10 May, 2008

Killing the Hero

Spoilers ahoy!

The reviews of Midnight Man were mostly pretty bad and a common theme was the obvious way the exposition was given. I actually didn't mind that too much but what concerns me is that none of the reviewers mentioned the lack of logic which is much more important.

As a fan of thrillers I worry that logic-free plot-driven thrillers have become the norm in this country. The ending of the first part of Midnight Man had the most overused annoying British thriller cliché of all time: killing someone innocent to frame the hero when killing the hero is the most obvious thing to do.

There is a school of thought which says that thrillers have to be plot-driven but the reason Midnight Man failed for me was due to the lack of authenticity in character behaviour. Even if you think of the plot first you then have to retrofit character motivations to it. Well, you don't have to but you should if you want to make something good.

There have been suggestions that the other recent TV thrillers, The State Within and The Last Enemy, lost half their audience by the second episode because they were too clever when I believe they failed because of the same reason: emotion-free over-complicated plots where under-developed characters did things which made no sense.

The State Within used that most overused annoying thriller cliché of all time. I gave up on The Last Enemy early on due to it using the second most annoying thriller cliché of all time (the hero discovers a dead body and plays with the murder weapon so the police will think he's the killer), but I would be shocked if that series didn't use the number one cliché as well at some point. Enough is enough. I'm begging you, please.

I thought this type of thing was restricted to low-budget movie thrillers by inexperienced writers and I don't understand why I'm seeing it in high-budget television thrillers by A-listers. I'm a little paranoid that's it's me being too picky but Paul Abbott managed the action packed character-driven thriller in State of Play, didn't he? There was nothing too obviously stupid in that, was there? I don't think my man-crush on Paul Abbott blinded me to its faults, he just has a different approach and attitude as a writer.

As a fan of thrillers, I'm not asking for something difficult such as the moon on a stick. These are my actual demands which I must insist writers of thrillers have to comply with. There's no point emailing me asking for concessions, they're non-negotiable. I know script editors, producers, commissioners and a lot of the audience don't care but I do care and that's all that matters and all you should be concerned with:

1) Heroes can be brave but not stupid unless there's a good reason. if the hero is threatened due to their enquiring into stuff then they should at least try and be more discreet - even if the baddies are ultimately better than he thinks and catch him ignoring the warning. As a viewer trying to identify with the hero and care what happens I can imagine me brave but not stupid

2) Baddies should always try to kill the hero early. I admit that would make for a very short thriller so you put obstacles in the way of the baddies doing that. Typical is that the hero has some information or a Macguffin that the baddies need. Working that out may be hard but it has to be done. Alternatively, the hero is just too good at getting away.

An alternative is not the baddie keeping the hero alive and killing someone innocent instead to frame the hero. In one low-budget tax-dodge British film I saw, the baddie kept killing loads of people to frame the hero just because he hated the hero so much. I screamed at the screen, "Just kill the fracking hero then, you stupid bastard!" Baddies can't be thick either. Why let the only person who can foil your dastardly scheme live when you have no qualms about killing innocent people?

The audience of Midnight Man should be on the edge of our seats and chewing our nails anxiously fearing that the hero could be killed next week but that threat has gone - instead we're asked to care that he might go to prison for about five years. (Actually with a good lawyer he might get off completely by thrashing the dead woman's character and taking into account his psychological problems)

3) Minor characters are the star of their own story and also need to have proper recognisable human motivation. In Midnight Man, a bloke knows his cousin was killed in mistake for him, and yet he carries on as normal, as if he wasn't in danger, until he's killed. If it was me I would run away or at least go to the media. And I would have got the evidence proving this was happening immediately and not wait until the hero, some random stranger, asks for it.

Death has to matter to the characters or it won't matter to the audience and a thriller won't thrill.

4) The moon on a stick. OK, I lied, I am asking for this as well as it would be really really cool.

The overall story about a death squad operating in Britain is brilliant, scary and raises loads of issues. Would people just not care, as the hero's hack friend believed? How can an ordinary bloke with serious issues overcome something like that? But I wasn't made emotionally involved enough to care what happens.

Midnight Man had an intriguing premise, OK dialogue and a fast pace with things happening. That will be enough for a lot of people who don't care if it makes sense or not but surely we can aspire to higher.



Genre or Die, pt 3: Thriller

[RTF] Writing the Thriller Film

Thriller Screenplays - 3 Question Checklist

Thrller Writing Techniques

Rules of the Thriller


Lucy V said...

Spare a thought for me and all the other script readers my friend because we READ people getting framed instead of killed ALL THE TIME in addition. I don't know how this gets through "the other side" to production either. Baffling.

It's no accident that many (good) thriller posters show a hero/ine running away and/or fighting in some way. On the Die Hard poster we see Bruce Willis holed up in his hideaway and sweating/bleeding (so he's vulnerable as well as strong!). Will Smith in Enemy of The State or Tom Cruise in The Firm are running with ties and/or briefcases, showing us they are JUST ORDINARY GUYS dragged into something bigger than them - it could happen to anyone of us too.

Thrillers are great when the dramatic context is flight THEN fight, I think. The best ones have the protagonist in danger in the first half and almost killed for a GOOD reason, then the second half shows us their new emotional strength as they fight the jeopardy head on.

Cheers for the link by the way xx

Chip Smith said...

I think the major problem with Midnight Man - discounting the clunky exposition - was the way it slavishly adhered to a "TV thriller template"; everything about it seemed naggingly familiar, even down to the lack of logic as you've rightly pointed out. Weirdly enough, I think this lack of logic has a lot to do with this genre template style - it seems to me that if you're writing to a recognisable template, you don't necessarily notice lapses in logic as the template itself is more important. Don't get me wrong, it was OK - I just won't be tuning in next week as I've seen it all before!

Robin Kelly said...

Luce, I like the flight and fight way of thinking about it

Chip, I think you might be right and the next TV thriller will probably recycle bits of Midnight Man. Recycling is not always good!

I too thought it was OK, in that I was prepared to let everything go until the death at the end

evil twinz said...

I think there's something in avoiding various things BECAUSE someone is in it - ie. you don't like them because they pick stories generally you don't like. I don't like James Nesbitt's acting and barring Millions and Jekyll have never liked the stories of anything he has done. So I'm glad I watched House instead of Exposition Man (I read your review Chip!).