Premise: A by-the-book FBI profiler must track down a serial killer with the help of an illiterate 24-year old psychic.
About: This was a 2011 Nicholl winner.
Writer: Matthew Murphy
Details: Nicholl Draft, 101 pages
You know, I generally stay away from scripts that have “serial killer” in the logline. Sure, last week I reviewed Gaslight, which was about Jack the Ripper (kind of), but that had enough fresh ingredients in the logline to keep the word “cliché” from popping into my thought space.
So, why did you choose to read the lone serial killer Nicholl finalist script, “Unicorn”, Rog?
Because, it is a fucking serial killer script that uses the word “Unicorn” for a title. Unicorn! So many questions ran through my brain. Why is it titled Unicorn? Are there Unicorns in this script? Is the killer a Unicorn, or does the killer just have a horn? Or wait, is it the psychic who has a horn? How do Unicorns factor into this story? Why isn’t it titled something else?
More questions flooded my cranium. People still write serial killer scripts? Why not? People still tell vampire and zombie yarns. How do you keep a serial killer tale fresh after seeing stuff like Se7en, Zodiac, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and everything else in David Fincher’s misogynist film cycle? After growing up on Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling and all the second-rate imitations, how do you keep from creating an imitation yourself?
When I can watch Medium, Fringe, The X-Files, or any other tv show that uses psychics to solve crimes, why should I read yet another script that treads through the same territory? The answer is, I wasn’t going to. These stories hit a saturation point in my interest meter, so I set Unicorn aside.
And I actually went about my day, thinking I was gonna read something else. And why shouldn’t I? After all, Eastern Promises 2 was staring at me from my shiny iPad screen. Would there be any more naked Viggo Mortensen fights to look forward to and HEY ROGER, THERE’S A SERIAL KILLER SCRIPT ON YOU COMPUTER THAT WON THE NICHOLL FELLOWSHIP AND IT’S CALLED UNICORN!
So, I broke my anger management chip in half and opened the goddamn script to quell my curious gray matter.
Indeed, why is titled Unicorn?
It’s the first name of the psychic character, Skye Huffman. Unicorn Skye Huffman. Or, if you’re her mother Penny, you call her “Yuyu” for short. Before you ask, yes, this is all chalked up to hipster Penny spawning a killer-catching Manic Pixie Dream Gal.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Unicorn starts out with your typical Henry-Portrait-of-a-Serial-Killer murder slash rape scenario. A creepy man rapes a duct-taped girl in her apartment, while the body of her fiancé lies freshly slaughtered on the kitchen floor. He seems to time the kill with his orgasm, because he pulls out a scary hunting knife that’s strapped to his leg and uses it to deliver the coup de grace.
Or, so it appears. Because right before the death blow we cut to a pair of green eyes opening in the darkness that seem to be tuned into the victim’s ordeal.
And that’s the teaser section of this thriller, a bit of nasty business that sets up our mysterious serial killer and our even more mysterious psychic. You know what a teaser is, right? A two to three page sequence that whets the audience’s appetite for more bloodshed to come and more importantly, mysteries to solve. An audience loves a good mystery to solve, and these teasers are important in thriller and horror scripts.
These scenes ground the story in its genre. It makes promises to the audience. The promise of more kills and grisly encounters, and the promise of revealing and hopefully catching the killer. These ingredients are the blood, bones and butter of this particular genre. They let the audience know what kind of ride they’re in for.
So, who are the other characters?
We meet the broom-up-his-ass Agent Thomas Buck while he’s briefing the Baltimore police department about his theory that there’s a serial killer in operation, targeting couples. The only problem is, there are no bodies. But, since all of the missing women have dark hair and are in their 20s, Buck believes it’s the work of one killer. The disappearances are getting closer and closer together, so it’s time sensitive they catch this guy before there are any more victims.
The scene gets even more intriguing as the green Agent Buck (he’s still in his 20s) gets nervous during his briefing when Detective Roy Weitzman enters the room. He stammers a bit as Weitzman takes a seat in his wrinkled clothes, looking like he should be at an AA Meeting rather than a police station.
There’s an interesting writer’s rule that says, “If your character cries, your reader won’t.” Now, I don’t remember who first said this, but I know Orson Scott Card teaches it when it comes to fiction. I’m not sure how applicable this is to a cinematic medium, but there is something about seeing a character not cry when they have reason to. It makes the reader express emotion for the character.
Why am I mentioning this? The focal character in this scene is Buck, so when he gets nervous and shows interest in Weitzman, we’re immediately interested in him, too. This is an example of why point-of-view is important. Every scene should be shown through a character’s particular perspective. Even Christopher Nolan says, “Stylistically, something that runs through my films is the shot that walks into a room behind a character, because to me, that takes me inside the way that the character enters. I think those point-of-view issues are very important.”
Who is this Weitzman cat, and why does he make an FBI Agent like Buck so antsy?
Weitzman just got back from a book tour and the New York Times even compared him to Sherlock Holmes. Turns out he’s caught quite a few killers and the FBI is so turned on by his crime-solvin’ magic that they’ve sent Buck to observe and take note of his methods. Buck worshipped the guy’s work as he was going through the academy, so he’s struck with the idol-worshipping bug. Also turns out that Weitzman’s boss, Captain O’Neill, is friends with Buck’s family, so he’s perhaps a harmless candidate for the gig.
Of course, we learn all this through exposition when O’Neill takes Weitzman in his office to discuss the investigation. But, you know, exposition is always welcome when we want to know the information and it’s not clumsily handled. Because of how Weitzman is set-up, we want to learn more about him. And, the scene is kind of nice because we sense a real history between the detective and his Captain.
But, the first act would be boring if there wasn’t any tension between Weitzman and Buck. You guessed it, Weitzman doesn’t want to be saddled with the naïve young gun. Not only because he’s used to working solo, but it also seems that Weitzman has a secret to hide concerning his methods.
O’Neill convinces the detective to take the agent along, because he’s someone who is smart and loyal and can keep his mouth shut. He gives us a nugget of intrigue as well by saying, “We’re getting old, Roy. Someone else needs to know.”
What is Weitzman hiding?
After the obligatory “Let’s Get One Thing Straight” Scene, where Weitzman tells Buck how it’s gonna be if they’re gonna work together, the detective dangles an enticing carrot in front of the young FBI agent. Not only does Buck need to get autopsy reports and the like, he is also saddled with an odd grocery list: plastic-wrapped art supplies, one bottle of Johnnie Walker, a book of Georgia O’Keefe paintings and a bag of M&Ms.
Now, most FBI agents probably wouldn’t take these kind of demands from a police detective, but an encounter with one of the victim’s parents motivates Buck to play nice. He buys everything on the list and the next day Weitzman takes him to an odd farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere that is surrounded by weird metal sculptures and other odd accoutrement.
Weitzman gives him three rules before they enter: One, Don’t touch anything. Two, Don’t move around.
Three, he must tell no one what he is about to see.
Inside, they find the fading beauty, Penny, who aims to get drunk with Johnnie Walker. There are also canvasses everywhere of painted figures.
All with no faces.
Penny calls her daughter downstairs. Skye, or Yuyu, looks like a Renaissance Madonna. She wears paint-stained dungarees and neoprene gloves protect her hands. Buck is instantly smitten.
What’s the psychic’s story?
She doesn’t read because she’s dyslexic. She doesn’t speak because she has aphasia. All human faces look blank to her (she can’t tell one face from another) because she has prosopagnosia.
Give her an evidence bag (conveniently stolen from the evidence lockers by Weitzman), take off her gloves and let her make contact with the psychic memories these objects carry. She’s like an antenna, locking onto the killer after touching some strands of hair.
Since she doesn’t speak or write, she draws what she sees on a sketchpad. We learn this system is pretty damn accurate, as Weitzman has caught a slew of killers by using his psychic bloodhound, Yuyu.
But, what about the book he wrote, you ask? How did he portray his techniques and use of informants? Well, he tells an angry Buck he cribbed from Hitchock films and CSI.
At this point, Buck is so angry that he wants to leave his assignment, but he’s haunted by the victims and the picture of the killer that Yuyu sketched. He stays on the hunt and carries us into Act Two.
What’s the rest of the script like, Rog?
This was an odd bird. I breezed through this thing because the writing was clean and vivid and I really wanted to know how the sucker would end. Hell, in stories like this, where the Narrative Question is: Will our guys catch the killer?, I will keep reading until that question is answered. If it’s a pleasant read, that is.
And Unicorn is a pleasant read.
There’s a B Story where we follow the killer through his routine, and that helps flesh out the script but I think the story and characters need to be beefed up. Right now, a lot of Act Two is about waiting for the killer to make his next move. In turn, our protagonists are waiting for Yuyu to gather clues through her sensory and psychic connections. There’s a lot of waiting. They become a bit passive. Which gives time for Buck to have a romance with Yuyu, but it’s bogged down by too much stuff I’ve seen before.
This created a bump in the read for me as I wanted more tension and emotional weight that wasn’t coupled with locked-room protagonists (not entirely passive, they’re just caged) and a predictable plot. Unicorn works as a by-the-numbers thriller and procedural, but it needs a cohesive theme. It needs more heart.
However, there’s a cool twist at the end of Act Two that creates a very tense scene that puts one of our heroes in a very vulnerable position, and it may be the best scene in the whole script. Although, the mechanics of how the Twist work here don’t seem to follow the psychic rules set-up by the writer. I do think this is an easy fix, though, and it has to do with touch and giving this particular character an object to help them “hone in”.
For some reason, Unicorn reminded me of one of my favorite scripts, Sunflower. That’s another thriller, but it has some dazzling psychological pyrokinetics between the characters that I loved, and I think Unicorn could benefit by having more mind-games. The chess pieces are all here for something cool, I just think they should be moved around a bit more to not only beef up the characters, but to make the script itself edgier and not as predictable.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Two things. Point of View and Putting Your Character Through the Ringer. The rule of thumb for creating drama and tension in a scene is by telling it through the character who has the most to lose in the scene. After I read Unicorn, I kept thinking how cool it would be if this was a story told from the psychic’s perspective. She’s mute. She can’t distinguish between faces. Yet she gets startling visions. That seems like such an interesting character to tell a story though, and I think it would make the execution unique. Jennifer 8 did it. Yuyu is such a vulnerable character, and any scene in which she is endangered would be tense as hell. Speaking of tension, it’s hard for an audience to pull away from a scene when the protagonist is being endangered with no easy ways out. If story can be defined as how a character deals with danger, then it would make sense to put them through the ringer to such an extent where they can’t escape without a few bruises and scars. Audiences love to see a protagonist get hit, physically or emotionally, so don’t be afraid to beat them up. Stories where characters get everything handed to them on a silver platter are boring. Make them earn it.