R.O.O.T – Movie script writing basics

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about in this week’s blog but then I was watching the telly the other night and thinking about which of the long list of movies I need to catch up on I should watch when a film called In The Valley of Elah started on BBC1. I’d managed to miss this when it was at the cinema, it had a good cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon) and I seem to remember it getting good reviews so I started to watch. Two hours later I went to bed cross and wishing I had instead watched one of the films on my list.

Valley of ElahWhat had annoyed me so about In The Valley of Elah was how it lacked so many fundamental building blocks of what I consider make up a good thriller. And it was a thriller. It was quickly set up as a murder mystery.

Some spoilers ahead so continue with caution…

Tommy Lee Jones is father to a young soldier recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and who has gone awol. TLJ heads to his son’s barracks to see if he can track him down before he gets into too much trouble. He arrives in the barrack town and we meet most of the movie’s main characters. The mystery of what has happened to TLJ’s son is quickly established and then answered when dismembered and burnt body parts found on some wasteland are  identified as TLJ junior.

So now TLJ is sad and wants to know who killed his boy and why? And this is where we get to

Tommy Lee Jones

TLJ sad

the aforementioned lacking fundamentals. A good thriller needs compelling characters who have a strong objective, something at risk, obstacles everywhere they turn and a ticking clock (though this last one is not vital). TLJ is a great actor, one of my favourites, and he can make any character he plays worth watching so I’ll give him that and he has a clear and strong objective: to find his son’s killer.

However, what is he risking if he fails? In this movie, nothing. One could answer that if he fails a murderer will get away but so what? We are never fearful that the murderer will kill again, that a serial killer is on the loose and other innocent people will die if TLJ fails. Will TLJ’s life be irrevocably damaged if the killer remains unidentified? Nope. He’ll go back home to his undemanding wife, he’ll mourn his son and his otherwise uneventful life will continue as before.

Obstacles and danger. It’s a thriller and should therefore be thrilling. That’s pretty much implied in the name isn’t it? But they left that bit out. Do the army want to kill him, to stop him digging too deeply because they’re worried they’ll look bad? Nope. The army are all rather helpful if a touch surly.

The cops are mostly incompetent apart from Charlize’s smart, decent single-mom detective so do the big brass want to stop the investigation because it might highlight their incompetence? Nope. They’re a bit rude and her colleagues ridicule her by making animal noises but they’re all far dumber than she is and she shows them up and shuts them up with ease.

There’s talk early on that maybe the culprits were from a Mexican drug cartel. Now this sounds exciting and dangerous but no.

Funny Angry Face

Example of a dirty look (not actually from movie)

No Mexican drug cartels are anywhere to be seen.

There’s a suspicious Latino soldier who TLJ spots on some shaky video  footage giving his son what can only be described as a “dirty look” and it turns out he’s gone awol too. Now about 90 minutes into the movie (just a guess – I didn’t actually time it) the cops swoop on the suspicious Latino soldier’s house and he runs. Clearly he has something to hide. Now things are hotting up.

But no. We get a lacklustre chase through some back gardens (go see Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break to see how a chase through back gardens should really be done) and TLJ manages to hit the suspicious Latino soldier with his car door when he conveniently runs straight towards him. In the very next scene, Charlize informs TLJ that the suspicious Latino soldier is not guilty. I forget why. By this point, I think I was playing Angry Birds Star Wars on my phone. TLJ shouts something racist at the suspicious Latino soldier and that’s that.

Some more characters come and go. Frances Fisher is only in the movie so she can be topless and bewigged in a bar in one scene and then TLJ can fail to recognize her with her clothes on in a diner a bit later. Other than conveniently dropping a clue she serves no purpose and I had to wonder why such a talented actress chose to play that part.

It all ends with a damp fart rather than a bang and the revelation of who the killer (or killers) really is is supremely underwhelming, which is a shame because it was actually saying something extremely important about what happens when we dehumanize people.

TLJ shares a drink with the suspicious Latino soldier to show there are no hard feelings for the previous racism and hitting him with his car and then the horrors of war are hammered home and TLJ heads home to Susan Sarandon and hangs a flag upside down. This film is heavy handed in all the wrong places.

So the essential ingredients for a great thriller are…

Compelling characters

Objective – the stronger and clearer the better

Risk – there has to be something at stake if the protagonist fails

Obstacles – it can’t be easy and straightforward

Time – not always vital but if there’s a time constraint or ticking clock then all the better.


However, that’s a rubbish acronym. How about if Compelling Characters is a given and Risk comes before Objective?

Risk – there has to be something at stake if the protagonist fails

Objective – the stronger and clearer the better

Obstacles – it can’t be easy and straightforward

Time – not always vital but if there’s a time constraint or ticking clock then all the better.

I might have to work on that some more.


To be continued……..

About David

Screenwriter and Novelist.

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