I stubbed out another cigarette in the congealed fat on the plate in front of me. Yesterday’s half-eaten Happy Meal stared up at me accusingly. I sat back in the creaky office chair and surveyed my dark tomb of an office: A cork board piecing this conspiracy together, currently empty but I’d get round to it; An old desk that’d been here when I moved in, what secrets did it hold? Probably loads. I was knee deep in mystery and more was pouring in every day. I didn’t know where this investigation was going but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
I could hear the quiet chatter coming from the headphones on my desk, but I didn’t need to start listening yet. Looking out the window, London was bathed in a cold sunlight that almost peeled back the curtains to reveal the hidden, beating heart of the twisted metropolis. But London wouldn’t give up her secrets. That’s right: Her. Cities, like broads will never tell you their what they’re thinking but they’ll punish you for not knowing. I chuckled intelligently at my own joke and took another cigarette from the pack, the last one. Putting the headphones on I began to transcribe the conversation.
-Yeah, he’s listening now.
-How do you know?
-I can hear him repeating the long words through the wall, it’s hilarious
-So if I say verisimili
Sometimes, I had to stop listening to stop myself going insane. These clandestine groups spoke in riddles as they enacted their sinister crimes from the shadows. I would transcribe it as best I could and pass it on but there was no way to know what they really meant in their coded language.
-Right, so, 1am: I’ll break into the Austrian Consulate and steal the papers, then hand them off to you as you pass the Wasabi by Embankment, got it.
-Yup, see you then.
Meaningless, nonsense. But it all played into their sick games somehow. I shredded the transcript, useless as it was. How would we catch these men? How big would the statue of me be? I thought, heroically.
I’ve been watching a lot of old-fashioned films lately. And I don’t mean that in the literal sense. A few spring to mind: Nice Guys, Baby Driver and now Scribe. All very different, but with a similar classic aesthetic that allowed me to jam them into this slightly shaky category. I’m not using old-fashioned as a pejorative term, quite the opposite, in fact. They all share simple storytelling techniques that you don’t see a lot these days. Nice Guys was a classic buddy movie, Baby Driver is a classic heist/love story, and Scribe is a classic political/espionage/spy thriller. Being old-fashioned isn’t enough in itself, though. In fact, it probably makes everyone’s jobs harder. Studios and critics and marketing droids are going to say, “Don’t do that, that’s not how we do things these days”, and everyone has to stick to their guns and keep the project headed in the right direction. Being old-fashioned, no doubt, means alienating audiences, too: If they’re expecting a flashy, bombastic action thriller and they get a down-to-earth, gritty political drama they might be disappointed.
I was not disappointed.
Scribe is exactly my cup of tea. A type of film I am never in the mood to watch but have never regretted watching. The wave of apathy that rolls over me when presented with a tense thriller never takes into account how much I enjoy them. Scribe is a film that fits the genre perfectly. It is tense and paranoid, the enemies and allies are unclear, and the hero scared and alone. It ticks every box. This film innovates by not innovating at all. If you’re after the newest most exciting film techniques and narrative devices, you’re looking in the wrong place, but what you will find is uncomfortable, claustrophobic and solid storytelling.
Scribe follows Duval (François Cluzet), an out of work insurance clerk. We see, what seems to be a breakdown at his previous job as he attempts to hurriedly consolidate files during an all-nighter. We learn, from his AA meeting, that he is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for one year. This is how you introduce a main character, filmmakers: Who are they? What do they do? What’s the problem? Asked and answered. This film sticks, doggedly and gratifyingly, to established film structure and reaps the rewards. We are introduced to a possible love interest or new friend: Sara, a new member at the AA meetings, for whom Duval becomes a sponsor. It is heavily implied that he is having trouble finding work. Good, now we’re getting somewhere, our hero has a goal. Out of the blue, he is contacted by Clément, a mysterious figure who offers him a job transcribing tapes. Brilliant, that all worked out. He wanted a job, he got a job. Superb. Credits roll and we all go home happy. No, as much as I wish some of the films I’ve seen recently were half an hour long, I’m glad this one wasn’t.
I won’t spoil it (obviously), but Duval is quickly wrapped up in a series of betrayals, murders, threats and kidnappings, that all arise from the tapes he’s transcribing. You won’t be surprised by what happens in this film, but like the steak at a restaurant you always go to: The superb execution makes up for it not being a wholly original experience.
The viewer is well placed to experience the growing paranoia with Duval. He is a perfect audience surrogate, being just as out of his depth as the viewer. An ordinary man dropped into a world he doesn’t understand and we’re along for the ride.
The problem with thrillers, for a lot of people, is the pacing. Thrillers work by putting you in a familiar setting and then slowly taking away support structures and trust, and increasing the pace until the viewer is in such a state of panic that they’re almost begging for it to be over. They are stressful things to watch and you can’t have a stressful film without having a fairly stress-free opening. Good thrillers, like Enemy or Nightstalker (We get it, you love Gyllenhaal), drip feed the stress early on to get you used to it before you realise you’re up to your neck. The pacing is paramount to the success of a thriller and this may be a point where Scribe stumbles, but only slightly. It feels a little too slow to get going. It’s by no means off putting but it is noticeable. Around the start of the second act, you can feel the bumps in the road a little. The ending, too, may be a little weak for some. I didn’t think it was bad, as such, it just lacked a bit of punch that had been there in the run up to it. Rather than leaving me with that satisfying, unsettled feeling that thrillers do so well, I was just a little underwhelmed. But apart from those minor points, it moves along very pleasingly, before gathering you up roughly, for the final sprint to the end. Violence and violent imagery is used sparingly but with appropriate impact and brutality. The dialogue, and there’s a lot of it, never drags and never feels superfluous. Pleasingly, nothing feels like exposition. One minor irritation was the reliance of the classic MacGuffin, the thing the whole plot revolves around, usually The Papers, (referred to as The Notebooks in Scribe to add some variety): Who’s got The Papers? Where are The Papers? I know it’s a staple of the genre, but it’s a wonky staple that doesn’t go all the way through The Papers.
Am I going to get through an entire review without a “Spoiler” section? I think I am. Won’t mother be proud? It wouldn’t be a Sam Rae review without an unjustified rant about an incredibly minor detail, though, would it? No. Yellow. What’s up with all the yellow, guys? In the same way that Call Of Duty caused all video games made after it to have a colour palette consisting of various shades of brownish grey, it seems at some point someone decided, Thrillers are Yellow. Come on, everyone, the whole audience, say it with me “THRILLERS ARE YELLOW!” It’s minor but it feels like someone has is injecting a lot of “Warm But Isolating Orange” into films of this type. Some of them make sense, “Enemy” made Toronto look like Los Angeles and Sicario’s tint reflected the parched, unfriendly US border with Mexico. But in Scribe a few shots just look like they were lit with your Grandma’s favourite oil lamp.
On a completely unrelated note (no pun intended), I really liked the score. It was tense but understated and unobtrusive. It fit perfectly with the feel of the film and accentuated the drama rather than distracting from it. It’s simple orchestral arrangement is another area where the film made no attempt to innovate and was better for it. More notable still is that this seems to be composer Grégoire Auger’s first high profile score. One exception is when it suffers from that thing where an orchestral composer gets hold of a synthesizer and uses it to just play one note over and over. You can play all the notes on a synth, guys. All the different notes.
Scribe is solid and entertaining but might fail to stand out for a lot of people. I wouldn’t level “Forgettable” at it but I worry that for all the advantages of sticking to a tried and tested formula it might fall under the radar for a lot of viewers. Maybe Scribe could have done with just a little bit of 21st Century injected into it, just a little bit. Just seasoned with a few new ideas that could have made this excellently crafted piece of cinema into a something that might resonate a bit more. As it is, I would recommend it to anyone with a taste for tense, political thrillers or a longing for a bygone (but fairly recent) era of cinema.
Review by Sam Rae
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Check out Sam Rae‘s reviews below:
Ghost In A Shell
David Brent; Life On The Road
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