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The Meaning of "Kill Your Darlings" (With a Brief Review of "The Heat")

I saw The Heat last week.  It was okay.


The movie was mostly funny, although I felt it relied a little too much on Melissa McCarthy's "angry fat woman" schtick.  (Don't get me wrong - I think McCarthy is a talented actress and a hilarious woman, but I'd like to see her play more than one note.  Or at least, if she is going to hold that note, maybe let's allow the rest of the cast to mix it up a bit.)

I enjoyed that the narrative was mainly focused on Sandra Bullock's arc, in which she is humbled by her partnership with McCarthy - a cop who is more than her match.  But there was one specific scene in this arc that shouldn't have been in the movie.  Paradoxically, it is also one of the best scenes.

Let me set it up.  McCarthy and Bullock are getting closer to discovering the true identity of Larkin, the drug kingpin that Bullock has been assigned to find and take out.  McCarthy's brother, Michael Rapaport, is an ex-con who has an in with Larkin's gang and could, potentially, be a good mole.  Bullock suggests this, but McCarthy is understandably reluctant - Rapaport is her brother.  She has struggled for years to keep him out of the gang, and now that he's finally going straight, how can she throw all that away and put him in danger?

They wind up at a diner where they discuss this possibility over breakfast.  McCarthy sums up Bullock's character's deficiencies ("You're too arrogant!") and pointedly asks something to the effect of, "How can you be so sure that using my brother is a good idea?  Haven't you ever been wrong about things before?"

Now, skipping ahead a few minutes - minor spoilers - Bullock goes over McCarthy's head and asks Rapaport to be their inside man.  This leads to a disastrous sting operation where it turns out that Larkin knew Rapaport was McCarthy's brother, fed him incorrect information, and then shot him and left him for dead.  Rapaport is now in a coma, the entire investigation has come to a screeching halt, and  McCarthy's family (already on the edge) is torn further apart.

And it's all Bullock's fault, because her arrogant assumptions about the case and about Rapaport drove her to act recklessly.

In terms of story structure, this is perfect.  Both the overall narrative arc and Bullock's character arc intertwine at a catastrophic low point, which allows both to reach The Turn and lead into a heroic, climactic third act.  It's great, right?

Here's the problem.  Right before Bullock sets up the sting, there's a moment in the diner where a nearby patron starts choking.  Bullock attempts to give the man the Heimlich maneuver, but it doesn't work.  He's still choking.  Bullock panics: "Oh, my God!  He's dying!  There's only one solution now:  we have to give him an emergency tracheotomy!"

And she does.  To disastrous effect.  Predictably, the man did not need a tracheotomy - he just needed  a firm smack to dislodge his pancake bite - and now he has to be hospitalized thanks to Bullock.

The tracheotomy scene is probably one of the highlights of the movie.  It's morbid, hilarious, and has some of the best performances (over the top though they may be).  I quite enjoyed it.

But it should have been cut.

This is what Faulkner called "a darling."  It's a brilliant scene or an idea that you love, but it has no place in your story.  There is no justification for it.  And in fact, keeping it around makes the story worse.  So even though you love it, even though it's perfect, even though everybody else might enjoy it... you need to get rid of it.

The problem with the tracheotomy in The Heat is twofold.  One is that it is a humbling event for Bullock.  If her character has any merit, then being wrong about a tracheotomy should make her doubt herself as to whether or not they should use Rapaport as their inside man.  This, of course, would throw off the rest of the movie's structure - so she still makes the wrong call.  But since this comes right on the heels of the tracheotomy, it makes her seem not so much arrogant as incredibly dense.  Bullock goes from being "sympathetic jerk" to "irredeemable jerk" in the course of two minutes.

The other problem is that the sting-gone-wrong is an act of passive arrogance while the tracheotomy is an act of aggressive arrogance.  Think about it this way: Bullock makes a compelling argument about why they should use Rapaport as an inside man, she is distanced from him emotionally, and she does not physically do anything harmful.  She can still be "right" even as it all comes crashing down, at which point reality puts her face to face with the consequences.

The tracheotomy, however, is active, physical malice.  It is significantly more severe than making a bureaucratic, cold decision about somebody else's life.  So even if you do need two humbling events for Bullock, why would you go from Most Insane Thing She's Ever Done to Kind of a Dick Move With Unexpected Consequences?  This shift makes her character not only dense, but psychotic.

The Heat is still a fun movie and, overall, worth a rental.  I'll give it a 3.5 / 5.