Most films start with a screenplay. Certainly the true genesis is usually an idea or concept, but the film starts to take shape around a screenplay. Never has that been more true then with 3 Holes And A Smoking Gun. In fact, you could say it has a killer script. I’m not actually talking about the one written by Scott Fivelson for the movie. And, when I say killer, I’m not being at all figurative. This is a script that people will literally kill for, hence the smoking gun in the title. That’s not to say that Fivelson’s work isn’t pretty good here. It’s quite clever, but it’s not the dominating aspect of this particular movie. That comes later.
Bobby Blue Day (Wilder) is pretty much a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who now teaches a class on film writing. It wouldn’t exactly be fair to say he is a has-been, because that would imply that he had anything like a successful career at all. He’s obviously more than a little bitter, and that hits home hard when one of his students hands in the best script he’s ever read or heard of. It’s perfect, and he conspires to get himself a piece of the action by taking advantage of inexperienced writer Jack (Khan). But Jack isn’t falling for the act. He knows how good the script is, and he’s been through more than a little hell to get it this far. The problem is that Bobby appears to know a big-time director who will see the script’s genius and want to make the film. But is that contact worth half the money and a co-writing credit? As it turns out, it’s all a negotiation, and the two engage in a rather dangerous dance for position. Along the way we discover that everything isn’t always what it appears to be, and Bobby’s not the only one who will do anything to get himself attached to the work.
As I already mentioned, it’s a clever enough idea. But it’s also one hell of a hard sell. The McGuffin here is the script itself which we, rightfully so, never see a single word of. You really can’t reveal any of the script, because there’s no way anything can live up to the tremendous hype and the staggering stakes it inspires. Fivelson is smart not to allow us a taste of the work no matter how much we might feel we want to see it. OK, it’s a smart move, but it leaves us with the most important aspect of the story completely invisible.
That’s where the performances come in. With such a hole in the presentation this movie must depend more heavily upon the performances that might ordinarily be called upon. Zuher Khan and James Wilder manage to develop a strong chemistry that delivers in these tight spaces. The performance literally becomes the dance I alluded to earlier. And while Khan is perfectly fine in his role, it is James Wilder who is the true stand-out here. The performance has scored him some festival awards, and it’s easy to see why. His portrayal of Bobby is compelling enough to hold our attention even when there is little else to do so. It’s become a bit of a cliché to say an actor carries a film on his own shoulders, but in 3 Holes And A Smoking Gun it is no exaggeration.
This is the first feature film for director Hilarion Banks, but he manages to infuse the film with some rather nice atmosphere. There are some sweet film noir moments here that will be a treat for the hardcore fans of cinema. The film also has a very theatrical feel to it. I can easily see this working quite well as a stage production. Most of the action takes place in a single room with only the two actors playing off each other. Banks has mostly been a cinematographer during his career in film, and it shows. There’s a lot of detail paid to framing and camera setup. Banks is very sure of what he wants us to see and how he wants us to see it, and his cinematography background provides the perfect skillset to achieve that look most of the time. His weakness is absolutely the use of music. The score is almost always a distraction. Banks doesn’t really know what to do with it, and as a result the most effective moments here are the quiet ones. The score is not only a distraction to us the viewers, but I suspect it was just as much of one to Banks himself.
The film’s coda is a flaw in the design. The unnecessary ending makes the mistake of pushing the story’s rather tough premise to its absolutely crazy limits. In some ways it taints Wilder’s solid performance by putting his character in a situation I think even he finds to be pushing the proverbial luck just a little much. I would have liked to see the film end on the same kind of edgy note that gives it its staying power throughout. It’s a case of a filmmaker who should have stayed with the horse that “brung” him. It would do both Fivelson and Banks some service to learn what first-year law students have drummed into their skulls. People will most remember the first and last thing they see or hear.
Count as a strength that Banks doesn’t insult our intelligence even with a story that tends to stretch credibility. Of course, I find it almost impossible to believe that a screenplay can be so good that men will kill and exert political and legal influence in order to process it. With a concept that appears more than a little ridiculous, it would be so tempting for Banks and his cast and crew to figure they’ve already insulted our intelligence, so why not keep it up? Too many directors with a clever premise feel they need to hit us over the head with the “message” until our brains are completely numb. The real value in this story is the things just under the surface and a crew that trusts us to figure it out for ourselves.
Finally, there is a little confusion with the film’s name. The original title and the one still on my print of the film is 3 Holes 2 Brads And A Smoking Gun. The 2 Brads has been removed. For the inside scoop on why it was changed and more insight into the film, you should check out my chat with James Wilder. It was a wild movie and a wild chat. “Just give me a second to get my Zen back.“