I've always loved this movie and re-watched it as it kept popping into my head. Would love any feedback. Thanks!
Log line from IMDb:
In Detroit, a lonely pop culture geek marries a call girl, steals cocaine from her pimp, and tries to sell it in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the owners of the cocaine - the Mob - track them down in an attempt to reclaim it.
Director: Tony Scott
This 1993 Tony Scott movie has an amazing ensemble. Slater, Arquette, Walken, Oldman, Gandolfini, Kilmer, Pitt.
Dramatica states that an inequity creates every story.
In True Romance the inequity that shifts the balance in everyone's lives is the accidental theft of a suitcase full of coke We know this because the story ends very soon after the drugs get destroyed.
Although Alabama's (Arquette) voiceover bookends the film, I believe Clarence (Slater) stars as the Main point-of-view and that he serves as the Protagonist who drives the story forward.
The story doesn't clearly give Clarence a personal problem to work through. I see two options.
Option 1: Clarence is lonely and seeks romance.
I present two pieces of evidence to support this. One, the opening scene introduces us to Clarence asking a woman (Anna Levine from The Crow, Unforgiven) if she'd like to go to a kung-fu movie with him (3 movies, actually). She says no. As this scene opens the movie, we give it extra weight.
Two, the title True Romance seems like it might allude to the Main Character's personal goal---to find romance.
I think the problem with this option rests in the fact that this issue, finding romance, resolves very shortly into the film. In the first Act of the movie, Clarence finds his soulmate in the person of Alabama, a former call-girl. Also we don't feel much of Clarence's loneliness and drive to find love.
Option 2: Clarence doubts himself and seeks confidence.
I think this option has more power. He deals with this (a little bit) throughout the story. (Evidence?) Clearly, he gets rejected at the beginning and doubts his ability to find romance. Later, he doubts his ability to convince a movie producer to buy his drugs. Still, I feel that the writer/director did not spend much time at all developing a personal problem for Clarence.
Main Character Resolve
I believe that Clarence changes the personal view on this second issue by the end of the film. He grows from a person who lacks confidence in himself in his attempts to manipulate other people. As a result of his change in confidence, Clarence---who starts the story as a 20-something comic book store employee who's lonely and has money problems---ends up manipulating a very powerful person (famous movie producer, Lee Donowitz).
I found it difficult to identify who influences Clarence's personal view and causes him to change his mind. An influence character is the person who most influences a character in regard to his personal angst/conflict.
As I said, I believe Clarence's biggest personal problem exists in doubting himself. The one person who challenges this view appears to Clarence as a ghost. Clarence loves Elvis and Elvis talks directly to Clarence twice in the film. Both times in the bathroom. And both times the King dialogues with Clarence when they're alone.
In the first talk near the beginning, Elvis asks Clarence if he can live with himself knowing that Alabama's pimp is breathing the same air as him. Elvis tells Clarence that if he wants to get "unhaunted" he should kill the pimp. Clarence worries he will get caught, but Elvis reassures him that the cops won't give a damn. There isn't any direct evidence that Elvis bolsters Clarence's confidence here, except that he believes Clarence can pull it off. He also gives him a confidence boost by telling him "I like you, Clarence. Always have, always will." Who wouldn't be emboldened by Elvis telling them this? Clarence goes to the pimp's (Drexl's) place of business to kill him.
The other time, near the end of the film, Clarence asks the King how he's doing convincing the movie producer, Donowitz, to buy the coke. Presley reassures him.
Alabama is the other obvious choice. Usually in a Romance, the main character's influence character is the love interest. They go back and forth and then somehow end up together. Again, the title True Romance supports this, but the bulk of the movie seems to be anything but a romance. This story really isn't about Clarence and Alabama. It's about a guy trying to sell some drugs.
An influence character challenges the main character's personal view on something. So when does Alabama confront Clarence's view of the world or, more specifically, when does she influence him in regard to his personal storyline? Only once in the entire movie. She tries (weakly) to convince Clarence to not go get her stuff from the pimp. We know that what Clarence has already decided to do has nothing to do with Alabama's things and everything to do with killing her pimp. We see this even more thoroughly illustrated in Clarence's approach and clear antagonism of the pimp when Clarence gives Drexel an empty envelope representing the value of Clarence's "peace of mind". It's a straight up slap in the face. (Drexl memorably says: "He must have thought it was White Boy Day. It ain't White Boy Day, is it?")
Throughout the movie, Alabama serves as more of a Sidekick. She supports Clarence in whatever he does, believes he can do no wrong, and cannot fail.
Blue Lou Boyle, a notorious mobster, serves as the film's Antagonist. He wants his narcotics back.
Although he never appears in the movie, his representatives try to thwart Clarence's attempts to disappear with and sell the drugs. We meet Drexl, Vincenzo (Walken), Virgil (Gandolfini), and a Mob goon squad we see at the end at the Beverly Ambassador Hotel.
As Antagonist, Boyle's overall story function is to get the Protagonist, Clarence, to fail at his goal of selling the drugs and to cause Clarence to reconsider his plan. Despite Alabama's near death at the hands of Virgil, we never see Clarence change his mind. You would think that someone almost killing your wife over drugs might change your mind about going on with your plan. Also, in one of the most compelling scenes in the film, Vincenzo kills Clarence's father. However, this has no impact on Clarence because we never see Clarence find out about it.
Story Threads - Through lines
I identified the through lines as follows.
In the Overall Story, everyone is involved in Activities. Specifically, everyone is trying to Obtain (OS story concern) the suitcase of drugs.
In the Main Character Story, Clarence doubts his abilities and it's from this perspective that we experience the Situation of coming into possession of a suitcase of coke.*
In the Relationship Story, Clarence doubts and Elvis reassures. This relationship is based on (good natured) Manipulation.
In the Influence Character Story, Elvis has a Fixed Attitude ("I like you, Clarence. Always have, always will.") Elvis' view doesn't change, so he's a steadfast character. Elvis is presence. He tells Clarence that he's "Cooler than cool."
Do-ers and Be-ers
Clarence is a DO-ER. Some examples of him Doing follow. He goes after Drexl, goes to LA to sell the drugs, and grabs the phone from the movie producer's assistant (Elliot/Pinchot).
While Clarence DOES, Elvis IS. He holds the fixed attitude that Clarence is "Cooler than cool." Another way to say "Be cool" is "Be confident" or "Don't doubt." This reassurance goes a long way for Clarence. Elvis is all about presence, all about attitude. In this film, he doesn't really do anything, except talk to Clarence. We never get a good, full look at Elvis.
Since Clarence changes over the course of the story, he must become a BE-ER, or change his attitude in order to successfully reach the story goal. This Clarence does. Throughout the film, we're watching as Clarence slowly stops doubting and embraces confidence, born of his very effective manipulations. People swallow his lies and feel comfortable with him based on his intense charisma, ability to think on his feet, and his ability to read people.
Driver (Actions or Decisions?)
We never see Clarence deliberating over a decision, except very briefly at the beginning in the Elvis scene. We don't see Clarence decide to sell the drugs. We don't see Clarence decide to go to LA.
The film focuses on Clarence's actions. As such, actions drive the decisions in the story rather than the other way around.
This story employs an Option Lock, meaning that Clarence and Alabama only have so many options for selling the drugs before they fail at the goal and the Mob catches up with them.
I may try to identify the Act Turns and update this post (or write a new one). Dramatica suggests 3 Acts (1 Learn, 2 - Do>obtain, 3 - Understand). Initially, I'd say that the first turn is Clarence learning he has a suitcase full of drugs. The second act turn probably occurs when Clarence finds a potential buyer. Are there only two turns in a 3 Act story? One between Act 1 and 2? Another between Act 2 and 3?
The Protagonist, Clarence, clearly succeeds in his goal. He gets the money he wanted... and lives, as does Alabama. We see this during the very end scene when Alabama watches while Clarence plays with their little boy. The bullet didn't kill Clarence, although he did lose an eye.
Clarence smiling at end while he picks up his child also shows that Clarence has also resolved any personal issues he may have had. Again, Clarence's doubt that I point to does not feature prominently in the story and does not get much screen time. This makes me cautious about this conclusion.
An incomplete story? Can Dramatica help us fix it?
Dramatica suggests that a complete story should flesh out 4 story lines (called throughlines). I feel the Overall Story in True Romance is super strong. I don't see much at all in regard to the Main Character's throughline (could the visit to his dad and that snippet of backstory illuminate this?), the Relationship throughline, or the Influence Character throughline.
I love seeing Dramatica experts demonstrate where a movie or story lacks strength. Even more than that, I love seeing how they would plug those holes and make the stories stronger with specific examples.
If I analyzed the throughlines correctly above, then Dramatica states that fleshing out the MC, SS and IC throughline would make the movie (or at least the message the author wishes to communicate) stronger.
How would you change the movie to make it stronger? Would beefing up the other throughlines succeed at this? How might you flesh things out? What would you explore?
I'd like to spend a little time exploring this. Perhaps I'll do that and post a "Fixing True Romance's Structural Problems".
Enjoyment and Structure
Jim Hull used to (still does?) break his ratings into two parts: structure and enjoyment. If I did the same for this movie, my ratings would be:
Enjoyment 4/4 stars
Structure 1/4 stars
Overall, this movie is a thrilling joy ride. I'd recommend you watch it.... multiple times. The acting and writing are superb. This one really stands up and passes the test of time. I own it and am sure I'll watch it again and again.
Should the fact that the structure might be weak affect how well I remember or how much I enjoy this film? Hmmm...
On IMDb Kilmer's character is listed as "Mentor." This supports my identification of him as the Influence Character.
(Elvis as influence character... Only two examples of this in whole movie? Is there another impact/influence character? Or does the movie simply not develop one? Also, is it possible that Clarence is a steadfast character? Without being able to clearly identify a strong IC it's hard to tell.)
(I don't really feel comfortable with the MC Growth as STOP. I don't feel that Clarence has a chip on his shoulder. I feel more like he has a hole in his heart and that he must START believing in himself.
I identified Clarence's through line as Situation. Initially, I thought this was the situation of finding yourself in possession of a suitcase full of coke. But this seems overall story vs his personal character situation. Other thoughts?
Thanks for any thoughts/feedback guys!