Desperate Hours (2011) Screenplay Analysis

Desperate Hours (2011), by E. Nicholas Mariani, has made a buzz on the internet over the past few years. Apparently, the script is owned by Johnny Depp’s production company and has been gathering dust for the past decade, which is too bad because it’s a really good script.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: September 13th, 2011
  • Type: Spec
  • Page Count: 119

Overall Thoughts

This is the first true Western script I have read. With that said, I have seen just about every John Wayne movie (many multiple times) so I would like to think I know a thing or two (literally just a thing or two) about Westerns.

There are many themes explored in the script. Perhaps the most obvious is old versus new. Examples include: Cars vs. horses, Tommy guns (gangsters) vs. rifles (cowboys/farmers), and telephone vs. telegraph. The old tends to win out.

And then of course there are philosophical questions pondered, most of them in regard to Christian values. Perhaps the most prevalent one is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you.

The script reads well. Mariani excellence seems to come in two ways:

  1. Visual Storytelling – I can vividly imagine what Mariani is describing, from the different landscapes to the facial expressions to everything in between.
  2. Sound – Music, the wind, whistling, gunshots in the distance, train horn, etc. – Mariani knows exactly how to explain sound so that the reader can imagine the landscape and general mood/feeling of a scene. Consequently, this improves the imagery as well.

With such descriptive writing, one might expect the script to read slowly. I did feel it was a tad slower than other scrips I have read, but I simply do not have enough experience to comment further.

Here’s an example of a descriptive action line found in the script:

Sue Fowler sleeps peacefully; the fading light of a dying fire dancing softly against her eyelids.

Mariani knows how to write, and it’s easy to visualize how this scene would be filmed even without stated camera shots.


The script tells the story of a cowboy, Frank Sullivan, who lost his son in WW1 and his wife to the Spanish Flu. The script is set in 1918 when both events have caused great loss, so the mood, like just about every Western, is depressed.

The inciting incident is that a woman due to testify in a trial is intimidated (jury tampered) by the mob. By chance, she flees to the protagonist’s ranch. Sullivan tries to care for her, and to do so means bringing her into town for medical treatment. Fine? Except for the mob, who threatens to overturn the town in their quest to kill her.

It’s a good plot. Some online commenters have made the comparison to High Noon (1952). There are similarities, but it isn’t really the same. First off, the themes explored, such as old vs. new as noted above, are different than (what I remember are in) High Noon. Second, the story is inspiring and is about coming together, not going at something alone, which becomes obvious during the climax and the ending.


All of the characters seem pretty well thought out. Most are your stereotypical Western caricatures: The down-and-out hero, The conflicted and cowardly sheriff, the evil gangster, the young guy who is wise beyond his years, the kids desperate to get in on the action, the drunk, the Boo Radley-esque guy who helps save the day, the sheepish and afraid townspeople, the Pastor who tries to keep the peace, etc.

Good lord: Does every Western-themed screenplay have the same characters?

Dialogue & Pacing

I didn’t take any notes on dialogue.

The script is linear, has three clear acts, and rises toward the climax.

Emotional Impact

If you like Westerns you will like the script. Is it inspiring? Well, kinda, because the Western beats are all focused on classic American values: Grit, perseverance, and tenacity. Is the screenplay unique? Doesn’t really feel it. But does a script need to be unique to be good? Heck no.

Best Part of The Script

Act 1 really does a fantastic job of setting the scene.

Thinking that over: Are acts 1 (and 2) the best part of Westerns? An example: Rio Bravo (1959) is one of the best Westerns (not the hotel) out there. My favorite parts: The early scenes when we see John Wayne’s character interacting with Stumpy and Dude and the latter two sharing their personalities. Those characters are fun, and in some ways inspiring.

A Western’s climax is always the same: A big shootout where the hero wins. But the climax is really like taking the final shot before the bar closes on Saturday night (Sunday morning), the final song and dance at a wedding, where you naively stay in for one final hand in poker etc. But the most fun, the most anticipation? That starts on Thursday and peaks on Friday afternoon when you are sitting at school (or the office) making plans and getting excited about going to the bar or playing in that poker game.

Spoiler Alert: So the hero wins at the end, sorry to not surprise you. Interestingly, the climax occurs on page 118. The screenplay ends on page 119. If I were to be script doctor (no chance I could write a script half this good) I would end the script on page 118, where the gangster walks in the room gun drawn and sees the girl (also gun drawn). We would hear one final shot, but who made the shot and who killed who? That’s for the viewer to decide, and that depends on your response to the philosophical questions raised in the script: Should you do unto others as you would hope the do unto you? Will good triumph over evil?

Script doc signing out.