Catching a break on a Paper Moon
March 29, 2018 4:39 am
Hopes and dreams are a significant part of who we are as human beings. Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression era comedy/road movie Paper Moon artfully reflects that human need for dreaming. Ryan O’Neil’s Moses Pray and Tatum O’Neil’s Addie make a pair that brightens the sullen backdrop with their determined expectation of good things to come. Addie’s cunning ideas and sharp attitude are just what Moses needs to survive the hopelessness that surrounds them. Despite the comedic buddy-movie sensibility of the film, Paper Moon focuses our attention time and again on the melancholy symbolism of a paper moon the duo delicately balances on as they go through their adventures.
When Paper Moon opens, life feels bleak. The landscape is dismal. Addie’s mother has just died. Moses’s desperate attempts at conning widowers for small profits halt as he attends the funeral. The eagerness with which Addie’s relatives unburden themselves of the newly orphaned girl represents the dominant mood. This is a world where even a nine-year-old girl needs to fend for herself.
It is significant that a funeral opens the film, sending the message that nothing lasts. As Addie smokes away her troubles in motel rooms, we are merely in an intermission before the next thing runs out on the couple. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s a car, and sometimes it’s a companion that is lost. The temporariness of everything else is ironically what gives birth to a bond between the two misfits—the only one that promises permanence. On the surface, what holds them together is Moses’s two hundred dollar debt to Addie, but in truth it is their reliance on each other to keep their hopes and dreams afloat.
Trixie Delight’s (Madeline Kahn) appearance in the film threatens the fine balance between Moses and Addie. A perfect match for them, Trixie means competition to Addie. She’s a prostitute also looking for her lucky break, which she hopes to be Moses. Just as Addie plots to get rid of her, Trixie opens up to Addie about her true intentions. Her submission to failure is heartbreaking as she begs Addie to give her a break: “…if you wait it out a little, it’ll be over, you know. I mean, even if I want a fella, somehow I manage to get it screwed up. Maybe I’ll get a new pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs. Times are hard.” Addie recognizes Trixie’s implausible, paper-thin dreams and lets her enjoy her brief moment.
The deputy that catches the duo for bootlegging, their most profitable venture yet, begins his interrogation with “Just when ya think ya got it made… Just ain’t made, is it?” Despite Moses and Addie’s comic disputes and amusing getaways, Paper Moon is imbued with cynicism. It keeps circling back to the same message: However hard you try, you’ll never get it made.
László Kovács’s cinematography echoes the tentativeness of achievement of money and success in Paper Moon. The depth-of-field of Kovács’s black and white photography makes every corner of the frame look in focus. The flat and crisp images invite the audience to pay attention to everything. As a result, the main characters on the screen are just as important (or unimportant) as the supporting characters, the set design, and even the surrounding landscape. By projecting a glasslike, fragile world, the extreme depth-of-field not only reduces the characters’ significance, but also gives the visuals a paper-like quality that accentuates the vulnerability of the characters’ goals and emotions.
The actual image of the paper moon appears at a carnival scene where Addie badly wants a picture of herself and Moses seated on top of the moon. Moses is too busy to grant her wish. Addie walks away from the booth deeply disappointed, saying, “He’s not my father.” Addie’s photograph sitting on top of the paper moon alone becomes her emotionally charged parting gift to Moses in the finale. Having been dropped off at her aunt’s house, the gift represents her relinquishing her biggest dream, that of belonging to him as her father. It is the image of lonely Addie sitting on a paper moon that softens Moses’s resolve to leave her behind. That and the fact that his car won’t start, which makes a meaningful comic reference to the pattern of things falling apart around them, conversely working to their advantage at last.
Roads are natural staple images of road movies. In the final image of Paper Moon, the road that leads to nowhere on the infinite Kansas landscape is photographed statically from behind Moses and Addie’s car. It is one of the few occasions in the movie where the characters face away from us. The image of the winding road leading to the unknown is a fitting one that marks the unknowability of Addie and Moses’s future. But fortunately for them, they are armed with their dreams, even though we know those dreams are barely clinging to paper moons.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 29, 2018
What Have You Done to Solange?: Tracing the imagery of violence and eroticism in our collective psyche
October 9, 2017 6:25 pm
Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is a prime example of the 1970s giallo films where murder mystery often driven by sexual themes meets psychological horror. No wonder the popularity of gialli eventually gave birth to the American slasher movie: the core of this peculiar subgenre consists of gory violence powered by voyeuristic fascination and a basic whodunit plot shadowed by the gruesomeness of the central crime. ‘Solange’ showcases the elements of giallo in many ways and succeeds at expressing, and even exploiting, the societal obsession with sexual violence directed toward women.
‘Solange’s opening is a telltale sign that a sexually obscure series of crimes is about to unfold. An Italian teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and his high school student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) frolic on a boat when Elizabeth witnesses a crime where a man attacks a woman in the woods, penetrating the victim’s vagina with a knife. Unable to concentrate on fulfilling her companion’s erotic expectations, Elizabeth is met with accusations of making up excuses to avoid sexual intimacy. While assuring us of Enrico’s innocence of the crime for plot’s sake, this opening draws a suggestive parallel between young women’s romantic escapades and bloody violence rooted in sexual revenge. This proves to be an interesting combination, as the film goes on to explore young women being punished for sexual exploration, which eventually results in Solange’s (Camille Keaton) mental illness.
The association of female sexuality with brutal violence is a theme typical of gialli. In ‘Solange’ some of the murder sequences are shot from the point of view of the killer, putting us in the position of the mysterious man in the black gloves. Gialli are understandably accused of being ‘exploitation cinema’ as they provide voyeuristic access to women’s private lives and evoke identification with the experience of killing, which typically takes the form of punishment. While it’s easy to interpret the connection between women and violence in a film like ‘Solange’ as exploitation, it is also possible to see gialli as a reflection of the male psyche and an artistic expression of feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sex, an experience shared by men and women alike.
In ‘Solange’ young women are portrayed with a combination of sweet purity and bubbling, almost aggressive sexual curiosity. As Elizabeth and her friends transition into womanhood, they carry the essence of childhood along with an eagerness to transform into sexual beings. A pivotal scene in the film shows Solange being forced by her girlfriends to abort a pregnancy. They had shared a sexual adventure and now Solange has to pay for it with a painful, invasive procedure.
Somehow the abortion leads to Solange’s regression into an infantile mental state. Aside from the lack of logic in this—logic is not the strongest attribute of the genre—it is interesting that the punishment for an arguably premature experience of sexuality should be a return to infancy. It’s as if the film conveys a subconscious message here: if you do a deed out of step with your age, you might just entrap yourself in it. As Solange remains trapped in trauma-induced childhood innocence, her girlfriends go on to pay for their transgression by knives to their genitalia.
There is a sense in which the film speaks for the society’s intolerance for women’s sexual freedom. Despite the lascivious use of violent imagery to shock and entertain, ‘Solange’ displays undertones of our subconscious fear and guilt surrounding sex. The most striking example is the murder of Elizabeth. Because she remains a virgin, she escapes the usual knife-to-the-vagina penalty. Instead, she gets strangled naked in the bathtub, i.e. in her cleanest, purest form, as a red towel wraps around her legs giving the impression of blood gushing out from between her legs. Elizabeth is silenced for her testimony to the murder, but she is symbolically punished for her desire for Enrico, despite the fact that it never came to fruition. In ‘Solange’, women are not only subject to punishment for their actions but also for their desires. Coupled with the oppressive discipline of the school, tantalizing images of girls showering together peeked at through a hole in the glass, the film reflects on a so called ideal treatment of women and then shatters it mercilessly in an attempt to mirror our prejudices against women.
In the tradition of most gialli What Have You Done to Solange? suffers from incoherence in plot structure (Solange and her story only becomes central to the ongoing conflict in the last third of the film), lack of motivation for the protagonist to pursue the killer, awkward dialogue and unrealistic performances. But what it lacks in these domains it makes up for with its bold camerawork, slick production design, suggestive editing and artistic style.
No doubt the film succeeds in the realm of pulp horror pictures, but it is interesting to look more deeply into the genre’s popularity and interpret the sensational imagery of violence and eroticism, searching for its counterpart in our collective psyche.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 26, 2017
Aliens and Women in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact
April 20, 2017 6:33 pm
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a rare science fiction movie about humanity’s first attempt at making contact with the Extraterrestrials. The film’s representation of aliens is in many ways unique, but it’s Zemeckis’s approach to yet another underrepresented and often misunderstood species that makes the film exceptional, namely the terrestrial woman.
Twenty years after its release, Contact remains an outstanding depiction of not only a woman scientist, but one who is bright, strong, passionate, ambitious, stubborn, daring, unapologetic and -lo and behold- single and not looking. Ellie, portrayed by one of the ‘90s’ fierce female leads, Jodie Foster, succeeds in her fight against an army of men whose main objectives are to shape her into the scientist they are comfortable seeing – not one that wastes her potential on a laughable pursuit as discovering aliens. Since her work is ultimately funded by her male colleagues, she depends on her relationships with men to persist in her scientific goals. And somehow, remarkably, she hangs in there long enough to get the men’s attention.
Ellie’s fascination with Extraterrestrials has its roots in her deep-seated feelings of loneliness. As an 8-year-old she asks her dad if they could talk to her deceased mother via radio signals. Her desire for traveling into the heart of an abyss in search of the unattainable is somewhat romantic, if not melancholic. Herein lies Ellie’s inner conflict: she’s a scientist who only believes in the provable, tangible reality, primarily concerned with gathering empirical data to prove we are not alone in the universe. However, her desire comes from a place, not reason, but of love and a longing for existential truth. Ellie, as a female hero, is a complex amalgam of an unshakeable realist and the hopeful romantic, which makes her even harder to stomach for her male counterparts.
Ellie’s inner conflict is put to the test by her relationship with God and religion. Despite her academic qualifications and personal discovery of the alien signal, she is severely interrogated based on the male perspective that a representative of humanity must believe in a conventional understanding of God and faith. And what that conventional understanding teaches is that male superiority and domination is a natural truth in the patriarchal social organization. Ellie’s very being, regardless of her religious beliefs, complicates and challenges that assumed dominance.
Never mind all that she has accomplished, in the eyes of her male counterparts, she has already failed the test. This unexpected blow to her goal of travelling to a distant star comes from a place of rigidity, intolerance, and stern didacticism – presented as primarily male attributes in the movie. Even though her underlying goal is ‘connection’ – a most Godly notion demanding spiritual communion over an inert acceptance of God, she is reprimanded for her lack of blind faith. While her nemesis is celebrated for his faith in something he’s not even seeking to connect with, Ellie is rejected because she chooses to reach for and commune with God keep searching.
When Ellie finally gets a chance at making the journey to the star system Vega, her meeting with the Extraterrestrials is one that ironically requires reliance on personal, visceral experiences, rather than tangible evidence. In Contact, the alien species proves to be a shape-shifting yet comforting presence. They download Ellie’s memories and appear to Ellie in the form of her father and in a setting that is familiar and special to her. Contrary to the way aliens are typically represented in the movies, either as grotesque, threatening monsters or big-eyed, charming, wise messengers, Contact offers a truthful, honest and compassionate being that remains unknowable. Zemeckis seems to believe that since all we have about aliens are theories and speculations, humanity is not yet ready for them, and he presents us with a plausible picture as the beginning of what is likely to be a long conversation.
Though Ellie comes away transformed from the experience, back on Earth, things have not advanced very much. Strangely, the very men who had no trouble believing in a grandiose idea of God without any direct or indirect experience, have trouble believing a woman’s word that she has made contact. They want proof; they blame her for hallucinating, dreaming, and even fantasizing as a result of her personal losses. She is no longer a cold scientist, but a delusional woman. The antagonistic forces modify their attack tactics, but one thing remains unchanged: Ellie is not to be heard.
In Contact, women and aliens are rejected, feared and unwelcome. Ellie has more in common with aliens of Vega than with the men of the Earth. The film makes a final point that proves Ellie’s experiences in Vega were true, after all. Ellie never gets to find out about this proof. She doesn’t need it. She will continue her exploration of the unknowns of the universe, not with faith imposed on her by others, but with a ‘sense of adventure’ all her own.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 8, 2017
An Exploration of Cinematic Expressions in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England
February 1, 2017 3:04 am
A field suggests possibilities; its openness welcomes any old soul to seek his treasure; its terrain allows all sorts of physical or spiritual pursuits. The title, A Field in England, immediately brings to mind a vivid image, and gives away a carefree attitude about which field is the one in question, and what happens on it. The obscurity and infinite possibilities of the film’s narrative and style are hinted at first in the title.
Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s field is a simple field adjacent to a battlefield. Theirs is one of possibilities for personal battles, discoveries, treasures, friendship and mind-altering mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, A Field in England cannot be contained in a single genre category, confined by one aesthetic style or another, or limited by the use of a distinct narrative device or two. It mishmashes a number of devices and forms, as well as lenses, sound effects, visual effects and music.
It is recognized as a historical psychological thriller, and while it has elements of all of these genres (and more), it also defies their conventions and expectations. Though clearly set in another century, we are not informed of its 17th century setting, as this information is not altogether relevant. The costumes and dialogues are perfectly naturalistic to the period, hence giving the film an air of realism, and yet it makes no effort to reveal its historic background and the culture in which the story takes place.
The film is more interested in the simple crevices of its four main characters’ psyches, but only as they succumb to the influence of the mushrooms they eat. Mostly, their goals and conflicts with each other are in plain sight, rather than obscured by some psychological dramatization.
As for the thriller/horror aspect, even though there is some gore involved in this classic tale of battle against evil, and unsettling events involving a skull, a smoky black sphere, and blood-curdling sounds of a witchcraft session do occur, these details are as humorous as they are disturbing.
A Field in England is more accurately an unexpected cross between (1) a British take on a classic Western in which hats, pistols, camaraderie and male bravado are the order of the day, with a characteristically British field taking the place of mountains and deserts, (2) a road movie, which has a singular goal, though it does shift from reaching an alehouse, to recovering some documents of alchemy, to finding a treasure, to outwitting the villain to save oneself, and (3) an allegorical comedy on the effects of mushroom circles, ruminations on occult mysticism and forming unlikely friendships along the way.
The shifts in genre are accompanied beautifully by the episodic changes in camerawork, editing, sound and music. The first quarter of the film is devoted to the chaotic impact of war on the bodily senses. The camera captures macro images of eyes, juxtaposed with frantic images of grass and weeds. Soon these settle into a rhythm of longer, calmer shots showing the characters getting to know one another. Tabloid images of the men uniquely invoke paintings in which characters theatrically enact a period we can no longer experience or even imagine. As we are plunged into the fake reality of this time, music remains more instrumental and sound design more realistic.
Once the mushrooms are introduced, there is a literal reenactment of the idea that it may take four men and a rope to pull one out of a mushroom circle. The fast-paced, cartoonish editing of this scene naturally gives birth to the warped images of the characters as they go deeper and deeper into their nightmarish, violently psychedelic state. Strobe effect, split screens where images fold and shift around, fast cuts between two simultaneous events that speedily convey information to the audience are a few of the radical methods Wheatley mixes together.
The relentless wind, the unnaturally quiet, echoing voices, increasingly electronic tones in the music, and the narrative genius of a reappearing dead man take the ever-escalating insanity of the story to new heights. By the time the wind dies down, the grass relaxes, the dirt settles, and our hero stands triumphant, Wheatley brings us full circle to the adjacent battlefield. Only now, the hero has achieved his goal; he is no longer the fearful, desperate, lonely man he was at fade in. Despite all the weirdness of its aesthetics, Wheatley manages to sustain a conventional tale of friendship, attainment of goals and personal change.
A Field in England is a refreshing modern specimen of the avant-garde movement, and a celebration of guerilla style filmmaking. Its professional amateurishness and elegant mixing of aesthetic expressions create an abstract beauty for modern cinema-goers to treasure for years to come.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 16, 2017
Rear Window: Funny Thing About Suspense
September 25, 2016 3:13 pm
If we had to pick a single film from Alfred Hitchcock’s individually unique and brilliant filmography to stand as his cinematic signature, it would undoubtedly be Rear Window. It is the most literal expression of his fondness for our ‘peeping tom’ nature and a great example of his expert coalescence of suspense and humor. Disguising what is primarily a love story, the murder mystery in Rear Window is a classic Hitchcockian tale seen completely from the point of view of the protagonist.
Hitchcock establishes his voyeuristic vision for the story as early as the film’s opening credits. As the blinds roll up on Jeff’s (James Stewart) windows, we are positioned looking out into a courtyard where a cat walks up a staircase and leads us to scan the neighborhood on a hot, lazy morning. Jeff’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) further emphasizes the suspiciousness of our guilty gaze by scolding Jeff: “you see something you shouldn’t see and you’re in trouble.” She will keep badgering on about how she can smell trouble as she helps out the wheelchair-bound Jeff, who can barely satiate his photographer’s curiosity by watching his neighbors.
Hitchcock’s comically obvious approach to creating an expectation of ‘trouble’ coincides with the real trouble Jeff is working with. A dark shadow looms over him as he opens his eyes to find Lisa (Grace Kelly) – the true source of his conflict. As with all Hitchcock films it is the human psychology, emotion and sexuality that are in the forefront of the suspenseful murder story. ‘Will Jeff fall in love with Lisa and surrender to married life’ is the central dramatic question, for which the murder mystery is merely an agent of change.
The neighbors not only contribute to the murder story, but also create a panorama of romantic relationships: a contented married couple, an unhappy married couple, a pair of newlyweds, a young woman having some fun in the absence of her lover, a lonely, melancholic man, a lonely, melancholic woman, and of course Jeff, the happy bachelor with a loving and gorgeous girlfriend anyone would be a fool to refuse. As Jeff and Lisa embark on a journey to solve the murder mystery, Jeff will see a new and adventurous side to Lisa and helplessly witness his love and affection for her.
Part of what creates the suspense – and the humor – in the story is the fact that Jeff cannot move. His nurse, girlfriend and detective friend come and go entertaining his whimsy and curiosity. These dialogues are funny and suggestive, giving the impression of a farce.
There are many moments when we wonder if we’re watching a comedy about a desperate man who almost wants a murder to compensate for his boredom, or a thriller revealing a terrifying question about our daily lives, namely, if we were to watch our neighbors for a week who knows what we might find?
Hitchcock’s approach to creating suspense in the murder mystery / love story is very much connected to his use of music and editing. When we begin scanning the neighborhood we hear the scales of what will later be a love song. When the Thorwalds are introduced to the story, instead of the diegetic music, we hear sirens going off in the distance. By the time Lisa climbs in through the murderer’s window in the finale – a gesture that proves to Jeff her adventurous spirit, the romantic, even sexy song waltzes through the courtyard. The song, in contrast to the suspenseful music we might expect to accompany this action sequence, underscores Jeff’s emotional transformation as opposed to his external goal of solving the mystery.
There are striking visual choices to delay or quicken what we see, creating an interesting approach to suspense. In the finale, Hitchcock’s weapon of choice for Jeff is the flashing light bulbs of his camera, which delays Thorwald’s approach. The pace of the editing then quickens when Thorwald finally attacks Jeff. These aesthetic choices not only mark Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’ method of primarily relying on images, editing and sound to create suspense and drama, but also, by invading the peeping tom’s lair, reflect the idea of the sinister face of life seeping into and shattering the formerly innocent and banal act of voyeurism.
In the end, aligned with the symmetrical resolution of all the characters’ stories –like, the newlyweds turning into a bickering old couple, the older couple getting a new dog, the girl reuniting with her lover and the lonely man and woman coupling up– Jeff appears with both legs in a cast, a victorious Lisa by his side in a surprisingly modest outfit. The suspense story once again returns to its farcical origins by coming full circle to the idea of marriage. In Hitchcock’s world there seems to be nothing better than an old-fashioned murder mystery to bring lovers together and seal their fate in a happily ever after. The suspenseful mystery ends on a funny note, as if to say humor is always right alongside murder and tragedy.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 19, 2016
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook
June 14, 2016 5:32 pm
Following my breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, I have set out to write up beat sheets of other fascinating dramatic horror movies with a psychological and emotional message about the human condition. Interestingly, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook also happens to be about processing grief and sorrow – powerful emotions which evidently provide a great foundation for cinematically depicting our deepest fears about death and loss.
Take a look at my interpretation of The Babadook’s story beats as inspiration for your own screenplay-in-progress. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, ideas and suggestions for which scripts you’d like to see analyzed in this blog. Enjoy!
Amelia (Essie Davis) relives the experience of the horrific car accident that killed her husband – the event that is the basis of her trauma and the seed for the emergence of Babadook, the monster.
Early in the movie there are two moments that thematically paint a picture of the story we are about to watch. First is when Amelia’s at work at an old people’s home. She tells her co-worker Robbie (Daniel Henshall) that she has to get to the dementia ward and Robbie says, ‘It’s a few more years before you end up there, isn’t it?’ Disguised as a joke, it feels like a warning for Amelia to take care of her sanity – a foreshadowing, somewhat eerie message that signals that things will not go all that well for her. This line sets a tone and theme where Amelia’s sanity will be discussed.
Second moment is when Amelia’s 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) tells another mother shopping at a grocery store that his dad was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital for his birth. Shocked and uncomfortable, the mother awkwardly tells Sam, “Your mother is very lucky to have you”. The story is now clearly established to be about not only Amelia’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s death while raising the son whose birth brought about the disaster, but also about her capacity to love Sam. Is she really lucky to have him, or quite the contrary, would she have been luckier and happier if it wasn’t for him?
In a double-stated theme, we are about to explore the possibilities of a mother’s ability to hold onto her sanity while processing her grief and to learn to accept her son as a blessing rather than a curse.
Amelia is portrayed as a meek, compassionate mother, if somewhat on edge. Sam is a sleepless and highly imaginative child, clearly soaking up every gesture and mood of his one point of contact for love, affection and communication – his mother. They are both scarred by the same event: Amelia, by her husband’s untimely and brutal death; Sam, by his mother’s distant, vacuous and ever-shifting tone and presence with him as a result of their shared loss.
The mother and son’s home, a typical night and day of their life, Amelia’s work place, Sam’s school, their kind neighbor, and the relationship dynamics between Amelia and Sam are quickly and economically introduced in the first 20 minutes or so. In terms of plot, two major things happen within this section. One, Sam is in trouble for bringing dangerous instruments to school to ward off monsters, and Amelia’s natural and motherly response is to take him off school to find better care for him. Second, Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), is the only relative and friend to Amelia and she represents a much different world of conventional family life. Her function for the story is to mark Amelia’s true loneliness and otherness. Sam’s extreme behavior at an innocent playdate with Amelia, Claire and Claire’s daughter Ruby further clarifies that our mother and son couple are deeply isolated and tinged by their unfortunate life circumstance.
The mother and son’s difficult day out in the strange world wraps up by a cozy reading time in bed. Sam picks a ‘new’ book that neither of them knows how it got to their home. The mysterious character of Mister Babadook in this unusual pop-up picture book prophesizes that once the reader has become aware of its existence, the torment shall begin. This fires up Sam’s already inflamed monster obsession and deeply disturbs the emotionally fragile Amelia.
So the central dramatic problem for our characters has arisen. Where did the book come from? What does it mean? Is there really such a monster, a demon with a power to plague their house and their minds? What is it and what does it want from them? Sam’s fears of being attacked by monsters become focused on this one clear threat. Amelia, although upset and confused, is mostly troubled by her son’s difficulty in managing his psyche. She doesn’t know how to help him.
Unaware of and unwilling to acknowledge her part in the impending horror, there is the overarching question for Amelia: Is it this brand new monster that’s the threat or is it her son himself?
Break into Two
Earlier in the story it is established that the basement is kept locked and off-limits to Sam. Following the haunting reading of Mister Babadook Sam is playing in the basement, pretending to be telling his dad that he will keep his mum safe from the Babadook. Sam’s entry into the basement violates the dead husband’s dwellings, and by default the sacred bed of Amelia’s grief, fear and sorrow. When she follows Sam into the basement, it feels like she hadn’t dared go in there for a very long time; the memory of her husband floods her.
Now we are in the realm of the Babadook – the embodiment of her unprocessed grief and loss, the home for her trauma as a mother.
B Story is clearly the love story between mother and son. They are both trying to reach out to each other in some way. Amelia is trying her best to keep her own demons at bay and truly love her son (a feat that all mothers who feel like their life is hijacked by their children do face) and Sam is trying to protect his mother from the monsters – meaning, from anything that might draw her away from him (a role that all children who deeply feel their mother’s vulnerability and emotional wreckage do take on).
The mother and son’s evolving and shape-shifting relationship is the core of the story where the theme is discussed: the idea of Amelia being lucky to have Sam is tested, and so is her sanity.
Fun and Games
The basement scene opens the Pandora’s box and now the real nightmare begins ever-tightening its grip on Amelia. She finds broken glass in her soup and her suspicion is solidified: does the evil presence really exist, or is it her son trying to harm her to prove that the Babadook is real. It is hard to say which one would be worse: a supernatural monster, or your own flesh and blood turning against you. And that’s the fascinating conflict that drives the first half of the story. Amelia responds by tearing the book into pieces and throwing it out.
At Claire’s daughter Ruby’s birthday party, Amelia loses her cool against Claire’s friends. Their problems and worries are reminders of all the could-have-beens of her own life. What’s worse, Sam pushes Ruby off a tree house giving both mothers a big scare. Is Sam possessed? What kind of a monster did Amelia raise? On their way home Amelia’s limits are pushed and Sam has a seizure. At the hospital the question keeps escalating: what is wrong with Sam? A desperate Amelia begs for sleeping pills to effectively knock her son out for the sake of them both. Sam finally sleeps.
Following their one night of much-needed sleep, Mister Babadook the book turns up at their doorstep, neatly bandaged back together. Convinced that it couldn’t have been Sam that did this, and realizing the true threat that they may be facing, Amelia calls her sister. Claire has clearly had enough of Amelia and Sam and refuses to extend help or comfort. Amelia goes to the police to report the event, but the police treat her as if she were insane. When Amelia returns home, she knows she is alone with her son and her demon the Babadook.
Bad Guys Close in
The home that Amelia now knows is plagued by a monster is also infested with cockroaches. A roach infestation is the ultimate sign of loss of safety and comfort. Her home is suddenly rendered invaded, dangerous, alien. As she is engaged in the impossible task of burrowing into her rotten walls to severe the root of the roach colony, community services arrive to question her about Sam’s school absence. What could be worse than an already troubled mother in the midst of a battle with roaches facing officials who will judge herself, her son and her home, and potentially make the decision to take her son away from her? On top of that, Sam comes out and says the drugs he is on are making him nauseous. Amelia is distraught and dysfunctional; the house is in bad shape; her kid is on drugs… BUT, there is still room for worse.
As Sam sleeps next to her, the Babadook makes an actual appearance – it is clearly after Amelia with a vengeance. Amelia loses not only sleep over her frequent visitor, but also her shifts at work. She is further confined to her evil home with no sleep or comfort in sight. She begins to turn against her son, suggesting that the Babadook is successfully taking hold of her body and mind. Amelia begins her descent from a mother in terror to a terrorizing threat against her son. Now, the question is not about Sam being possessed, but Amelia embodying the Babadook. Sam stops taking his pills and tries to call their neighbor to no avail. Amelia, sporting a horrific groan and a butcher’s knife, becomes the ultimate terror. Our emerging fear for Sam’s safety is much worse than our earlier fear for Amelia’s safety. Sam is far more defenseless and powerless against his towering and blood-curdling mother.
A basement scene where Amelia and her dead husband unite in a loving gesture illustrates that she is under a spell – a spell of her love and loss and, if kept untended, it will destroy herself and her son.
All is Lost
Amelia kills their dog, her first innocent victim. Now, more than ever, it feels like Mister Babadook’s prophecy is in full swing.
Dark Night of the Soul
Amelia’s now fully under the influence. The Babadook has embodied her and their next victim is Sam. But, Sam stabs Amelia’s thigh and ties her up in the basement, incapacitating his monster-mum. Amelia’s shocked and furious reaction to Sam’s betrayal makes us feel the weight of her trauma once again. Could Sam be the cause of all this? Is it his arrival in her life that created all the suffering? Is she finally driven insane because of him? What is the source of her venom? In a powerfully metaphorical ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ moment, Amelia vomits volumes of blood, symbolizing a long-neglected well of pain gushing out of her like a raging river. She is purified.
Break into Three
Instead of denying it or escaping from it, a transformed Amelia confronts the Babadook. She takes Sam’s side for the first time and protects him from the evil of her own sorrow. She is finally able to look at her pain straight in the eye and accept Sam as her son. A and B stories cross as she is empowered by a motherly strength.
Finally the day breaks. Amelia is back at work. Sam is safe with their neighbor and due to begin school again. Life has returned to them both. Amelia speaks out about their collective loss for the first time, when she explains to the community services what happened to Sam’s father and why they have never celebrated his birthday on the actual day until now. Sam’s birthday is no longer a day of mourning but a celebration.
Amelia plants in their backyard and Sam collects earthworms. Amelia takes the bowl of worms to the basement to feed the Babadook who still resides there. The Babadook symbolizes her grief and fear of loss after all; it cannot be escaped but it can be nourished and made benign. Amelia learns to heal her demon with love.
Amelia holds Sam in her lap as if cradling an infant – a gesture she has possibly never experienced before. She tells him, ‘Happy birthday sweetheart,’ finally at peace and content.
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation
April 15, 2016 3:22 pm
Karyn Kusama’s mystery/suspense drama The Invitation opened last week to great reviews. I had the opportunity to see it in its opening night and found its approach to storytelling and specifically its style of acting, rhythm and tone refreshing.
In Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay, the hero’s perfectly implausible suspicions about a dinner party slowly turn out to be worse than anything he could have imagined. The film is neither glossy in its approach to revealing thrills, nor solely concerned with art-house aesthetics. It’s unusually naturalistic in its portrayal of an awkward gathering and the unexpected events that follow.
Considering Kusama’s distinctly non-Hollywood way of handling her material, I thought it might be interesting to take a deeper look at the script’s story structure and explore how it fits with the universal language of storytelling. I used Blake Snyder’s much celebrated Beat Sheet method to dig out the story points of The Invitation. Check out Snyder’s Save the Cat! for more information about his screenwriting methodology.
Please be sure to read on AFTER you watch the film, which is unfortunately on limited release. Enjoy!
Our hero Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party. The invitation is from Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman). It’s established that the event will be a hard one for Will to stomach and he’s already questioning the motives behind throwing such a party.
The invitation for the party itself is the catalyst for the story, and in this case, thanks to its no-nonsense title, it hits the audience before they even see the opening.
Will and Kira accidentally hit a coyote on the way to the house. Will takes pity on the whimpering coyote and clubs the animal to death to put him out of his misery. Will’s decision to choose death over suffering for the coyote will be a running theme throughout the picture: is death more desirable than a life in pain?
It quickly becomes clear that Will not only has to face Eden after two years of losing contact with her, but also he’ll be returning to the same home where they lived as husband and wife along with their son, Ty, who accidentally died in that same house.
When Will and Kira enter the house, the psycho-emotional dynamics of the dinner party begin to unravel. Will sees the first image of his son upon entry to the house – a boy playing with his toys alone in a room. Will and Eden are clearly moved to see each other again, whereas there is clear tension, if not subtle hostility, between Will and David. We get to know their close group of friends who also fell apart after Ty’s tragic death. With every passing minute, Will’s unprocessed grief over his son and his struggle to accept ‘time heals all wounds’ seem to float to the surface with growing urgency.
From the very moment Will enters the house, he, and us too, have an eerie feeling that something is not right about the house and its occupants. He soon notices that the windows are all blocked and the house seems cold and sterile in spite of its warm colors and lighting. Despite appearances of excited and welcoming hugs, there’s something phony and forced about the whole gathering. And of course, it is the hosts who are the oddest with their overly friendly and exuberant tones. There are awkward silences and emotional holes between them all. Though they don’t seem wholly uncomfortable, they all seem on edge about something unspoken and heavy.
Eden and David’s mysterious housemate Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and David’s perfectly unlikeable friend Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) do nothing to ease Will’s discomfort. Will notices David locking the house and confronts him about it, managing to settle with leaving the key on the door. Upon further observing the hosts’ pushy attempts to soften the tension by offering uber-expensive vintage wine, Will knows something is seriously wrong. But what? Should he accuse Eden and David of something? But of what? What CAN be happening, let alone what IS happening?
Break Into Two
Eden and David screen a video of a group they’ve been involved with in their travels to Mexico. At first, it seems like a cheesy retreat, promising lightness and happiness amidst all the pain and suffering we all live with in our lives. Death, according to the cult leader, is simply a shedding of the burden of being in our bodies and a happy passage into something bigger and better than ourselves. A young cancer patient’s peaceful and well-supported suicide is shown at the end of the intro – death seeps into the picture. Will’s unfounded suspicions begin to find some grounding.
Along with the developments of the second act, Will begins to reconnect with his dead son as he walks around the house alone, revisiting his memories and slowly saying goodbye to him. His private moments with the memories of his son become points of the story where the theme is further discussed: would you choose death over life, simply because the pain of loss is so unbearable?
Fun & Games
Fun & Games begins with a literal game of ‘I Want’, inviting the ‘you only live once, carpe diem’ philosophy of life. The apparent aim to relieve the tension caused by the morbid suicide video fails miserably when Pruitt goes on to tell the guests how he accidentally killed his beloved wife. Eventually Claire (Marieh Delfino) feels unsettled enough to decide to leave the party. David and Eden’s efforts to make her stay alarm Will to defend Claire’s exit. As Will watches intently, Pruitt moves his car to let Claire go, but then disappears out of sight, presumably, to say something to Claire, at which point David interjects and confronts Will about his suspicions.
Will continues to explore unsettling details about the party as he spies on Eden taking pills, rejects Sadie’s offer to sleep with him and finally gets a cell phone signal to receive a voice message from the only guest who couldn’t yet make it to the party. Apparently, Choi (Karl Yune) has already been to the house and had to leave to run a quick errand. So, how come he’s still not around? Suddenly Will’s ludicrous suspicion that ‘nobody can leave this house alive’ seems significantly more warranted.
Will accuses Eden and David of inviting them for a brainwashing session for their weird cult project and having clearly done something to Choi. As Will demands explanations, to his great embarrassment, Choi enters unexpectedly with an excuse – a moment of false defeat that not only throws Will’s balance and confidence, but also puts him in the position of the wounded guy who can’t handle his grief and doubt.
Bad Guys Close in
Will has now lost the little credibility that he did have. Even Kira suggests they should leave to avoid further embarrassment. His attack has failed miserably and Eden and David came out looking like the sane and together people Will intuits they aren’t. Accepting his defeat and almost beginning to doubt his own sanity, Will asks to visit Ty’s old bedroom before he presumably leaves the house with some dignity. Will and Ty share a smile in Ty’s bed – a heart-breaking father and son moment.
Will then explores the room that’s been turned into a study and finds the cult leader’s video in Eden and David’s laptop. His suspicions that something is seriously off are renewed but his confusion is at its height. Through the window, Will watches David light a red lantern in the garden.
When Will returns to the table, his friends are celebrating a birthday with a cake and pink-colored liquor brought in especially for dessert. Just as everyone raises their drinks, Will knocks off everyone’s glasses, claiming that they’re all about to be poisoned. Sadie pounces on Will, accusing him of ruining everything. Will pushes her off, which causes Sadie to knock her head and collapse, echoing Pruitt’s story about killing his wife. Sadie still has pulse, but Will is thought to have gone way too far, when…
All is Lost
Gina (Michelle Krusiec), who apparently was the only one who took a sip of the drink, is discovered to be foaming at the mouth, unconscious. To everyone’s horror, Will turns out to be right: they were all meant to be dead by now.
Dark Night of the Soul
It’s a Dark Night of the Soul for everyone, as they all begin to witness the aftermath of what was meant to be a mass (forced) suicide.
Break into Three
People scatter in horror to no avail; Pruitt quickly shoots a couple of the guests. Will and Kira manage to momentarily hide, as they acknowledge their fate: they’re locked in the house with a death sentence and the only way out is either a miraculous escape plan or to kill off the cult members. They overhear David trying to convince a distraught Eden to keep going with their plan to kill everyone – it is the only way they’ll be freed from their pain.
As they scramble to find a way out, Pruitt confronts Will and Kira, and Kira manages to kill Pruitt. Eden shoots Will on the shoulder and then shoots herself in the stomach to put an end to her own insanity.
Finally the villains are dead and Eden is drifting away. She asks to be taken out to the garden where their son died and takes her last breath. Eden’s death feels like a choice to let go of the burden of life, whereas Will holds onto life, when he is the one still openly hurting from their loss.
Will stands up from Eden’s lifeless body to notice there are a many number of houses with red lanterns in their backyards. Sounds of gunshots and sirens wail in the night, suggesting many others are carrying out plans of the same nature. Suicide cult has clearly resonated with many, all suffering from their own version of grief and pain.
Will and Kira hold hands at the sight of a horror that swarms LA. No matter how unbearable life may continue to be, they are united in the goal of living over succumbing to death.
Revisiting Fritz Lang’s Film Noir Classic: Ministry of Fear
March 9, 2016 3:05 pm
When Ministry of Fear’s hero Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) steps out of the mental asylum in the middle of the night to confront his new life, we already have a sense that things are not going to look all that bright for him. As he promises his doctor that he’ll stay out of trouble and live a quiet life, we’re already dreading what awaits. We owe this feeling to director Fritz Lang’s eerie setting, lighting and pacing. As expected, Lang does not waste any time before he turns his hero’s life upside down.
Lang’s cinema always asks us to question what’s expected and prevalent. Only few answers are provided as more and more questions pile on, taking us –and the hero– farther and farther away from innocence. Stephen’s inevitable nightmarish life outside is set up in the most innocent way possible. Upon winning a cake at a contest in a lively fair, he finds that his little welcoming gift into his life as a free man may just be the thing that will hold him captive. A festive and delicious cake turns out to be delivering a secret message to the Nazis in World War II England and Stephen happens to be the lawful man who is in the way. He is yet to experience mystifying deaths, disappearances, accusations, secret hidings and deliveries gone wrong. The more Stephen searches for answers the deeper he goes into the depths of a labyrinth of crime.
As it is common in Lang’s cinema and in contrast to the spy thrillers of the era, Ministry of Fear presents a world of characters where the heroes and the villains are not clearly defined. Even the Scotland Yard inspector is aesthetically portrayed as a Nazi agent until we get to see his real identity. In Ministry of Fear, everyone is suspect until proven innocent, and even then we are led to ask, ‘Can we really be sure?’
The reasons for Stephen’s asylum stay reveal a dark side to his past, but this new information quickly morphs into functioning as a way to establish him as wronged and victimized rather than guilty. Contradicting his questionable past, Stephen’s soft and giddy demeanor adds yet another unusual dimension to the movie. The common themes of paranoia, uncertainty and fear of the unknown are contrasted with a concerned but determined hero, who’s peculiarly not so much scared as intrigued.
Stephen’s eagerness and joy to begin his new life at the start of the movie sets him up as a hero who’s determined to enjoy life no matter what. And even in the face of clear threats to his life and freedom, he seems to cling to the task at hand and keep following the thread of events with sincerity and good intentions. The one weak point of the story is Stephen’s lack of understandable motivation to pursue the mystery of the cake and keep getting sucked into the dark affairs of the Nazi spy ring, but his indomitable curiosity and enthusiasm keep us on board with him.
As Stephen’s innocence slowly becomes contaminated, a love story flourishes between him and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), the Austrian refugee who runs the organization that delivered the cake to Stephen by mistake. Carla also gets her fair share of scrutiny as Stephen suspects that her organization may be a front for the Nazis. Stephen’s good-natured belief in Carla and Carla’s immediate trust in Stephen paint this idyllic picture in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. Carla will end up committing the toughest social transgression and her action will link the two characters in a complex bond of guilt and innocence.
Ministry of Fear has an air of romance and melodrama despite the mounting plot of action and relentless suspicion. The dominant mood of paranoia is mostly delivered via the atmosphere, set designs and lighting as opposed to acting and dialogues. The expressionistic high-contrast lighting, the way characters are framed in the sets and the choice of objects that appear in complex compositions all work to prepare the audience for a mood that is called for in the narrative. The creepy atmosphere is accompanied by a touch of Hollywood glamour, especially in the style of acting, light-hearted romance scenes and particularly the finale.
Ministry of Fear is an especially important piece of cinema because of its stylish atmosphere, interesting direction of acting and captivating narrative. Made in 1944 among many other Nazi propaganda movies, spy thrillers and numerous examples of Film Noir, it captures Fritz Lang’s unique approach to the genre and distinctive cinematic style.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on March 8, 2016
How Mustang and Full Metal Jacket are really the same movie
January 24, 2016 4:23 am
Finally I’m inspired to write about Blake Snyder’s much debated genre system. I am currently working on a script, the Snyder-genre of which is the wonderful and truly complicated Institutionalized. Because of this particular genre’s obvious challenges, such as working with an ensemble cast and voicing several standpoints on the merits of one Institution, I was in need of exploring the genre more deeply using worthy specimens that represent it in interesting ways. And what better specimens than Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Mustang (2015) and Stanley Kubrick’s Best Screenplay Oscar nominee Full Metal Jacket (1987). As you’ll see, comparing an unlikely pair of movies for the task will be more beneficial in order to fully understand the possibilities this genre offers.
The first of the three rules of the Institutionalized genre is that there needs to be a Group, an ensemble or multiple stories working for or against an establishment. There is a question of this establishment’s rules and ethics, and the possibility of breaking loyalty with it. Mustang’s five sisters and Full Metal Jacket’s marines are the Groups that are set against the cultural/traditional family institution in Mustang and the military institution in Full Metal Jacket.
Even though both stories are primarily about a group of people, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have heroes, through whose eyes the audience is invited to discover the storyworld and the ins and outs of the Institution the Groups are operating under. In Mustang the hero is the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), who has the most courage and wisdom to see through the system the girls are imprisoned by. She rebels against their grandmother by breaking a chair in the backyard in one of the opening scenes, setting the tone of the story to follow.
Similarly, Full Metal Jacket’s hero, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), demonstrates the most rebellious spirit in the Group by making his first ‘joke’ directed at the Institution representative Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in the opening scene. Both heroes are transparent and outrageous in their honesty and show the audience there will be no limits to what they can do.
Second rule of the Institutionalized genre is that there must be a Choice that tests whether the hero will stick with the group or quit – the main dramatic conflict of the story. In Mustang, as we watch the girls being married off one after another, we are left to wonder if Lale is going to submit to her destiny too, or will she put an end to the unjust system that reduces women to mere cattle. As the girls keep disappearing out of the cage they live in (presumably to move onto their next cage), the need for the Choice becomes more urgent and the resources to make it increasingly narrowed. After the third sister in line to join the institution commits suicide (a powerful All is Lost moment for the Group), things look more desperate than ever, making the potential prospects of the Choice even more hopeless.
In Full Metal Jacket, the Group, including Joker, is deeply entrenched in the system, practically trained to be mindless killing machines. But, there’s still the question of whether Joker too will become one of them, or will he hold onto his spirit and sustain his humane stance in the face of a war that seems to make no sense to even those who fight for it. As the Group finds itself face to face with a ruthless sniper with no back up to protect them, Joker has to come to terms with his best friend’s death – a similar All is Lost moment for the Group and particularly for the hero, who must now decide whether he will choose the Institution and take revenge or stand by his principles and symbolically destroy the Institution embedded in his heart.
The third rule of the Institutionalized genre is Sacrifice. Who is going to be the winner of this battle? Them or me? Will the hero surrender his/her individuality or beat the Institution, dismantling it, rendering it powerless, and most importantly, proving it was less than it was advertised to be all along.
In Mustang the Sacrifice is the security and the predictability of home and family. The last two sisters turn their back on everything they have and they know, possibly severing their bond with the older sisters. They risk their lives by attempting to go to Istanbul relying only on the hope that Lale’s teacher will help them out. It is the ‘inner spirit’ Snyder talks about that helps the hero make this tough decision of letting go of the Institution.
Full Metal Jacket portrays a more complex Sacrifice scene. For Joker the Sacrifice is that human capacity ‘to refuse to kill’, which is what originally set him apart from the rest of the Group. In contrast to Mustang, the hero of Full Metal Jacket seemingly chooses the Institution by killing the Vietnamese sniper face to face. This could be interpreted as Joker turning into one of the Group’s heartless killers, but it could also be interpreted as Joker choosing to put the sniper out of her misery and therefore not letting her suffer any longer as the Group suggests they should initially do. Joker emerges as a killer but one who has fully digested the tragic weight of such an act.
According to Snyder, there are three characters who are often featured in the Institutionalized genre. First is Company Man, who is rooted in the system and who has taken on its values as his/her own. In Mustang the grandmother is the Company Man. She clearly loves the sisters but she has learned the rules of the game and believes them as her own. Other elderly women who go along with the program represent how deeply and widely the system is accepted. Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartman and other soldiers who don’t question the system and even delight in being in the trenches are examples to Company Men.
Naif is another typical character found in Institutionalized movies. This is the ‘new guy’ who knows nothing of the rules and the person with whom the audience identifies and through whose eyes finds out about the system. Naif is often the hero. In Mustang it is Lale and in Full Metal Jacket it is Joker, who are yet to become institutionalized.
Brando is another must-have character for the Institutionalized genre and can also be the hero. It is the wild guy who is by nature opposed to the system and reveals its flaws. I think dramatically Brando is an essential ingredient that powerfully demonstrates the evils of the Institution. The heroes of Mustang and Full Metal Jacket both carry the Brando energy but I feel the real Brandos are the ones who take the most extreme measures to rebel against the establishment. In Mustang it is the third sister Ece (Elit İşcan), who quietly suffers and subtly revolts for most of the film, and finally commits suicide. Her suicide is so sudden and unexpected that its execution feels like a slap in the face of the system.
Full Metal Jacket’s Brando is almost identical in its behavior and impact on the audience. Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) has a smile on his face in the opening scene and is severely punished for it. That smile gets thoroughly extinguished, but he continues to be the bad apple of the Group to the point where the Group itself turns against him. Pyle’s loneliness is palpable. Even after he’s discovered to be one of the best gunmen and therefore becomes an accepted member of the Group, his despair keeps brewing. Like with Ece, we watch Pyle’s individuality exterminated and punished much more explicitly than others. Only when the marines are announced to have completed their training, meaning just when you think the torture is over, Pyle unexpectedly shoots Sergeant Hartman dead and puts a bullet in his own head. Like the one in Mustang, this is another suicide that comes out of nowhere and hits the audience with great impact. In both films, the sudden suicides leave the remaining characters and the audience dumbfounded – now fully aware of the depths of hell the Institution has prepared for them.
Mustang and Full Metal Jacket are set in different eras and geographies; they are about the oppression of different sexes; they represent different cultures with different historical backdrops and so on. And yet, in their essence they both tell the same story: a story about people who suffer within the confines of an Institution that is imposed upon them. They are surrounded, oppressed, limited, forced, denied freedom to be, to act, to choose, to express oneself, to have opinions and feelings of their own. No matter what the Institution is and who its victims are, from a mythological perspective, they are stories of imprisonment and the urge to break out.
Mustang and Full Metal Jacket coming together under one common genre provides a reason to celebrate the unchanging core of what stories are and how diverse and individually potent they have the potential to be.
The Genius of Blood Simple as the Forerunner of a Certain Coen Genre
January 11, 2016 2:45 pm
The Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple leaves the audience speechless at its fade out. It sets the tone for a specific genre of Coen movies about ‘life getting ridiculously complicated for the silliest reasons’. As brilliantly articulated by J. K. Simmons’s character in the finale of Burn After Reading (another incarnation of the same Coen genre), ‘What did we learn here?’ echoes in our tickled minds. What did we just experience and why?
All we really know about the characters in Blood Simple is their motivation and very little else. Not much at all about how they met, what they are like, what kind of a childhood they might have had, how they feel about life and even each other. What we do know is the basics: the nature of their relationship with each other, what they want and what they don’t want. The first few scenes establish this simple information with economical grace, then the characters’ goals naturally fall into place and conflict alone drives the rest of the way to fade out.
This almost childlike simplicity of Blood Simple is what leaves us dumbfounded in the end. Seasoned viewers might say ‘but movies are supposed to establish backstory, deliver a message, and include several subtexts from which we learn something new about life; above all, movies are supposed to have depth and purpose!’ This is partially true; the more complex and furnished with substance and dimension movies are the more intrigued and satisfied we tend to be with the outcome. However, it is precisely its straightforward approach that reveals the movie’s essential mission and the source of its delight.
The genius of Blood Simple is in its non-hesitant way of only giving us the story’s bare essentials: motivation, conflict, goals, setbacks and resolution. In fact, if Blood Simple does only one thing well, it is to remind us that these five points are all you really need to tell a story. Contrary to all the complex storylines and character development found in many great movies, Blood Simple dares us to see stories for what they primarily are: vehicles for entertaining unusual situations from the points of view of interesting characters with specific desires and idiosyncrasies.
When we are able to go past the story’s seeming pointlessness, we arrive at quite a fundamental point the movie inadvertently makes about humanity. Blood Simple thrives on a primary fear that we all share: losing control. The characters are in the dark about what’s happening throughout the picture and they continually miss the pieces of the puzzle which would help them make sound decisions. It is in a sense a parody of what happens when you have no grasp of what’s going on and when you are stuck in a downward spiral of wrong information resulting in wrong decisions culminating in more ignorance and more stupidity.
An advanced version of this same hilariously annoying downward spiral is found in Fargo, where characters are painfully misinformed and acting foolishly. Along with other variations of this particular Coen genre such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, Blood Simple and Fargo draw from a rare combination of humor and tension born out of the fear of loss of control.
A prominent reason for Blood Simple’s appeal to the audience is its realistic persisting problem: killing ain’t easy. We relate to all four central characters who at some point in the story try to kill another. Killing turns out to be such a difficult ordeal that we instantly bond with the characters and their plight. They are all innocent and guilty at the same time in their own ways; they all honestly struggle for understandable reasons and as a result we root for them. The fact of their inability to foresee potential consequences of their actions makes them all the more loveable and real.
Similar to its successors, Blood Simple’s setting adds a crucial dimension to the story. The characters live in a town that feels abandoned by and disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s scarcely populated by people whose actions feel ineffectual in regards to everything and everybody else. It’s as if we are examining a cage in a zoo where improbable mishaps are common occurrence. Blood Simple’s setting has a twofold effect as it supports a sense of realism because it feels so common and bland, but at the same time it makes the ludicrousness of the action probable and even likely because of its strange and neglected atmosphere.
In the finale, Frances McDormand’s character Abby singlehandedly ends the vicious cycle of violence. She sheds her fear of having no grasp and control of what’s going on and surrenders her doubts about her ability to take charge. We are satisfied that she makes it through, but equally confused about how things have gotten so bad. And again, what did we learn here? Nothing really, but we did find ourselves in the shoes of four people who somehow made sense to us and we entertained a strange set of situations which demonstrated a delicious combination of tension and humor. Most importantly, we witnessed the first specimen of an irresistible genre of Coen movies we have since come to love.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 8, 2016