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Black List Script #4 – Big Hole by Michael Gilio

MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.

Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.

Logline (provided by The Black List): “An old cowboy goes on a mission to recover his money after a million dollar sweepstakes scam cleans out his entire bank account.”

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Synopsis

Notes

The Bottom Line

Synopsis

FRANCIS LEE, SR. (78), is a curmudgeonly old Montana ranch owner with a simple ritual: on the first of each month, MAYA (30s, Blackfoot Indian) comes to clean his house and take him into town. In Glass Valley, Lee gets a trim at Dutch’s Barbershop, picks up his prescriptions and buys his groceries from the Cole Mercantile, does his banking at Wachovia, and has lunch at a restaurant called the Steak Knife. His lunch has a ritual of its own: the waitress brings him a thick, juicy steak and a plate of French fries. He cuts up the steak, savors the juices, and spits out each piece, then sucks the salt off the French fries.

In September, the routine goes off without a hitch, despite the minor irritation of DEAN (Dutch’s technophile son) acting like an idiot, young bank teller LORETTA ignoring him as he philosophizes, elderly checkout clerk ALMA griping that the Cole Mercantile is struggling against a competing warehouse store, and seeing HECK—a mysterious man who once knew Lee very well—at the Steak Knife. Also, Maya gets stuck behind a long freight train and is late picking Lee up. Irritated, Lee threatens to fire her. Maya acts like this is a normal thing and pays it no mind.

Back at Lee’s ranch house, he’s left alone. He impulsively dials an unknown phone number but hangs up before completing it. A moment later, the phone rings. It’s a polite, young, male voice informing Lee that he’s won a $1 million sweepstakes. Lee doesn’t react with any surprise at first—he’s sent away for hundreds of sweepstakes over the years. Gradually, it sinks in. He’s so overcome with emotion, he begins to open up to the voice on the phone, a Canadian calling himself JEFFREY SMITH. Lee rambles about his plans—among other things, he’ll go on a fishing trip at Big Hole. The last time he went was years ago, with Heck. Jeffrey asks about Heck, but Lee just says it was a happy time and asks Jeffrey about fishing—since he’s in Canada, he must fish. Jeffrey doesn’t, though. He’s polite, but he edges Lee toward giving him his banking information in order to deposit the winnings. Lee does so, then invites Jeffrey to come down to Jackson for a prime rib dinner, on Lee. Jeffrey continues to be polite but gets off the phone quickly. Lee excitedly tells his parakeet—his only companion in the house—that they’re millionaires.

October. Still happy, Lee invites Maya and her family to dinner. This shocks her, and she says she’ll think about it. Lee goes to Dutch’s but finds Dean’s the only one there. He’s set up a plasma TV on the wall in front of the barber chairs, and he doesn’t know or care much about Lee—doesn’t even know his usual cut. He tells Dean that Dutch passed away in September, and he told Heck assuming Heck would pass it along to Lee. Lee tells Dean they don’t talk anymore.

Lee passes by the Cole Mercantile, surprised to find a FOR LEASE sign in the window. He goes to The Corner Store, the bulk warehouse store that crushed the mercantile, to buy his groceries and pick up his prescriptions. His inability to find anything in the huge store flusters him, and the discompassionate sales clerks piss him off. He goes to the pharmacy, explains that he used to get his prescriptions from Cole’s, but the pharmacist explains that if he wants medication, he needs a new prescription from his doctor. Lee doesn’t know what to do—his doctor’s in Great Falls, Lee can’t remember his name, and he needs the prescriptions. The pharmacist’s apathy infuriates him, so he leaves the pharmacy empty-handed. At the grocery checkout line, the cost is much higher than Lee anticipated. He doesn’t have the cash. The clerk asks if he has a debit card, which he does, but he hasn’t activated it yet. He’s forced to leave the cart of groceries.

Lee goes to Wachovia to get the card activated. ICKE, a young CSR, tells him he’s activated the card, but it can’t be used because Lee doesn’t have enough money in his account. Lee questions this—he has nearly $35,000 in his account. Icke tells him that he only has $130. Lee tries to argue, but Icke refuses to help. Despondent, Lee visits the Steak Knife, but he’s both lost his appetite and his money. He simply stares out the window at the rain.

November. Maya arrives at Lee’s ranch, but she finds an unsettling sight: a month’s worth of mail still clumped together in the box, a dank mess inside the house, Lee’s banking information littering the table. The lights and heat are out, not because Lee’s stopped caring but because the respective utilities have been shut off. Lee demands that she leave. She tries to give him the mail, but he wanders away without taking it. Maya notices many of the letters are from Wachovia Bank. She opens them and starts reading. Later, she tells Lee the bank is conducting a fraud investigation, that they recovered some of his money—$1500—but the rest of it isn’t looking good. These people didn’t just take his money; they wrote unsigned, personal checks and cashed them. Most of his money will not be recovered. Lee doesn’t get enough to live on from Social Security or his military pension. That’s it. Lee tells Maya that when you’re old and make a mistake, there’s no time to learn from it—you simply are it.

Maya gently suggests Lee sell the ranch, which throws him into a such a rage that he both fires her and throws her out of the house. Maya’s disappointed, but she respects his wishes. Later, Lee dials that mystery phone number again. A woman named SISSY answers, but the line goes dead before Lee can get to the point. The phone company finally cut him off. Lee wanders the kitchen when he realizes no chirping is coming from his parakeet’s cage. DUKE lies dead at the bottom.

That tears it. Lee bursts into the barn, where he collects his saddle and its bag, shotgun, buckskins, boots, duster, and hat. He empties what’s left of his canned goods and water into the saddlebag; loads up with ammunition; saddles up FLICK, his old, ailing horse; and sets out for Glass Valley, a real old cowboy. A kerchief covering his face, Lee goes to his Wachovia branch, where he berates and browbeats the MANAGER, demanding to know if they accept unsigned checks. The Manager reluctantly admits that yes, they do. The Manager tries to calm Lee down, but Lee raises his shotgun and demands his money. A security guard has called the police and has his own gun trained on Lee. Lee tells the Manager to tell “Jeffrey Smith” that he’s coming for him. The Manager’s baffled.

Lee crosses the town square to the Corner Store, where he fires his shotgun at a huge wall of display-model TVs blaring Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue.” Everyone in the store freaks out. A security guard trails Lee as he arrives at the pharmacy and demands his various medications from the pharmacist. As he moves to leave, the security guard starts firing. He misses. Lee shoots blind, not hitting anything. He grabs a road atlas and runs out an emergency exit, through the back lot to a children’s playground, where Flick grazes. Lee rides away.

FRANCIS “HECK” LEE, JR. (50s), the Glass County sheriff, arrives at the Wachovia Bank to investigate. DEPUTY RANDOLPH (late 20s) is already on the scene. According to the eyewitnesses, an elderly man calling himself “El Toro” attempted to rob the bank after claiming they ripped him off by accepting unsigned checks. Heck talks to the still-rattled Manager, who mentions the puzzling “Jeffrey Smith” remark. Before Heck can get more information, Randolph tells him about the Corner Store.

Heck talks with the security guard and the pharmacist. Based on the medication the old man demanded, Heck tells Randolph to search for someone with heart disease, diabetes, and stents. Randolph wonders why Heck would knows these things—Randolph doesn’t even know what a “stint” is—and Heck explains he “used to know someone” afflicted by these ailments. They freeze the security tape, and Heck recognizes Lee but says he has no idea who this old man is.

Lee rides through barren valleys deep into the night. Eventually, he makes camp. He consults his map and spiral notebook for the address of Wachovia’s headquarters in Edge City, then studies the map of northern Montana and Alberta. Heck goes to Lee’s ranch house and finds it empty. Going through the house, he notices Lee’s investigative papers—Wachovia Bank, Jeffrey Smith, Alberta, Windfall Investments. Heck moves on to his old bedroom, presumably left exactly as it was when he left home. In an old box, he finds more mementoes of his childhood—including photos of her mother, photos of him as a sullen teenager, photos of he and Lee fishing at Big Hole. He’s a little overwhelmed by it all, so he calls his wife—Sissy.

Later, Heck goes to a saloon in town for a drink. The bartender questions whether or not Heck really want this. Heck ignores him, calling Maya to set up a time to interview her about Lee. He meets her at Maya’s trailer home, where she lets slip with her nickname for Lee (“El Toro”) and tells Heck everything she knows about the fraudulent sweepstakes, the problems with Wachovia, etc. After learning all of this, Heck recalls everything he saw in Lee’s house and considers the probability of Wachovia’s headquarters being his next move.

Lee continues through an open meadow. In the distance, he spots vaqueros driving cattle. Lee approaches, but they don’t speak English. Their Spanish irritates Lee, but he picks out a few English words and identifies which ranch they work for. He explains he’s from the Lee Ranch Company. He says he’s headed toward Edge City. Although Lee doesn’t immediately understand, they’ve offered to let him ride along with the drive. Heck meets with Randolph privately to explain his theory that “El Toro” is heading for Wachovia Headquarters in Edge City, beyond their jurisdiction. Heck wants Randolph to go with him but keep the whole thing under his hat. Randolph’s reluctant, but he wants to stop “El Toro” as much as Heck. They go.

Edge City is little more than a series of corporate towers incongruously set in the middle of barren prairie land. While Heck stakes out the parking lot, he sends Randolph in to wait in case Lee gets past them. Security guards are immediately on Heck, wondering why he’s loitering. Before Heck can explain the situation, he hears a low, distant rumble. He spots the brown cloud of dust indicating the cattle drive. Heck barely makes out the image of Lee leading the pack before he vanishes in the dust once again. Heck leaps into his patrol cruiser and heads toward the cloud.

Heck comes upon the vaquero TRAIL BOSS, who keeps a poker face and denies any knowledge of the mysteriously absent Lee. Randolph, meanwhile, encounters Lee face-to-face and preps the guards to take him down. Lee lives up to the “El Toro” name, terrifying them just by standing there. He demands to see the bank president, forces them to hand over their weapons, then takes the elevator up to the top floor. As soon as he leaves, Randolph radios. The Trail Boss suddenly commands his men and the cattle back in the other direction, confusing Heck, who accidentally hits the lights and sirens—causing an immediate stampede in the direction of his cruiser.

The bank president’s assistant, KELLY, insists that he’s gone and almost never at the bank in the first place. Lee doesn’t believe her, bursts into the office—and finds it empty. He demands everything she has on Windfall Investments. Shaken, a bloodied Heck falls out of his car as Randolph radios again. Heck gets to his feet and walks toward the bank as Randolph brings him up to speed on “El Toro.” Kelly returns with a thin manila folder, which disappoints Lee. He waits for Kelly to leave, and in a fit of anger, he shoots up the office. Heck sees the glass hit the street below. He goes inside and tosses Randolph a shotgun, telling him not to let Lee leave the building—and not to shoot him.

Lee asks Kelly for an alternate exit. She leads him into the service elevator, and he tells Kelly to tell Jeffrey Smith that “he can’t stop what’s comin.” This confuses Kelly. After he’s gone, Kelly leads Lee to the service elevator and tells him it goes to the back alley. Heck radios to Randolph, who leads the security guards to the alley. Lee’s prepping Flick to ride when Randolph approaches. Unafraid, Lee simply rides away. Heck arrives just in time to see Lee riding off. He shoots in the air, but Lee doesn’t follow. Heck goes back upstairs and gets a copy of the Windfall Investments information from Kelly, who asks if he is Jeffrey Smith. Just then, the BLAINE COUNTY SHERIFF arrives, displeased with Heck overextending his authority. As it starts to snow, Heck reluctantly asks for a ride home.

In the open range, Lee faces a veritable blizzard. He manages to get Flick to an abandoned flour mill, where he sets up camp for the night. The Windfall Investments file isn’t thick, but it does contain the company’s address in Bradston, Alberta. With a Sharpie, Lee traces the route from Edge City to Bradston. Out on the plains, Heck’s all bandaged up and watching them tow away his damaged cruiser. Randolph arrives with more information, then questions Heck’s sketchy thinking about the situation. Heck turns hostile—as hostile as Lee was with Maya—but Randolph gives as good as he gets, leaving them at a stalemate. Heck decides to go it alone, renting a car and hitting the road for Canada.

Meanwhile, Lee continues to ride through a full-on whiteout. Flick doesn’t make it. Saddened, Lee puts the horse out of his misery and starts walking. He makes it to Bradston, a tiny rural town. He finds the address easily, and it leads him to a tiny, sleazy office. Lee pulls a gun on the only man working there. The man first denies any knowledge, then amends it to say he didn’t know until recently that they were doing anything wrong—he was just an office manager. He hands Lee a massive pile of incriminating papers in exchange for his life. Lee demands to know the whereabouts of Jeffrey Smith. The man is baffled, but he looks through the payroll documents and can only find a Jeffrey Somers. Lee asks for his address and for a ride to Jeffrey’s house. He leaves the file behind, which Heck finds when he arrives at the Windfall office.

There, Lee’s surprised to find a woman in her late 30s. She calls to JEFFREY, her son, who shouts for her to send the visitor downstairs. He’s 18 or 19, a polite kid who’s baffled by this shotgun-toting cowboy. Lee demands to know why they ripped him off. Jeffrey says he only worked there for a couple of months, but he felt so guilty, he quit. He needed the money to pay for community college. Lee repeats: why him? Jeffrey tells him his name was on a list. Lee’s extremely angry—he told him personal things, things he never talks about to anyone. Jeffrey claims he doesn’t remember, but Lee badgers him until he blurts out, “Big Hole.”

Lee slaps Jeffrey hard. Jeffrey begins to cry, apologizing all over himself. Lee collapses on the bed. That night, Jeffrey’s mother makes a great meal—a big plate of steaks, mashed potatoes, biscuits. Lee’s freshly showered and shaved. He cuts off a piece of steak, takes a bite, and swallows, savoring it. Lee realizes he only has one pill left in each of bottles. He keeps eating, like a king. Later, Lee sleeps in a recliner. Jeffrey’s mother notices his frostbite-blackened feet. Lee tells her not to bother. He puts his boots back on and walks into town. He goes into a saloon and asks for a shot of straight-up Jack Daniels. He downs the shot, stares at a wallet-sized photo from his saddlebag, considers. He goes to the bar’s phone booth and dials that mystery number. A teenage girl’s voice answers. Lee tells the girl, Chloe, it’s her grandpa. She says Heck isn’t there. Lee tells her he has some important things to say. He tells her Heck is a good man, better than Lee, and that he loves Chloe and he loves Sissy, too. He also tells Chloe to let Heck know that Lee’s proud of him, and he loves him. Chloe says she will, and Lee breaks down, insisting, almost pleading that he’s a good man. Baffled, Chloe asks if he’s all right. Lee tells her everything will be fine and hangs up.

Lee walks out of the saloon, leaving his saddlebags behind. He trudges off, disappearing into the wilderness. Heck enters the saloon, where he finds Lee’s saddlebags. He asks the bartender about them, then rifles through until he finds the empty prescription bottles with Lee’s name on them. Heck finds the wallet-sized photo and picks it up. It’s an old family portrait—Heck with Sissy, who’s black, and Chloe at age three, all smiling. Heck goes outside, staring into the darkness, screaming for his father.

Notes

Up until the ending, I loved this script. I had a few minor nitpicks (e.g., why would Lee, anonymously robbing the Corner Store, have his name printed on the prescription bottles?), but this is a well-observed character study about a dying breed of man. Maybe it’s because I recently watched a double-feature of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Furies, but I couldn’t help picturing Walter Huston as Lee—all fire and rage, with that cackling, sardonic, old-timey prospector laugh masking contempt for everyone he meets. Gilio does a nice job laying out the rift between Lee and Heck, hinting at it without ever spelling out what happened until the last two pages. More than that, he does a great job of painting these two men who have very similar personalities but stand at opposite ends of the law. That’s the stuff of classic Westerns, and Gilio stays true to the archetypes even as he makes the story feel authentic in the modern world.

This old man is one of the last of his kind. They don’t make them like that anymore, and the story seems to lament this fact. It also mourns the way the modern world no longer cares about him. The apathy contributes to his loneliness and the desperation that eventually drives him to fairly insane circumstances. Tonally, Gilio manages to toe the line between comedy and tragedy. He acknowledges the absurd image of a Wild West cowboy wreaking havoc on a warehouse store, but because he’s painted such a relatable, well-developed character, we still buy into the tragic circumstances that led to this ridiculousness.

The ending doesn’t work because it undercuts the sorrowful theme. Although it’s loaded with funny-yet-bleak moments expressing the problems with aging, loneliness, and the Wild West mythology, for me the most powerful image was that of Lee—a real cowboy—taking a shotgun to a wall of Toby Keith-blaring plasma TVs. That says it all. The family portrait reverses this by kinda saying, “We lament the passing of this type of iconic, archetypal American personality, but don’t forget what a bunch of racist dicks they were.” It turns Big Hole from a tragedy into an “Eh, no big loss” type of story, which does a disservice to Lee. This script could honestly be about the same from cover to cover without ever showing us that photograph, and it’d still work. In fact, it would have more of an impact. We know there’s a rift between Lee and Heck, we know it has something to do with the family, but we never have to know the details. It could have something to do with Patty, the woman he keeps screaming for in his sleep (ostensibly his deceased wife), or it could be some stupid teenage argument that got out of hand or Heck’s law-abiding choice of occupation or his decision not to take over his father’s ranch. Gilio’s provided more than enough material for us to draw our own conclusions, so why not let us? If someone wants to conclude the racism ending, that’s their prerogative. I don’t like it, so that’s not where I’d go with it, but the script gives me no choice.

Nonetheless, it’s a great story, well-told, and not nearly as ridiculous or over-the-top as it probably sounds stacked up next to the other ridiculous loglines in the top five. This is not Butter. This is a movie that should be made.

The Bottom Line

I came very close to giving up after the disastrous top three, but I figured I’d plow through the first act and keep reading if it was good. I’m glad I did. I’ve regained a tiny amount of faith in Hollywood.

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