1. Opening Image (pg 1 – 3): The audience is first engaged with something compelling that sets the tone – and we begin to see how things as they are today.
While Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife, Julia drive his BMW through Manhattan, she talks about a leak in their refrigerator. Davis has no idea about this, in fact he comes off as an uncaring, self-absorbed husband who is oblivious to his wife’s needs.
2. Catalyst (pg 3): An event rocks the main character’s world completely, and sets in motion the central problem of the story. It’s an external problem (not just internal) — it has clear and present stakes.
Davis and Julia are the victims of a violent crash, which kills Julia. Davis is in shock, he feels lost. What was his life about? What was his marriage about? He realizes never loved Julia. The catalyst prompts him to grieve, in his own strange way.
3. Theme Stated (pg 14): Usually spoken to the main character in a snippet of dialogue, this gives a sense of the deeper issues that this story is “about.”
Phil, Davis’ father-in-law comforts him, saying “repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile. You have to take everything apart. The anger, the love, the loss.”
4. Set-Up Section (pgs 1-11): We get to know the main character, who is living a compromised life in some way, while dealing with problems – and has something about them we can respect or like.
After a vending machine malfunctions, and he doesn’t get the M & Ms he paid for, Davis begins by writing intensely personal autobiographical letters to the customer service representative at the vending machine company. He is reaching out.
Through his letters, we learn more about Davis’ life. He works for his father-in -law (Phil, played by Chris Cooper) at an investment company. He shows up at work, as he does every day, on auto-pilot, in denial about his wife’s death. He declines to talk about his loss, and goes about his day at work.
Davis appears to be thoroughly dislikeable, yet funny in a dark sense. They closest thing to a “Save the Cat” moment, for him, is the sympathy we feel for him after his wife dies.
5. Debate Section (pgs 12-25): The main character questions what has happened, tries to figure out what to do, and often seeks to avoid the true “call to adventure.”
Davis begins to start grieving in his own way. He tells some guy on the train, he never loved his wife. He thinks about what Phil, his father-in-law said about taking things apart. He begins having daydreams about unpacking, and dismantling things.
Phil wants to take the 1.7 million dollars in life insurance due to Davis, to set up a scholarship in Julia’s name, as a legacy. Davis clearly doesn’t agree, but stays silent.
6. Break into Two (pg 23- 26): Act 2: The main character becomes pulled into a world completely out of his element. He’s overmatched as the attempts to confront his story problem.
After weighing the advice from his father-in-law “you have to take everything apart,” Davis commits to a new course of action — he decides his way of grieving will involve dismantling things, starting with the leaky refrigerator.
7. B Story (pg 27): A second story begins, which will run parallel to the “A Story”, and interweave with it throughout the rest of the movie. The theme and the character’s inner journey tends to be explored here.
Davis gets a phone call from Karen, the customer service person. She was moved by his letters, they were so honest, and they made her cry. He feels a connection to her, she may be able to help him grieve. He decides they should meet.
8. Fun and Games Section (pg 29- 49): The entertaining aspects of the story’s premise are explored – which are fun to watch, but NOT fun for the main character, who is essentially in HELL until the end of the story.
Davis decides to get to know Karen better. He learns that Karen considers herself a loser, and a pothead. She is not really in love wither boss and roommate, Carl.
Davis meets Karen’s son Chris, who has destructive qualities of his own, and is curious about his sexuality. Davis makes a connection with Chris.
Davis continues dismantling other things in his life, including his late wife’s cappuccino machine, and a squeaky bathroom stall door at work. This seems to help with his process. He leaves the dismantled objects in pieces which worries Phil.
9. Midpoint (pg 49): The stakes are raised: the problem becomes more focused, more serious, more important and urgent.
Davis tells himself, “From now on, it’s me and my tools.” He drives by a construction site where the workers are demolishing a home, and joins in, taking a sledgehammer to the walls.
10. Bad Guys Close In Section (pg 49- 87/90): Problems get worse and worse – the hero to be failing in their approach, and/or is facing more and more seemingly impossible obstacles.
Jeopardy appears to escalate as Davis notices a station wagon following him. Is it Carl? Is it dangerous? Davis runs into Chris at Karen’s house, where the boy is struggling with his “homosexual panic.” The boy pulls out a gun.
Davis stops him from hurting himself, and invites Chris to shoot him while wearing a bullet-proof vest, so he can feel it. He does. He’s starting to feel.
Davis escalates his dismantling of objects. He tears down an amusement park and continues demolishing the house at the work site. He even gets hold of a bulldozer, and trashes his own house.
11. All Is Lost (pg 87 -91): The story seems to be over, and the hero appears to have no hope. Everything the hero’s trying has failed, and they have no other options.
When he finds his wife’s sonogram, Davis feels shocked, devastated and saddened very deeply. Chris gets brutally beat up by homophobic kids at school. Karen seems to be picking Carl over Davis.
12. Dark Night of the Soul: (pg 87-91) The main character reels from the “all is lost” – and there’s often a “whiff of death.”
The “whiff of death” is apparent in Davis’discovery of the sonogram, and the reveal that not only Julia, but Davis’ baby has died, and with Chris taking Carl’s gun, driving off to get revenge.
13. Break into Three (pg 91): Act 3: A new idea, a new plan for solving the problem emerges (often the A Story and B Story “cross” – the B Story should also be unresolved and at its worst).
Davis invites Karen to a party at his father-in-law’s place. He’s formulated a plan that may resolve his relationship with Karen, and sabotage Phil’s scholarship idea, for Julia’s legacy. He laughs out loud as Phil introduces the first scholarship contenders. He stands up to Phil, but gets kicked out of the party.
14. Finale Section (pg 91- 112): Solving the problem. The hero fails at first, and is pressed to his limit – confronts his own demons, and changes his life – before the story problem is finally resolved.
Davis tries to stand up to Carl, but gets a brutal beating. Carl continues beating Davis, then tells him to fight back. Davis can’t. Davis attempts to repair his relationship with Karen which doesn’t go well, either.
He meets Chris at a park where he witnesses the demolition of three skyscrapers. It’s a powerful image. Davis finally cries, and can’t stop; finally mourning all he’s lost.
Davis gets the idea to restore the carousel he demolished. A sign reads, “Julia’s Carousel.” It’s alive with happy kids. This, not the scholarship, is his legacy for Julia.
15. Final Image (pg 113): Reflecting the new status quo now that this story is over.
Davis goes home to the rubble that’s left of his house, after he took the bulldozer to it. The mailman comes by and asks if he is doing some renovations. Davis says, “I’m thinking about it.”
The mailman hands him a letter. Inside is a check from the vending machine company, along with a refund, for the M & Ms, a check for 75 cents.