After wars and meltdowns, pics ponder punishment

Screenwriter Marcus Hinchey recently revisited Woody Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and heard an echo: “When the character says that ultimately, no matter what you do, if you can get away with it, and live with it, then there are no consequences.”

For Hinchey, that bit of Allen-esque perversity is also the moral of “All Good Things” — which Hinchey wrote with Marc Smerling — about a fact-based character who gets away with murder.

But “getting away with it” has a biting relevance in a season when filmgoers are reeling the aftershock of two wars, a financial meltdown and a perception that some people can do no wrong — as long as they’re on the proper side of the political and economic equation.

“There is this sense that there is no responsibility,” says Chris Provenzano, who with C. Gaby Mitchell wrote “Get Low,” whose ostensible hermit hero (Robert Duvall) is mired in a sense of responsibility, shame and guilt — qualities that seem as nostalgic as the film’s Depression-era Tennessee.

Says Mitchell: “There’s definitely the idea of right and wrong and how wrong ‘wrong’ is. I think it makes us look at our own values and makes us look at ourselves. And when we start asking ourselves what we’re doing — are we doing the right thing? — we start squirming a little bit.”

When auds aren’t being asked to squirm this season, they’re being invited to fume. “People believe the rich get away with everything,” says Smerling, “and ours is one of the rare movies where they actually do.”

Likewise in “Fair Game,” about the outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame. It’s a story in which the villain — Dick Cheney — is very much offscreen.

“It’s sort of like ‘Jaws,’” says John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote the script with brother Jez Butterworth. “The shark didn’t work, and they ended up with a better film.”

High or low, crime and the movies go together like cake and ice cream, and depending on how you define it, crime informs any number of this year’s big productions, including “Inception” and “The Social Network.” But it’s when crime intersects with morality that the territory gets grayer.

In “Winter’s Bone,” the idea that crystal-meth production is so much a part of the Ozark community is made almost irrelevant to a drama that takes place in what its director called “the intersection of moonshine and Jesus.”

“We separate the country by class and by coasts,” adds writer-director Debra Granik — and the acceptable from the criminal by dint of economic status.

Nowhere is this more evident than in “Conviction,” the reality-based drama about an unjust murder conviction. The process of writing it, says scribe Pamela Gray, “went from an intellectual belief that the justice system is flawed to experiencing on this very intimate level what it would mean to be the victim of that system.” It enrages audiences, she says, “but also shows them the truth.”

But truth is precisely what writers grapple with, especially when the very concepts of right and wrong are being rendered so amorphous by those in public life.

“We’re always fascinated by the morality and moral reckoning of crime in the world of privilege,” says Hinchey, while at the same time auds “are acutely aware that rules are very, very different for the rich than they are for, not even the poor, but the very average and middle class.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Writer:
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