Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writing Crutch: The Crooked Friend/Partner!

The other day I watched a film called The Confessor staring Christian Slater. As murder mysteries go, it was an ok film that started well, but lost momentum with every major decision the writer made. But what killed me was the ending when the writer reached for one of the worst writing crutches in the book.

** spoiler alert. . . yada yada yada**

To give you a quick thumbnail of the plot, the story involves a priest who is accused of murder. He asks to see another priest, Christian Slater, who has very little faith and spends his time handling church public relations. When the accused priest apparently kills himself while in jail, the church becomes intent on burying the whole thing because the priest was gay and suicide is bad for business. But Slater doesn’t want to let it go because he believes the priest was innocent and he doesn’t believe the priest killed himself.

Naturally, Slater somehow convinces the skeptical church to let him take over the parish. Once there, he tries to solve the murder and himself becomes a suspect in a follow up murder. Then the killer reveals himself by trying to kill Slater and. . . this is the part that just annoys me to no end. . . the killer is Slater’s best friend!!! Argh.

I am so sick of this.

In dozens of movies, the bad guy turns out to be the cop’s partner or the hero’s best friend or the guy’s boss. I think it was even a girlfriend once. It’s so common now that it's become a horrible cliché, and it’s sloppy, lazy, incompetent writing at its worst. Indeed, the main reason writers choose this path is because they don’t know how else to surprise the viewer. They don’t know how to introduce the killer among the list of suspects without the audience spotting them immediately. So they select the one person you can’t logically suspect.

And why can’t you logically suspect this person? Because it makes no sense.

Consider the standard bad cop scenario. The hero spends 12-14 hours every day with their partner because that’s what cliché Hollywood relationships require -- you’re either at work with your partner or at a bar with your partner after work. And when the hero isn’t with the partner, we’re told the partner has a wife and child, with whom they spend more time. That doesn’t leave enough time in the day to become a city drug lord or get involved in these massively complex criminal enterprises.

Moreover, how stupid does this make the hero? In all the time the hero spends with this guy he never sees anything? Not one odd phone call, not one off the cuff comment, not one bad guy identifies the partner as the city's biggest drug lord or pimp, the partner/friend doesn’t seem to suddenly be awash in cash or bling? Nothing, huh?

Or consider Schwarzenegger in Eraser, where his boss turns out to be the bad guy. Schwarzenegger and the rest of the Witness Relocation Program are losing witness after witness and the only person who knew where each witness was happens to be Arnies’ boss, but brilliant Arnold can’t see it even though he could decipher vast global conspiracies with the smallest of hints? How could he have missed the obvious?

This is just wrong.

What's more, the writers who do this never provide any clues to the audience that the friend/boss is crooked until they reveal themselves? Why? Because the writer doesn't know how to provide such clues without giving the whole thing away. But in real life, these people get caught all the time because they give off clues left and right. . . creepy behavior, too many coincidences, a pattern of disappearance, errant phone messages, failed polygraph tests, snitches, spending money they shouldn’t have, etc. But not in Hollywood. In Hollywood they are entirely beyond reproach until they are ready to reveal themselves -- then everybody knows about it except the hero. That's cheating by the writer and it's pathetic.

Mystery writing is difficult if you do it right. This is doing it wrong. This is cheating. This is the same as introducing the villains ten seconds before the reveal. Writers need to stop doing this. And if you find you can’t do that, then you should rethink your whole story because it’s obviously crap.

What other writing "short cuts" (to be generous) drive you crazy?

44 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I hear you. My personal pet peeve was 16 Blocks. A Bruce Willis movie. In this one, the cop is supposed to escort a witness 16 blocks to court from jail. For some reason, the whole police force is making it's best effort to stop him and the witness. I couldn't even try to suspend my disbelief.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I remember that. I couldn't suspend my disbelief either. Whole police forces just don't become corrupt -- thought Hollywood has done that several times.

I've met a lot of cops and they aren't the murdering machines that Hollywood makes them out. It really bugs me that they are portrayed that way. Just because your captain says "go kill that officer" doesn't mean ANY of them would do it.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Joel, what really kills me in this example (in the article) is just how not possible it is. It would be like discovering that your spouse is running an volcano lair somewhere. It... just... does... not... make... sense.

CrispyRice said...

Besides, isn't there ancient wisdom about...

"A good friend will help you move; a real friend will help you move the bodies."

Personally, I like to think that if I were a successful serial murderer / drug kingpin / overlord of the underworld, I would bring my family and friends along for to enjoy the spoils with me.

Or maybe that's just me...

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, That is indeed ancient wisdom. :-)

And I too would like to think that when... er, if... IF I ever turn to crime, my friends and family will join me!

I guess we should take this to mean that the heroes in these films just aren't good friends?

thundercatkp said...

"It would be like discovering that your spouse is running an volcano lair somewhere."

Andrew,

WTH....That Volcano lair was top secret...do you know the chaos you have caused...fairies everywhere are cursing your name.

Note to self...keep location of 2nd lair to self.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

It would be like running a parallel universe complete with time machine and transporter. Then the "Evil Friend" could go back into time and to a different place to create a gang who would unexpectedly pop into this universe to wreck havoc then pop out again before any one could get a handle on what is happening. All the while, the evil friend is living next door in a peaceful village during the Renaissance.

AndrewPrice said...

thundercatkp, I was speaking hypothetically. I never gave a street address. ;-)

And I would never disclose the location of the second one. . .in the Arctic. . . at Polar Bear Lane.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That makes about as much sense as believing that someone you spend every waking moment with can be running a massive criminal gang right under your nose.

thundercatkp said...

Andrew,

Don't you know by now Nothing is hypothetical around Joel.

~~Evil Chuckle~~

Operation...Divert, Daze, and Confuse...initiated.

AndrewPrice said...

Operation Divert, Daze and Confuse -- LOL! Good luck with that!

T-Rav said...

Yep, that's a pretty worn-out plot twist--the cop's partner being the bad guy and all. That's what everyone was mad about with "The Killing"s season finale; or at least that's how a lot of people interpreted the ending. Oh, crap...I still have to finish that review.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I didn't see the Killing, but apparently I now know the ending! ;-)

Take your time on the review!

In any event, yeah, this is totally a worn out cliche. I'm sick of it. It's lazy, bad writing.

Tennessee Jed said...

couple of thoughts upon reading this review:

1) Oh let's take another shot at the Catholic Church. It is almost like piling on.

2) Originally, this would be a good twist, but has become a cliche. My first remembrance of this phenomenon was from a short story by, as I recall, Roald Dahl titled "Introducing Jack the Ripper." In this case it was another detective. In that instance it was actually an excellent twist on "the ripper" saga.

3) Is it just me or does Christian Slater as a priest seem like an even worse choice than the plot itself?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Those are all very good points actually.

At first, the film struck me as decent. Slater is made out as the cynical priest whereas the accused priest is made out as the good guy. His reason for refusing to break confession and tell the cops who the killer is was really, really good.

Then it changed. Suddenly, they make the priest out as a gay black mailer. The higher ups in the church are all cynical, angry and intolerant. Their priorities are clearly skewed. And faithless Slater (who never really bothers with recovering his faith) acts more like a lawyer/detective than a priest.

So what started as possibly a great legal thriller with a lot of respect for the church turned into a standard "the church is so evil" film.

On Slater, yep. He doesn't have the ability to play a priest. In fact, the scenes where he tries just feel horribly wrong. He's too sarcastic and too smart-ass to be a priest.

I can't even think of where I first saw this "twist," but I've seen it so much by now that it's truly tiring. At this point it only elicits a groan -- just like the villain who appears to be have been killed and then comes back for one last surprise attack.... good the first time, offensive the 1,001 time.

rlaWTX said...

yep, it's gotten where I kinda expect it...

RE: C Slater as priest - I caught most of the Costner Robin Hood the other night (which I really like despite good ole Kev). I had a moment when I thought "oh yeah, this was when I liked Christian Slater...".

and I thought the Time Machine is on Polar Bear Lane, not the Lair!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, LOL! Is that where the time machine ended up? Ah ha! Last I knew it was out back, then the Boiler Room Elves took it to get serviced and I haven't seen it since. Now I know! :-)

That's true about the twist. It's gotten to the point that you expect the hero to be betrayed bus friend. That's pretty sad.

I used to like Slater a lot too as an actor, but he really hasn't held up to the test of time. I don't know if it was just bad roles or if he's just not a great actor, but he just doesn't seem very good these days.

T-Rav said...

Wait, I heard the time machine was GUARDED by polar bears??? I'm so confused.

(Also, Andrew, to be clear, that's not what I think was actually going on with the finale; I may get more into it in the review. Sorry, I should have inserted a spoiler alert.)

AndrewPrice said...

Oh, it's too late to put up a spoiler warning now T-Rav.... you're insane (possibly wrong) ramblings have ruined the show for all of us. ;-)

On the polar bear guards, no, we had to get rid of those because they kept making a huge mess in the backyard. We just didn't have a shovel big enough to keep the place clean.

(p.s. check your e-mail)

Ed said...

Andrew, I saw this and I agree with your last assessment to Jed. It started well enough, but quickly because the same old same old attack the church film. Also, Slater was miscast and the twist at the end was just pathetic. It came from out of the blue entirely and just made no sense at all.

Tam said...

This is why I think the Usual Suspects and Dexter are brilliant. I don't know anyone who figured out Kaiser Soze before it was revealed, and if they say they did, I think they are lying. With Dexter, sometimes people close to him do see and notice his odd behaviors and he manages to escape identification through means that make sense, not cheap or lazy tricks and cliches by the writers.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam and Ed, Sorry for the delay, blogger kicked me out for about an hour.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, It did come entirely out of the blue. He wasn't even a suspect and his murderous behavior was almost entirely unrelated to the rest of the plot, so it felt very random.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I haven't seen Dexter (yeah, I'm the one), but I love the Usual Suspects and I agree -- there is no one who figured that one out.

BUT, what makes it so great is the evidence is there before you -- you just ignored it because you assume it can't be the guy it points to. To me, that's great writing when you can literally wave the answer in people's faces and they still can't figure it out!

ScottDS said...

And I would never disclose the location of the second one. . .in the Arctic. . . at Polar Bear Lane.

No wonder I couldn't find it. I was on Polar Bear Road when I should've been on Polar Bear Lane!

Yeah, this cliche sucks. Sometimes I think last-minute twists like this are a writer's way of saying, "See? Not everything was as it seemed" hoping the viewer will go back and re-watch the film. But this only works if there's a logical setup and/or it's done so well that the viewer has no reason to notice in the first place (like The Usual Suspects) - it doesn't work if it comes out of nowhere.

TV shows used to suffer from this, at least before arc-based storytelling made it possible to have dozens of recurring characters over a long period of time. Maxwell Smart gets paired with a new agent? Chances are he's the KAOS mole. The Enterprise gets a new crewmember we've never seen before? 50/50 chance he's the shape-shifter. Etc.

P.S. I haven't seen Dexter either. People have recommended it to me but I'm not interested.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Yeah, Polar Bear Road is where the evila onutda actoryfa is at... but you didn't hear that from me!

That's a good point that this could just be the writer trying to get people to go back and re-watch their film. But it doesn't work. When these things come out of nowhere like this, I don't know anyone who tries to re-watch the thing. On the other hand, when the twist is well set up, like Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense, everybody goes back and watches it again.

On the television shows, I never understood why programs never understood the point you are making. Take Star Trek. If you want a betrayal or dead character to have some meaning, bring them on board for 4-5 episodes before you do the deed. Don't just bring them on and expose them/kill them in the same episode!

I never watched Dexter because I'm sick of serial killers.

Garmin said...

In 1.5 miles, turn right onto Polar Bear Lane.

Continue 400 feet, then turn left onto Polar Bear Drive.

Continue 250 feet to your destination.

Back out of Polar Bear Lake and turn around to reach your destination...(smash)

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, stay out of Polar Bear Lake... it hasn't been safe since we won the Nessie Housing Contract. ;-)

Tam said...

I won my sister over to Dexter...she was in the very same camp as you guys, tired of serial killers, not interested. It isn't what you think when you think of serial killers. Seriously. Trust me. It's true. The acting and writing are quite excellent. The plots and characters are intriguing, and it is totally suspenseful. Watch it. For real.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I'm willing to give it a shot. Lots of people seem to like it a lot and it sounds like it could be good. I've just always been concerned that it's just another typical Hollywood serial killer story.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Dexter is about a serial killer who targets bad guys. Trained by his cop father to make sure his kills are righteous. His sister is a cop. Dexter is on the police force as blood spatter specialist.

He also has almost no emotions except a little anger. Dexter's biggest worry is how and when to show the proper emotion. He always seems to be a little bit off.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I'll give it a shot. What I'm sick of are the guys who just play Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter over and over and over. It seems that's all Hollywood can do these days.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Hannibal Lecter is a decent god-fearing man who enjoys scaring FBI agents. Dexter is just a run of the mill serial killer. He isn't interested in munching on his prey.

BTW, if you enjoy being creepified once a week Dexter is for you.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I like creepy, I just don't like the whole James-Bond-villain-esque-ness that you get with so many serial killers today. They're so over the top. They run around laughing manically, really enjoying killing people, doing things no ordinary human could do, knowing things no one could know, etc. To me, it's become rather pathetic.

thundercatkp said...

Dexter's great....he's no Hannibal Lecter...

........Dexter is NOT "run of the mill"...either Joel I'm feeling like a 2-3 day marathon of Dexter. Plus we should be getting this past season soon (I pre-ordered it remember)

.....Dexter is Dexter...none other like him :)

AndrewPrice said...

Thundercatkp, Glad to hear it, I'll check out the series.

Koshcat said...

Dexter is awesome. Somehow you end up empathizing with him and hoping he gets away, which probably defines good writing. Besides, he only kills really bad people who deserve it--most of the time.

To be far to The Killing, the cop "partners" only worked together for about a week. The season ending there is just reasonable doubt regarding who they arrested. Not enough to completely exonerate though. The biggest thing that was frustrating (sort of spoiler alert) was just when you were sure it was one person, they would be cleared later. They must have done this with about 5 or 6 different characters.

How about the movie "Presumed Innocent"? It did the same but somehow didn't feel cheap. Maybe we can give this technique a name. So instead of the Christ figure the protagonist tends to be, could we call this the Judas figure?

AndrewPrice said...

Koshkat, Good point about Presumed Innocent. I think that's an instance where it was both (1) still a novel/original idea, and (2) done right. There were clues in hindsight, but you just couldn't see them. Also, her motivation makes sense because she's upset about the affair. It never feels like her name was just pulled out of a hat by the director at the last second when he was casting around to find the real villain.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Yeah, this cliche is so tired and dead you can see the marionette wires as they predictably trot it out once again to "suprise" and "shock" us. Yawn.

I quit watching most of the police procedurals because of these predictable cliches.

99% of the time it's NEVER the first or most obvious suspect.

90% of the time the killer is revealed in the last act.

10% of the time the killer is revealed before the last act which means they must fill the remaining time looking for evidence (which someone finds at the last minute because the killer is a super genius).

95% of the time the killer is white.

In the event the killer is white there's a good chance he's a:
1. White supremicist Christian neo-nazi biker pervert (sadly, this one never gets old. Based on hollywood's portrayals, one would think the US is crawling with white supremicist Christian neo-nazis cults).

2. Christian fundamentalist that thinks God wants them to kill people (it's never mentioned that no where in the New Testament is this ever encouraged or condoned even if someone takes every word literally, but why quibble?).

3. Generic, right wing gun nut (possibly a vigilante) who's not a racist.
(There's never a left wing nut of any type (Be it Bill Ayers bomber types or Unabomber bomber types...they're just all right wing because).

Of course, if they really wanted to be accurate they would have someone say (one of the shows heroes): "ideology had nothing to do with this scumbag murdering people. Call him crazy, call him evil, call him crazy evil, but
(s)he chose to murder, not a political ideology, not God, not society").

4. Hate crimes! Because all "hate" crimes are committed by white people., Everyone knows that.

First of all, the idea of hate crimes is only popular among left wingers because it's one step closer to outlawing "hate" speech which somehow causes "hate" crimes.

It's already against the law, and has been) to kill someone because of skin color, religion, etc.. If lefties wanna increase the punishments for crimes of that nature for anyone who commits them, regardless of skin color, religion, sexual preference, etc., I'm all for that.

But that's not their goal. Their ultimate goal is to shut up any opposition by labelling what they say as hate speech.

This is why we have seen so much of this crap in tv and movies, as if there's suddenly an epidemic of "hate" crimes which are caused by "hate" speech not the killer's own choices.

So yeah, I really hate (pun intended) these kind of manufactured propaganda cliches that lefty writers like to employ even more than just the stupid one's they use.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

On Presumed Innocent, I was fooled for most of the film thinking Brian Denehy was the killer.

Mostly because he committed perjury on the witness stand and threw away his friendship with Ford so quickly.

It was only a few minutes before Ford found the murder weapon that I began to suspect the real killer, and when I thought about it there were some subtle clues there before, particularly the killers behavior.

As for Ford and Dehehy's friendship, after I pondered it, post film, the DA had changed over the years and not for the better (again, more subtle clues were offered), until finally, the friendship on the DA's part was mostly an act, and would remain one as long as he kept getting elected.

There wasn't any loyalty there, not anymore, and the DA had become a cynical, bitter old man...moreso after he lost the election.

So it made sense he took it out on Ford. Not moral sense, but logical for an old, bitter cynic.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I have problems with all of that too. I'm really sick of the fact that all criminals in films/tv these days are liberal boogeymen -- whites, males, businessmen, soldiers, religious figures. Apparently, those are the only people committing crimes these days.

And you know exactly why the main character won't say "this had nothing to do with ideology" -- because they are pushing an agenda. That's why you will never see an evil democrat or socialist or environmentalist. And if you do, they will have acted wrongly despite the best of intentions.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I thought Ford did it right until his wife started talking because of how the evidence kept coming out that he was guiltier and guiltier. It was an interesting way to write the story because it started with him being this good guy (helped by Ford the actor's goodwill), and then piece by piece we saw that things we thought couldn't be true became true. So his lies seems to keep getting bigger and bigger and I figured he was guilty.

I actually never suspected Denehy because he was too "hands off." He seemed too lazy, too cynical and too uncaring about anything to commit a crime of passion. Even his betrayal of Ford wasn't as spiteful as it seems -- he didn't make anything up, he just threw Ford under the bus to protect his own reputation. So I saw him as an ass, but not as a murderer.

In many ways, I think the difference between Presumed Innocent and how this cliche normally goes is that we were only trying to decide if Ford did it or not. By comparison, the cliche usually involves murders that seem completely unrelated to the main character and their friends.

So here it made sense to us that he was caught in a web created by his wife, whereas it made no sense when Slater discovered that it was his friend.

tryanmax said...

Trolling old posts, again.

In Hollywood they are entirely beyond reproach until they are ready to reveal themselves

Liberal Hollywood is probably very comfortable with this cliché because, as we’ve discussed before, liberals define good and evil solely in terms of motive. Thus, there’s no need to be suspicious of suspicious behavior so long as you think someone is “good.” And if there is nothing to be suspicious of, why put it in the movie? (Hence, no clues.)

It could be funny to take this liberal trope and put it on its head. Take the same “best friend is the villain” motif and have the guy dropping clues left and right that the hero just ignores.

“Hey, Joe! Have you seen Fred? Say, why are you covered in blood and what are you doing with that knife?”

“This? Oh, nothing.” Throws knife in garbage can. “Fred is buried right now…” Hero catches a glimpse of shovel and freshly dug earth through an open door. “…uh, in work!”

“Aha! Well, if you say so. You’re my best friend, after all. No reason for you to lie to me!”

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think we've seen that in spoofs.

It would be interesting to do a takedown of liberals however in a more serious way by having them ignore bad things because they KNOW the guy must have good motives -- and then use real defenses liberals have made of real people.

In any event, I'm not sure it's politics behind this particular issue so much as the use of surprise/shock as a substitute for quality storytelling. If you can't come up with a plot to entertain, then just throw things at them which shock them or titillate them.

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