Premise: In a small town during the 1935 dust bowl, a former soldier must protect a fleeing city woman from a group of gangsters who want her dead.
About: I don’t know much about the writer, but this script made the Black List in 2008. People have been describing it as the next Low Dweller (now titled “Into The Furnace.”) although I’ve been told it’s very “Desperate Hours’ish” as well.
Writer: Jeremy H. Bailey
Details: 110 pages (undated)
So there’re two things I’ve been going gaga about over the past month. One is Gangnam Style and two is Desperate Hours. Both are amazing and world-changing in their own way. Now if there was some way to combine these two forces into one super-force…well gosh-darnit we might have the single greatest piece of entertainment in world history. The only thing better than that mobster battle in Act 3 of Hours would be if Psy popped out and said…..LONG PAUSE…”Oppam Gangnam style!” and started doing the horsie dance. And then the pelvic-thrusting elevator guy began doing his pelvic-thrusting elevator dance to ward off some of the mobsters. I know if I were one of those mobsters, I’d run for my life.
What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, a period piece. Makes total sense that I’m including a South Korean pop star in this review then. So the reason I picked this script today was because someone told me it was similar to Hours, but “EVEN BETTER.” Well, since it took me over two years to crown a new number 1 script on my Top 25 list, I’m not sure how you can get any better than that, but I was willing to give it a shot.
And I quickly found out that it was, indeed, similar to Hours in many ways. Both scripts start out in a really depressing era, with Layman’s beginning during the Dustbowl. Don’t know what the Dustbowl is? From my shaky history class memory, it was the time after we planted all our crops and didn’t consider how to keep the moisture intact (something about crop rotation?). So all the land went dry, and that caused these huge dust storms to swirl around the country, making the problem even worse. Basically, America went all North Korea farming, to stick with today’s theme.
This has caused the tiny Oklahoma town of Red Thistle to go near-broke. The only one with any money is a not-very-nice man named Two Bills Calahan. A fat bald sweaty pervert of a fellow, Two Bills understands the power he yields, and he makes sure he takes advantage of every ounce of it. This guy is such a scumbag that he actually brings in a beautiful struggling farmer’s widow every day, Evelyn, and pays her for his sexual needs. Evelyn, who has a sick daughter, is so desperate for money that she has no choice but to do it.
Staying with Evelyn, it turns out she lost her husband in the war, and got back his brother as the prize. Crane McNamee has been shunned by the community since he left town when they needed him most, and has come back with his tail between his legs to take care of Evelyn now that she’s living alone with her daughter. The two have a complicated relationship that revolves around her constantly being pissed off at him.
Their relationship is about to get even more complicated though as, during one of the many dust storms, Crane finds a crashed car on the side of the road with a passed out woman and a dead men inside He schleps the woman, a city girl we’ll come to know as Cassidy, back to his house, not knowing that the men who were chasing her aren’t far behind.
These men, led by a really scary motherf*cker named Washington, head to the middle of Red Thistle and demand to know where this woman is. They make a deal with Two Bill that whoever finds her first gets a reward, and that Two Bill gets half of it. Never one to turn away money, Two Bill takes the fight to the people, encouraging them to look under ever rock, behind every loose board. They MUST find this woman. And the people, desperate for money, become a senseless mob in the process.
Naturally, word comes down that Crane is hiding her, and Washington’s crew, along with the town, go to claim their prize. But Crane is not giving her up. He’ll do anything, including becoming the killer he left in the past, to protect her. An awkward four-pronged battle then ensues between Crane, Washington, Two Bill, and the town, which seems headed in one direction and one direction only: Disaster.
It’s hard to write this review without comparing Layman’s to Hours. Had I read Layman’s first, I’m sure I would’ve rated it higher. It’s still a very good script, but in the back of my head I was always saying, “Oooh, Hours did that better.” The first thing that struck me was the time and place. What I liked about Hours was that it was set at the end of all that depressing shit. America had started to recover. There was a sense of hope. With Layman’s, it’s set in the heart of hopelessness. The Dustbowl had made everyone as poor as dirt, and there didn’t seem to be any end to it. It was super-damn depressing. Like, the complete opposite of watching the Gangnam Style video.
I was actually telling a friend about the script after I read it, and I realized after a few minutes what I was saying…”Dustbowl, dying daughter with pneumonia, mom who must prostitute herself to stay afloat, crippled main character, dead soldier brother” — and all of a sudden we both just started laughing at how depressing it all was. And the thing is, it really isn’t as bad as it sounds, but yeah, the hopelessness definitely played a part in my reaction here.
I’ll tell you one area where Layman’s DID eclipse Hours, though, and that was in the villain department. It has two really nasty villains, one in Two-Bill and the other in Washington. These are just two really BAD dudes, each in their own way. And like I always say, if you can develop a great villain, you will rope in the reader. Because there’s nothing more fun than watching a villain you hate go down.
To me, that’s what sets this script apart. I so wanted to see this pompous megalomaniac Washington get his ass handed to him by Crane. But the thing is, it could’ve been even better. Crane was an okay protagonist, but not nearly as good as Frank from Hours. With Frank, his situation was always clear. He’d lost his family to the Spanish flu and he was still in love with the woman he left when he was young, only to come back and find out she’d married another man. With Crane, there was something about how he could’ve saved his brother in the war but didn’t. Maybe?? I wasn’t sure. I could also never figure out what his relationship was with Evelyn. Was he just a caretaker or was there more there? She seemed to hate him. But at the end she says she always loved him. Loved him as a family member or like “in love” with him? I couldn’t figure that out. And it drives me batty when main characters’ intentions and motivations and their situations are unclear. I just couldn’t get a handle on Crane.
The ending, also, was a little confusing. At a certain point (spoiler) Cassidy tells Crane she came here for him? But wait? Why did she wait until the very end to tell him that? Did she not know who he was yet? I’m not sure. It was one of those situations where it felt like the writer was so set on the twist, that he was going to force it in there through hell or high water, regardless of if it was clear or not. I’m not upset about it. Let’s face it: WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE. But still, that third act definitely could’ve used another draft or two.
But boy oh boy, those villains. They really kept me around wanting to know what happened. They were so strong, in fact, and so fun to watch, that they pumped this script up to a double worth-the-read. Them and that damn rain-maker, who was a stroke of atmospheric genius!
What I learned: Today’s “what I learned” came out of nowhere. I realized that having two villains go toe-to-toe is a guaranteed great scene! My favorite scene in the script is when Washington and his gang interrupt a church sermon to confront our other villain, Two Bills, to ask where their girl is. There’s something about seeing two evil factions who we’ve met individually square off against each other that’s fascinating. I just couldn’t wait to see who was going to bend first. This is a cool tip to remember.