarded with that in the end. If we erased the disappearance of Bridget and tried to build a story ONLY on a 35 year-old woman trying to survive in a small town? Burning Woman doesn’t work.
I bring that up because I’ve read versions of this story without the disappearance. Small town tales about hardship. That’s not a movie guys. As I’ve stated before, at the VERY LEAST you need a dead body to have a movie. Movies about people doing normal people things aren’t enough anymore.
Look at The Edge of Seventeen, the highly hyped film that came out this weekend. These teen movies used to be good for 25 million bucks opening weekend. Seventeen barely embezzled 5 million out of America. And it’s because it’s a movie where the only thing that’s going on is people talking. There’s no concept. Which means I can go watch the same shit on my television for free. In fact, I have 400 shows to choose from.
Anyway, back to Burning Woman. Another reason I couldn’t stop reading was because I had so much damn sympathy for Deb. Here’s this woman who loses her daughter. Her boyfriend dumps her. The next man she’s with abuses her. She struggles through community college classes to pay the bills. I just wanted her to find happiness. I knew by page 30 that I would read until the last page because I wanted Deb to regain a sense of hope. I wanted to know that she was going to be all right.
But in the end, Burning Woman’s decision to take the less traveled road bites it in the ass. And I have to bust the spoilers out to explain this so you’ve been warned. This script is 123 pages. There was therefore plenty of time to explore the characters and then, say on page 75, Deb finds a clue that someone she knows was involved in Bridget’s disappearance. And she spends the rest of the script looking into it.
It didn’t even have to be that. It could’ve been someone she didn’t know. And I’m not saying she had to become The Equalizer either. Even if she figured out who did it and alerted the police, that would’ve been satisfactory. There’s an old screenwriting rule that applies here. An audience is willing to follow a passive protagonist as long as they become active AT SOME POINT.
That’s the only thing that bothered me. I needed that plot point that activated Deb. As much as I loved her, as much as I wanted to see her happy, I also wanted to reach into my computer, pull her out, and scream, “You need to do something about this! Don’t sit at home all day. Go find him.”
(major spoiler) And yes, we do finally meet the killer. So we do get closure. But it was a letdown that Deb had nothing to do with him being in prison. Even if Ingelsby was going for a “real-life” vibe, I think the audience wanted to see that.
That’s why Burning Woman didn’t get that perfect rating from me. We invested all this time and effort in Deb, and the payoff to her misery is this sad man’s confession, whose capture she had no part in. Still, if you want to read one hell of a character piece, check this out. It has some of the strongest character-writing of the year.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: You need to give your hero likability or sympathy or else it’s hard for us to root for them. For lighter fare, likability is your best bet (Forest Gump, Seth Rogen in any Seth Rogen movie). The darker your movie, the more you’ll use sympathy as a way to make the reader root for your character. Sympathy can be created in a lot of ways, but one of the easiest ways is to have the world shit on your hero. We naturally root for people who are beaten down by life unfairly. And boy does Deb get beaten down on in this movie.