Oscars: Breaking Down 7 Grim Themes of 40 Contending Screenplays

7:00 AM 12/3/2015

by THR staff

Unconventional love stories, history lessons, race relations and violence are spotlighted as this season's race gets as bloody as 'Beasts of No Nation,' serious as 'Son of Saul' and heartfelt as 'Carol.'

Helen Mirren, Trumbo Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Helen Mirren, Trumbo Still - H 2015

The word this awards season is plenty grim, judging by the topics — vengeance and addiction, true crime and race relations — obsessing some of Hollywood's top screenwriters. Escapism is reserved mostly for the overstuffed summer blockbusters, where dialogue often is drowned out by superhero fisticuffs. Now that the more serious film fare is rolling out, it's all about addressing social issues and zeroing in on characters who are fighting their own demons — whether it's Steve Jobs' ferocious need to succeed in the Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs or the dislocation experienced by Charlie Kaufman's inspirational speaker in Anomalisa.

Even those movies with triumphant heroes deal with upsetting realities: The crusading jour­nalists in Spotlight go up against the Catholic Church's child abuse scandal; in Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo must fight political hys­teria to recover the use of his name; and Joy might be lighter, but Jennifer Lawrence's businesswoman must still overcome lots of chauvinism. Overall, it's a tough, rough world out there.

  • Torn From the Headlines

    There’s no shortage of scripts addressing current issues. Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee tackle violence in the black community in Chi-Raq, while Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff confront police brutality in Straight Outta Compton. Brain damage suffered by National Football League players is front and center in Peter Landesman’s Concussion, and the war against drugs is at the center of Taylor Sheridan’s Sicario. In Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy detail the Boston Globe investigation that exposed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation goes inside an African child army. The 2008 financial meltdown and subprime mortgage crisis are told from the point of view of bankers in Charles Randolph and Adam McKay’s The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ book, and of homeowners in 99 Homes, written by Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi.

  • Love (In All Its Varieties)

    Forget traditional boy-meets-girl stories. In Carol, Phyllis Nagy, working from a Patricia Highsmith novel, serves up a ravishing account of two women in love, while The Danish Girl, which Lucinda Coxon adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel, looks at the even more complex sexual dynamics between transgender Lili Elbe and her wife. Nick Hornby’s Brooklyn, based on a Colm Toibin novel, looks back at the 1950s, where it finds an Irish immigrant to America torn between two lovers; Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea, set in the 1970s, focuses on a marriage under duress; and Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner’s Love & Mercy cuts between the ’60s and the ’80s as the support of a good woman helps Brian Wilson reclaim his musical genius.

  • History Lessons, Hollywood Style

    Hollywood gets a close-up, not altogether flattering, in John McNamara’s Trumbo, adapted from the book by Bruce Cook that recounts how ace screenwriter Dalton Trumbo confronted and survived the blacklist. Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes, the protagonists of Truth, which writer-director James Vanderbilt based on Mapes’ own memoir, don’t emerge as triumphantly after they find themselves at odds with CBS News following their investigation into George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen travel back to the height of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies, which follows attorney James B. Donovan as he attempts to secure the release of two Americans held by the Russians and East Germans. And Laszlo Nemes and Clara Royer’s Son of Saul revisits the Auschwitz death factory as one prisoner, forced to attend to the dead, tries to give one young victim a proper burial.

  • Other Worlds

    Things aren’t necessarily going to be better in the future. In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris conjure up a dry-as-dust apocalyptic landscape. And writer-director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores the possibility that artificial intelligence is about to give rise to dangerously sentient beings. But The Martian, Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s book, does suggest American ingenuity could win out. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens, written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, reverts to fantasy while attempting to bring back to life a galaxy far, far away.

  • Senior Moments

    One of the more encouraging 2015 trends is that older characters are commanding screen time. Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino addresses the subject of aging, and how it affects artists, in the playfully titled Youth. Writer-director Andrew Haigh, adapting David Constantine’s short story, presents scenes from a long-standing marriage in 45 Years. Adapting his own play, Alan Bennett offers a portrait of an elderly homeless woman in The Lady in the Van; working from Mitch Cullin’s novel, Jeffrey Hatcher provides a fresh take on Sherlock Holmes, living in retirement, in Mr. Holmes; writer-director Paul Weitz conjures up an unconventional grandma in Grandma; and a widow gets a new lease on life in Marc Basch and Brett Haley’s I'll See You in My Dreams.

  • Women Under the Influence

    Ladies step to the front of the line in such films as writer-director David O. Russell’s Joy, about a woman who becomes an entrepreneur, and in even greater numbers in Abi Morgan’s historically-based Suffragette. Amy Schumer’s comic Trainwreck takes an unapologetic look at a gal whose life is a bit of a mess. Women must overcome even tougher odds in Room, Emma Donoghue’s tale of a trapped mother and son, which she adapted from her own novel, and I Smile Back, Paige Dylan and Amy Koppelman’s portrait of an addicted suburban mom, adapted from Koppelman’s novel. On a lighter note, Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley delve deep into the mind of an 11-year-old girl in Inside Out.

  • Guys Being Guys (Not in a Good Way)

    Lots of adrenaline pumps through both the survival and revenge epic The Revenant, written by Alejandro G. Inarritu and Mark L. Smith, and the neo-Western The Hateful Eight, from Quentin Tarantino. Men are at their worst in the crime sagas Black Mass, about Boston’s Whitey Bulger, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, and Legend, about London’s Kray brothers, written by Brian Helgeland. Sports fans looking for more inspirational fare can opt for boxing pic Creed, written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on Sly Stallone’s characters. In Steve Jobs, wordsmith Aaron Sorkin takes on the Apple co-founder. And, for lonely guys who find themselves in a strange hotel room, there’s Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa.