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Black List Script #5 – The Low Dweller by Brad Ingelsby

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): “A man trying to assimilate into society after being released from jail discovers that someone from his past is out to settle a score.”

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Synopsis

Notes

The Bottom Line

Synopsis

CHARLIE “SLIM” HENDRICK (late 20s), identified in the script as the low dweller of the title, wakes up disheveled, under a tree on a summer night. Sheriff’s deputies, led by MULBY NOLAN (late 20s), tries to get the disoriented Slim to talk. When he doesn’t, Nolan cuffs Slim.

FOUR YEARS LATER. 1986. LOWLANDS. SOUTHERN INDIANA.

Slim is released from prison. He walks to a roadside diner, where the owner automatically knows the story—anyone passing through this town on foot could only come from one place. The owner invites a fat trucker to give Slim a ride into nearby Easton. Slim refuses it. He makes the 23-mile walk into Easton and arrives at his brother’s home. CORMAC, Slim’s younger brother, lies in bed next to an obese girl when Slim shows up. Cormac welcomes his brother home by yelling for him to shut the bedroom door.

A month later, Slim is working a farm. He asks the owner for more hours. He goes home to Cormac’s, offers to go out with him for a burger. Cormac tells him he already ate, so Slim goes alone. He eats in silence at a tavern frequented by local day-laborers. Days later, Slim goes to a restaurant, Jilly’s, run by JOHN O’RILEY (60s, also the local bookie), and asks where Cormac is and “who did it.” Cormac got his ass kicked over a woman, and he lies in a bloodied heap out back. After taking a look at him, John warns Slim that Cormac changed when Slim “left,” and also that he’s into John for a lot of money. Slim offers to pay half in a few days, which John grudgingly accepts.

GABBY O’RILEY (30s) comes out back. She and Slim share a meaningful glance, then Gabby berates John about keeping her late. When he still won’t leave, she wordlessly climbs into Slim’s truck. As Slim shoves Cormac into his pick-up, BUD DEAKINS (50s) arrives. A mystery man stays inside Bud’s shadowy car. Slim drives away as Bud walks into Jilly’s. Inside the car, the mystery man’s hands move skillfully as he slices into a pepperoni log with a box-cutter. He gives the slice to his dog. Inside Jilly’s, Bud menaces John, insinuating he’s skimming off the top to pay for medical bills owed by his late wife. Bud leaves the restaurant, and a moment later the mystery man enters. He is SAM NEBRASKA (40s and unattractive). John hides a knife up his sleeve, but Sam’s too quick for him—he stabs John with the box-cutter.

Slim and Gabby share a long, awkward silence, broken by Cormac’s unconscious farting. Slim apologizes for not dropping by sooner. She says nothing, going inside her house, where Slim sees her greet a five-year-old son, BEN. Slim drives Cormac home and flops him on the couch. Meanwhile, Bud and Sam drag John out into the middle of a cornfield. Bud is a little unsettled by how many “accounts” they’ve had to “close” lately. He examines John’s business log and sees Cormac Hendrick’s name on the top of the list.

Early the next morning, Nolan (now sheriff) is awakened by a phone call. He’s disheveled, an angry, functioning alcoholic with a chronic cough. He looks 10 years older than he is (now 30). He takes care of his elderly mother before leaving. At Cormac’s house, Slim carefully chastises Cormac over his drinking and gambling. Cormac tells Slim that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who taken and those they take from. Cormac accepts his fate. Slim hands Cormac some of his farming earnings, which enrages Cormac. He tells Slim he has a party to go to that night so not to expect him, then storms out of the house and drives away.

Nolan comes upon BRADY O’RILEY (22), who lies naked and unconscious in some shrubs outside a woman’s house. Nolan awakens him, and Brady insists this was a prank. The woman who owns the house is not pleased. Nolan drags Brady away, and Brady asks Nolan if he plans to tell Gabby (his sister) about this. Gabby watches Ben play catch with himself as Nolan arrives with a now-dressed Brady. Brady goes into the house without a word. Nolan talks to Gabby, who woke him up in the first place, because John’s missing. Nolan wonders who saw him last. She says Slim, which immediately rubs Nolan the wrong way. Nolan says he’ll check around for John, then confesses he went out on a date with another woman. Gabby doesn’t care—she just wishes he’d stop telling her. Nolan leaves.

After work, Slim finds Brady waiting in his pick-up. Brady punches him in the jaw for “what [Slim] did ta [his] sister.” He promises whatever comes next will be for what Slim has done to John. Slim shrugs and tells him to check with Gabby—he didn’t do anything. Brady claims he remembers “what happened down in Rittsfield.” Slim doesn’t want to hear this, so he throws Brady out of the truck and drives off. Late at night, Cormac staggers out of the party and to his car. Sam Nebraska, .45 in one hand and box-cutter in the other, waits. Sam slices open one of Cormac’s hands and urges him to drive into the backroads.

Nolan waits for Slim inside the Hendrick house. They have an awkward, angry conversation about John. Nolan suggests a motive—the money Cormac owed John. Nolan asks where Cormac is; Slim doesn’t know. He tells Nolan to check with Gabby, because they left together. Nolan leaves. In the middle of the field, Bud watches as Sam pounds the crap out of Cormac. In the end, Sam kills him. Meanwhile, Slim waits up for Cormac, who never shows up. The next morning, a passing police cruiser sees Cormac’s car sitting in the middle of the field. As Nolan and the deputies speculate on what may have happened, rain begins to pour.

After Cormac’s funeral, Slim goes to the basement to seek out his old 12-gauge shotgun. He gets into the pick-up and finds Brady at a burger joint. Slim demands to know if Brady knows John’s business. Brady says he doesn’t know much, but he gives Slim the name of a collector, who once worked for his dad, who will most likely no more. Slim heads in the direction of the collector, dragging Brady along for the ride. Outside a diner, Slim and Brady confront CULLEN the ex-collector. After some fisticuffs and gun-based threats, Cullen coughs up a name (Terry Adams) and a town in Ohio.

On their way back into Easton, Slim and Brady visit JONAH FINN (60s), who runs a shop for antique gun repair. Slim catches Jonah up on the situation as he attempts to stock up on weapons. Jonah volunteers to go with them, since he’s dying of asbestos poisoning and doesn’t have long to live. Slim wonders about LEENY, Jonah’s 18-year-old deaf daughter, but Jonah shrugs her off, claiming she takes care of herself better than Jonah could. They make plans to leave the following morning.

That night, at Cormac’s house, Gabby confronts Slim. Brady told her everything, and she is not happy he’s going on what’s effectively a suicide run (it’ll either leave him dead or in jail). She slaps him and tells him that, while Slim may have ruined what they had, she won’t let him ruin Brady, too. Then she leaves. The following morning, a farmer finds John’s body in his field. As he leaves to pick up Jonah, Slim notices a sheriff’s cruiser parked nearby. He picks up Jonah. As they head out of town, they find a cruiser parked across the road, blocking the path. Slim gets out, and Nolan confronts him about the situation. It immediately turns into a conversation about Gabby, not the potential crimes, which leads Slim to attack Nolan. Jonah gets out to try to calm Slim down. They get back in the truck and move past Nolan’s cruiser.

Jonah regales Slim with old-man stories until Slim parks at a rest stop. Brady’s waiting for them, pissed that they left without him. Even more pissed that they found John’s body. Together, the three of them drive into Bowenville, Ohio, and head to the local diner to ask around about Terry Adams. They get resistance from one man until Slim shoves his head into a used, unflushed toilet. The man tells them Terry runs a drive-in theatre at the edge of town. The three men head to the drive-in, where they’re ready to assault Terry Adams in the projection booth. He’s a little more even-tempered, asking them to wait until the movie’s over, and then they’ll talk. After the movie, Terry tells him he used to collect for a Philadelphian gangster named RICHIE NEBRASKA, and that the men they’d be looking for are his muscle—Bud and Sam. Terry warns them about Sam by telling them about an experience he had collecting with Sam once. He ended up killing an entire family—husband, wife, teenage children, grandparents. Terry gives them the name and location of Richie’s Pennsylvania bar, Cooz’s. He says Bud and Sam live upstairs at the bar.

Later, Slim and Jonah sit in the back of the pick-up, watching Brady flirt with one of the drive-in employees. Jonah asks about Gabby, and about whether or not Slim is up for what’s coming next. Slim tells Jonah he feels like he failed Cormac, so he has to do this to make up for that. The next day, the three head up to Coatesville, PA. That night, at Cooz’s, JIMMY PERCY (40s) tends bar and gripes about the leaky roof. CC and ELLIOT HARDINGS, twins in their 40s, have a “That boy ain’t right”-type argument about an unknown kid, then wander out of the bar. DOC BARSTOW comes from the bathroom, and the two of them discuss the same kid, named “Magwynn.” Upstairs, RICHIE NEBRASKA (50s) mentions to Sam (his brother) his intentions to retire. Outside in the rain, Slim, Brady, and Jonah load their weapons and discuss the plan to bust inside. Slim excuses himself to urinate, and Brady asks Jonah what it’s like to kill somebody—if the guilt haunts you. Jonah tells him the haunting thing is knowing you’re capable of murder.

Slim and Brady enter the bar from the front. Jonah goes up the rear fire stairs. Two separate shootouts ensue: upstairs, Sam gets the drop on Jonah, shooting him twice; downstairs, Slim and Brady kill Jimmy, Doc, and Richie. Bud, meanwhile, is in a bedroom receiving oral sex from FRANCIS, a crackhead transvestite. Bud jumps into the fray as Francis lights his pipe, oblivious. Slim tells Brady to go into the bathroom and hide out. On the stairs, Sam spots Bud and kills him. Downstairs, Jimmy Percy is still alive. He tries to shoot Slim, but Slim gets him first. High as a kite, Francis heads downstairs, turns on the jukebox, and begins to dance. Creeping back upstairs, Slim enters Sam’s room. He finds Jonah on the floor, dying. Jonah indicates the upstairs bathroom. Slim bursts into the bathroom, where the tub water overflows but the faucet still runs, and a struggle ensues.

After Slim gets the upper hand, Sam dives out the window just as Jonah aims to shoot him. Slim calls for Brady to get upstairs. He tells Brady to stay with Jonah, then heads downstairs after Sam. Slim doesn’t spot Sam until it’s almost too late, but before either man can do anything, the ceiling collapses from the bathtub water. Sam divebombs Slim, knocking his gun away, and tries to cut him with the box-cutter. Brady, who fell through the ceiling, manages to shoot Sam before he can do any serious damage to Slim. Police sirens rise in the distance. They grab Jonah’s body and get the hell out.

Back in Easton, Slim and Brady try to go back to business as usual. They go to the Easton Folk Festival, a modest fair. Brady gripes about trouble sleeping. Leeny approaches Slim for a dance. Gabby sees this and is unhappy. After the dance, Leeny sits near Brady and Ben. Brady flirts with her, not realizing she’s deaf. Slim picks Gabby out of the crowd and goes to her. Now it’s Nolan’s turn to be unhappy. He watches them dance. Slim watches mournfully as Gabby leaves him. He goes home, gets loaded, and stumbles into the bedroom—where Gabby waits. They make love. Afterward, she tells Slim she knows he killed the people who killed her father, but she doesn’t care. She tells Slim that Ben isn’t hers—he’s Nolan’s. She laments the fact that Nolan loves her but she can’t love him because she loves Slim, who doesn’t love her. Slim doesn’t say a word.

The next morning, Nolan’s waiting for Slim. As before, a conversation that begins with Nolan menacing Slim about the incident at Cooz’s turns into a brawl over Gabby, whom Nolan loves. This time, the fight is interrupted by Gabby, who consoles Slim instead of Nolan. This makes Nolan even angrier, and he mentions that if anyone comes after him because of what happened at Cooz’s, Nolan won’t stop them.

At a hospital, Sam Nebraska has survived. He tells doctors and detectives he doesn’t remember anything, but the fiery glint in his eyes suggests otherwise. When he’s discharged, Sam immediately gets a gun, rounds up the Hardings—CC, Edward, and Magwynn (17)—and they head out for Easton. At the O’Rileys’ house, Brady asks Slim what he remembers “that night…down in Rittsfield”—the incident that landed him in jail. Slim remembers nothing—just drinking and waking up, covered in blood, under a shagbark hickory tree. Nolan arrives to tell Gabby that he’s going to Pennsylvania to question Sam Nebraska. When Slim and Brady find out he’s still alive, they’re petrified. Slim charges Brady with the task of protecting Gabby and Ben while he’s gone. Sam and the others kill Terry Adams in Ohio, then move on to Easton. Along the way, Sam gets so irritated with Magwynn, he starts cutting on him with his box-cutter. CC does nothing to intervene.

In Easton, Sam gets the O’Rileys’ address by intimidating a pharmacist. At the farm, Brady starts packing suitcases and prepping to leave. Slim, meanwhile, has gone to Leeny’s and packed a suitcase for her. They head out. Before Brady can even get to Gabby, Sam and the others are there. Sam shoots Brady, demands to know where “the other one” is. He follows Brady’s gaze outside to Gabby. From the other direction, CC and Elliot descend on Gabby. Slim returns to the O’Rileys’ with Leeny and finds the wounded Brady. He tries to get information, but Brady can’t speak. While Leeny discovers Ben (apparently unharmed, just terrified) in his dark bedroom, Slim finds Gabby upstairs, in a bloody-water-filled bathtub.

That night, Nolan arrives at the farmhouse and sees the blood on Slim’s shirt. He’s terrified for Ben, but when Slim says he’s safe, it dawns on Nolan, who blames Slim for her death. They have yet another fight, interrupted by the return of Sam, CC, and Elliot. Slim and Nolan come after the three men, guns blazing. They manage to hit CC on the first go-around. Elliot gets the drop on Slim, shooting him twice. Slim drops. Nolan kills Elliot. As Nolan tries to move Slim into a safer part of the house, Slim begins to see something resembling heaven—a golden wheatfield where Cormac, Jonah, and Gabby wait. Nolan pulls Slim back to reality as Sam enters the house. Slim gets to his feet, barely, as Sam comes upon Nolan. He kills the sheriff. As Sam reloads, Slim shoots Sam, this time killing him. Slim’s adrenaline drops, and he collapses again. Magwynn is the only one left, relatively unharmed. Slim tries to walk away from the scene, but he collapses. Fade to black.

“Years later,” Ben is now seven, walking through a wheatfield. Slim, looking serene, emerges from the wheatfield, as well. They walk toward the O’Rileys’ farmhouse, which has now been painted and refurbished. Brady sits with Leeny on the porch swing outside.

Notes

The Low Dweller has a low-rent Cormac McCarthy vibe to it, which makes it easy to compare it to the Coens’ treatment of No Country for Old Men. Eerie similarities abound, in pacing, moral ambiguity, and taciturn main characters. It also features characters speaking in an oddly cadenced, faux-Southern patois more at home in Tennessee or West Texas than southern Indiana. Even the fact that it’s inexplicably set in the 1980s is kind of similar.

The main point of comparison, however, is its primary difference: while No Country for Old Men is about the nature of violence and humanity, The Low Dweller is about…? It escapes me, but I’m sure it’s about something. Although I can’t call it anything special, The Low Dweller is not a bad script, and the story is so plodding and aimless it just has to be some kind of deep exploration of… Something. Or somebody. Pass?

Slim feels he has a duty to uphold, to avenge the death of his brother. He feels he screwed up Cormac (McCarthy shout-out?), so he has to clean up the mess…by making a bigger one. I guess it’s sort of about a screwed-up family loyalty, but it doesn’t quite work as a meditation on the subject because… Well, there’s no actual meditation. Multiple perspectives on the topic are not explored through its subplots or other characters. Everyone on the side of killing Sam Nebraska and his men agree; everyone on the other side is opposed, and these dueling perspectives don’t meet until each side is aiming guns at the others’ faces.

What does that leave? A drawn-out action movie with all the pretensions of epic drama but none of the insight. Stock action characters and relationships, none of them even reaching the depth of Raw Deal (whose classic “You should not drink and bake” exchange says more about those two characters in one action and one sentence than The Low Dweller spits out about its characters in 123 pages), following a standard revenge story. It meanders to create the illusion of depth, poignancy, and drama, but it’s nothing but a mirage that makes the script as tedious to read as it will be to watch.

There are two obvious but opposite ways to fix it: (1) embrace the fact that it’s an action movie by making it big, dumb, and overblown, or (2) take a step back, look at the way the story unfolds and what happens to the characters, figure out what you’re trying to say with the theme and the subtext, and rewrite it as a heady drama with a few intense, stomach-knotting action sequences. It depends on what Ingelsby (or whoever produces it) wants the story to be. As it stands, The Low Dweller isn’t bad so much as an excruciating example of mediocrity masquerading as something more. Embrace the mediocrity and have fun with it, or work hard to make it great. That’s it.

The Bottom Line

Legend has it that Leonardo DiCaprio and the Scott brothers will produce this script, which could still go either way. Ridley Scott is the king of ambitious, pretentious Oscar bait (some of it good, some of it awful), while Tony Scott is the king of schlocky yet efficient action movies. DiCaprio, too, has had a mixed-bag career of misguided epic drama (Gangs of New York, Blood Diamond) and confounding, mediocre action flicks (The Quick and the Dead and Body of Lies, which was also directed by Ridley Scott). It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it, but it’ll probably still hover around “mediocre,” never rising to its full potential but, at least, not getting worse.

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