Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
January 18, 2018 7:39 pm
Every year I deconstruct my favorite screenplay of the year in a beat sheet format developed by Blake Snyder. This year it happens to be Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which just won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and is a strong candidate for the Oscar in the original screenplay category among others. Enjoy!
Mildred (Frances McDormand) spots three deserted billboards as she drives along an empty road. A light bulb goes off in her head.
Mildred buys advertising space on all three billboards. This is the catalyst for action mainly for the police officials she’s targeting, but it also marks the start of Mildred’s journey into reaching out to the authorities and the public with her pain.
The billboards are unveiled, as is the story behind them. The various reactions to the billboards set up Mildred’s friends and foes as well as her personal motivation and goal. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is one of the few people whose opinion and feelings matter to Mildred, but even Robbie’s disapproval doesn’t stop her. While Mildred’s colleague from the gift shop (Amanda Warren) is her only supporter, her adversaries are many and furious. The main target for the billboards is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose terminal illness accentuates the conflict between the characters, but it is Dixon (phenomenally portrayed by Sam Rockwell) who takes it to heart and will have the longest distance to go in his transformation.
Throughout the film the biggest debate is about whether the billboards will stay up or not. Can Mildred be convinced to take them down, or not? First the legality of the billboards is questioned, and then Mildred’s resolve is tested by the police and the locals. Willoughby’s attempt at reasoning with her hits a dead-end when he figures that Mildred had already known about his cancer, but doesn’t care.
The billboards are the source of a battle of wills between Mildred and pretty much everyone else, and it looks like Mildred will win.
The last effort to get Mildred to take the billboards down comes from the moral beacon of the town, the priest. He says, ‘No one’s on your side about this.’ The central conflict of the story is alluded to: we will be exploring the possibilities of whether Mildred will succeed in pulling people to her side to bring justice to a now disregarded horrific crime. Will the police and the public get over their shame and discomfort to finally face the reality that such vile crimes are committed amongst them.
Mildred’s goal is not solely and simply forcing the police to solve the crime, but to remember it, face it, and do something about it, in their action and in their hearts.
Break into Two
Mildred coolly and beautifully reacts to the priest. The gist of it is ‘Get the f**k outta my kitchen.’ We now know that if this is Mildred’s response to a priest, the billboards are here to stay.
Willoughby on the other hand, having received his own ‘catalyst for action’ to solve the crime in his few remaining days, lashes out at his doctor for comforting him at Mildred’s expense. Willoughby is taking none of it, because he knows that as crazy as she is, Mildred is right and he now knows what to do. Both Mildred and her adversaries move into their second act of growth.
Fun & Games
Willoughby tries to make it right by giving the case another shot before he dies. Mildred responds to and deflates the increasing pressure against her and the billboards. In a beautiful and tragicomic one-two punch Mildred injures the town dentist and Willoughby coughs up blood into Mildred’s face during her interrogation. They may be on opposite sides of an argument but in this scene they share an intimate moment acknowledging each other’s suffering.
This is also the section where we go deeper into Mildred’s personal demons. Her guilt around what’s happened to her daughter (Kathryn Newton) and how her desperation for justice is mixed with her need to do right by her daughter. Her sense of failure crystalizes in her exchange with her ex-husband (John Hawkes). One more dimension is added to her guilt when she finds out her daughter wanted to move in with her father to get away from her and if she had she might have lived.
As Willoughby finds his own answer to his dilemma by plotting a premature but dignified exit, Mildred hits a peak point in her journey when she lets down her guard, addressing a fawn that symbolizes her daughter. We ask: Has she done the right thing by opening this can of worms when the case has little chance of being solved? Was it worth turning everyone’s lives upside down, letting the pains of the past resurface and dig deep into their hearts?
There is a dance that happens between Mildred and Willoughby and Dixon throughout the film. Willoughby fights her but he feels for her, even agrees with her. His parting gesture expresses his faith in the possibility of goodness in the world. He has manifestly joined Mildred in her quest for unification against rape and violence.
Mildred’s dance of compassion continues with a much different version of Willoughby in Dixon. Dixon, suffering from a slow-burning moral compass, questionable intelligence and typically male anger, is infuriated by Mildred’s position. It takes longer for him to unite with Mildred, but with Willoughby’s help he recognizes the goodness in himself that will move him closer to her.
It is in Dixon’s transformation that Mildred’s internal journey lies and it is in the B Story between Mildred and Dixon where the theme of the film is discussed.
Willoughby kills himself. As a result Mildred’s doubts and guilt about the billboards reach a new height. She now has to face a town outraged by Willoughby’s suicide, which they naturally view to be Mildred’s fault.
Bad Guys Close in
As a response to Willoughby’s suicide, problems escalate in Ebbing at a fast pace. The suicide has done no favors to Robbie’s already vulnerable position at his school. Dixon throws the ad agency guy Red (Caleb Landry Jones) out the window for putting up the billboards in the first place. On top of his grief over Willoughby Dixon loses his job, his one reason for leading a decent, lawful life. A creepy guy (Brendan Sexton III) threatens Mildred’s life when he walks into the gift shop claiming to be responsible for her daughter’s violent death. Willoughby’s widow (Abby Cornish) brings Mildred a letter from her late husband, further clenching Mildred’s heart.
Willoughby’s letter is a relief from the increasing tensions of the story, but it does nothing but further raise the stakes. Willoughby has done a good deed by renewing the monthly rent for the billboards, but this only results in somebody setting fire to them. The fire represents the culmination of conflict around the billboards, which will in turn give birth to Mildred’s most vengeful retribution yet.
All is Lost
Assuming it was the police that burnt down the billboards, Mildred sets fire to the police station. Little does she know that Dixon is in the building receiving words of wisdom from Willoughby’s letter, marking the beginning of a shift in his journey.
All is lost for Mildred as she realizes that in her rage against violence and injustice she almost killed Dixon and she now faces potential jail time and, most importantly, the loss of her battle.
Dark Night of the Soul
Thoroughly bandaged and imbued with Willoughby’s faith in him, Dixon makes amends with Red in the hospital. He’s no longer a brute, but a victim.
Mildred in her own way uncharacteristically softens when she goes out on a date with the town midget James (Peter Dinklage). She even shows signs of coming to terms with her ex-husband’s infidelity when she wishes well on his new relationship, advising him to treat her well – a common decency she herself didn’t receive.
Break into Three
The billboards go back up! The war is still on. In the meantime, as foretold by Willoughby, Dixon overhears the confession of a brutal crime against a woman. He may no longer be a cop, but he has a chance to make things right by Mildred after all.
Dixon’s potential offender turns out to be not the man who killed Mildred’s daughter. But, driven by the purposelessness of his life and his newly acquired taste for justice, he suggests to Mildred that they go after this guy anyway. He may not be the guy they’re looking for but he’s still a vile criminal, who’s ought to be punished. Mildred agrees.
Mildred drives along the billboard road with Dixon shotgun, going after revenge and justice. They know that neither of them is likely to pull the trigger on the guy, but that’s not the point. Mildred has succeeded in her feat: she drew attention to an unacceptable crime, fuelled the hearts and minds of the police and the public to stand against crime against women. And most importantly, she now has the support of Dixon, her unlikely partner in doing the right thing against all odds.
Second Rounder at Austin Film Festival! NOW On The Black List!
September 20, 2017 11:35 pm
IMPORTANT NEWS UPDATE!!
Magic of Story‘s founder, screenwriter and script analyst Selin Sevinc’s latest feature-length screenplay became a second rounder at Austin Film Festival‘s prestigious screenwriting contest – a recognition given to less than 20% of the entrants.
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Room for Cinema in Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte
July 29, 2017 11:02 pm
Influential French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s debut film La Pointe Courte (1956) is a great reminder to modern cinephiles what film-viewing experience can be. Following the footsteps of Italian Neorealism and in the wake of the French New Wave, La Pointe Courte serves as an amalgam of the kind of films that transformed our understanding and appreciation of film language and aesthetics. It not only represents a major step in cinema history, but is also a refreshing viewing experience for the modern moviegoer who is accustomed to conventional plot and character development and an easily discernable protagonist.
La Pointe Courte differs from most mainstream films in a few ways. First, it has two storylines that don’t connect by a cause-and-effect relationship. One storyline witnesses local fishermen’s struggle against the government inspectors who threaten their livelihood by placing restrictions on their fishing zones. The string of impersonal documentary-like scenes of fishing, sharing mishaps with inspectors and ordinary familial events is intercut with a more personal narrative where a married couple questions their love for each other. The couple has intimate dialogues that are specific to their innermost feelings and philosophical ruminations on love and marriage, using the fishing town as an agent of change, which first agitates their romance, then replenishes it.
The film is also inventive in that Varda uses entirely different visual styles for filming the two worlds. She evokes the Italian Neorealist tradition for the fishermen, where non-professional actors are filmed living their ordinary lives almost in real time with seemingly little manipulation from the filmmaker. This documentary-style allows these sections of the film an unsentimental reality. Even the death of a child becomes a commonplace event in an unchanging world that’s only marginally disturbed by government officials. Varda skillfully mirrors the Neorealist concern with social and economic issues of working class people.
On the other hand, the couple’s world is highly stylized. Varda’s choices of uncertain, downbeat music, meticulously composed mise-en-scenes, symbolic inserts of images that intensify the couple’s dialogue and the choice of expressive settings are the foreshadowing elements of the French New Wave’s way of experimentation with the film form.
For instance, the couple’s walk on the beach or through town in lengthy tracking shots are intercut with static shots of crabs, a dead cat, eels caught in a net, a fork in the road, train tracks to match the tone and content of their conversation. As they speak about their failing marriage and how difficult they find it to relate to their love for each other, they’re inside the skeleton of an old wooden boat as if inside a womb, out of which their relationship will be reborn. Another noteworthy aesthetic choice is the unnatural framing of the actors’ merging faces. Varda’s compositions precede that of Ingmar Bergman’s stylistically influential Persona, filmed a decade after La Pointe Courte. Varda’s visual style is clearly an inspiration for the developing aesthetics of European art house cinema.
Varda interlaces her seemingly disparate storylines and visual styles in a way that draws attention to a major distinction in social and behavioral norms in French society. In contrast with the slow, flowing scenes of townsfolk’s daily struggle and acceptance of what they have and have not, the couple dissect and question their thoughts and emotions in a cryptic language, in discord with each other and their environment’s rhythms. Varda depicts a modern, urban couple moving around in a world they don’t belong, while life flows around them free of existential crisis. Their landlady’s statement, “They’re always talking; they mustn’t be happy,” sums up this distinction.
The intellectual, overwritten dialogue, coupled with erratic editing and an expressive music score sets the couple’s scenes clearly apart from the townsfolk’s. Varda, without seeming to do so, elicits commentary on life’s ironic contrasts with images, sounds and editing –the great weapons of film language– while remaining equally distant from both of her storylines.
From a modern perspective it is a hard task to enjoy a film like La Pointe Courte. It is remarkably slow-paced; performances are blunt; the plot is hardly engaging and the structure is fragmented. However, Varda’s invitation to step in and feel the film, as opposed to merely consume it, is a priceless gift for the modern film lover. Simply observing the ebbs and flows of a slice of life in a town called La Pointe Courte, and absorbing Varda’s artistic vision through images and rhythms is enough to appreciate what cinema has to offer.
–This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 23, 2017
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea
February 17, 2017 5:41 pm
Kenneth Lonergan’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nominated Manchester by the Sea is the most compelling screenplay I’ve come across lately. I deeply enjoyed breaking it down to its parts to better understand how it was so effectively and economically put together.
This breakdown is based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet method. Please read on if you’ve already seen the movie! Enjoy!
Three boys in one beloved boat, on one beloved ocean. Lee (Casey Affleck) kids around with his nephew Patrick as his big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) helms the boat. They are connected through the ocean and their love for each other.
Lee works as a janitor, servicing the residents of four apartment buildings. His character is set up by its contrast to the people whose lives continue uninterrupted despite his presence in them. The residents have relatives, responsibilities, plans, schedules, worries, and preferences, whereas Lee is a blank page, as if without a past and a future, a socially inept bypasser, there to unclog and repair and nothing more. Lee is portrayed as someone who has picked a life of doing the dirty work of lives lived by others – a man outside of the rhythmic continuity of other people’s lives.
Lee has a temper, cause of which is yet unclear. When he is pushed or when he is alone, he stumbles into trouble. He cannot connect with people, except when he quenches his thirst for connection by needless violent outbursts.
When Lee heads back into Manchester following the Catalyst (see below) his past is slowly revealed, establishing what the ramifications of this ‘catalyst for action’ might mean for Lee, what’s at stake and what he must overcome to meet his challenge.
Following Lee’s unexpected indiscretion with one of the residents, his boss has a chat with him. He tells Lee that he can’t be so careless and unpleasant in life, implying that Lee simply doesn’t fit in a civilized world. This first challenge to Lee’s deep-seated attitude towards life shows us that we’re about to explore whether Lee will be able to re-enter the social, connected world. Will he make an effort to get along? Will he make room for others?
Lee gets a call from the hospital: Joe had another heart attack. He drives back to Manchester as he did so many times before, but this time Joe is dead. Manchester is calling for Lee to tend to Patrick and, in doing so, to pick up the pieces of his own life.
According to Joe’s will, Lee is to become Patrick’s (Lucas Hedges) legal guardian and look after him until he turns 18. So the central debate question is, ‘Will Lee accept the duty of being a guardian to Patrick?’ But, since Patrick has a lot to lose by leaving Manchester to live with Lee and Lee has no real excuse to stay in Boston, the real question is ‘Will Lee move back to Manchester?’ When Lee is hit with this question in the lawyer’s office, his tragic past is revealed to intensify what this move might mean for him. How near impossible a task is being asked of him. In light of his personal past, the guilt he feels for what happened to his family, will he be able to stomach living in Manchester again, let alone take responsibility for another person?
Break into Two
Lee doesn’t see sending Patrick to live with his mother as an option. So he decides to temporarily move to Manchester until he figures something out and move them both to Boston. But even before a clear moment of decision occurs, Manchester has already sucked Lee in. He is already engaged in the daily tasks, responsibilities and decisions for Patrick’s life; he has already assumed a parental position.
Fun & Games
Lee and Patrick’s life together. Patrick’s daily schedule, friends, girlfriends, school, sports teams, music band, his boat, his problems come at Lee with full force. Lee’s dull and subdued personality, and unwillingness to function as a giver of guidance, support and discipline, starkly contrasts Patrick’s ease in his social connections, and outspokenness about his desires, fears and goals. Lee’s callousness vs. Patrick’s liveliness provides an entertaining respite from the grief they are yet to process.
Despite their differences and the inconvenient circumstances they are brought together in, Lee and Patrick bond. Patrick is social, popular, pumped up with hormones and desires, love, humor and gusto. He is at the center of a web of connections, bubbling with life. He is the antithesis to Lee’s disconnected, unwilling, dispassioned shuffle through life. Their evolving connection becomes a point by which the theme of the film is discussed: will Lee integrate back into society with the help of his new role as a guardian to Patrick?
Patrick has an emotional breakdown – a rare occasion where he abandons his carefree attitude and falls into the claws of grief over his dad. When Patrick is confronted with stacks of frozen chicken and a sudden onslaught of grief overwhelms him, Lee does his work as a compassionate, loving guardian. This is a moment when we feel the transference of their shared suffering. We ask: could Patrick be the antidote to Lee’s deep feelings of guilt and sorrow?
Bad Guys Close in
Lee lays down what will happen to Patrick: temporary stay in Manchester and then move to Boston. Patrick is cross with Lee; the tension between them builds. On the other hand the boat is in bad shape and will require either selling or investing in, both of which don’t quite work for either of them. More pressure is introduced when Lee looks for jobs in Manchester but it’s clear the townsfolk still holds some grudge against him. Furthermore, despite Patrick’s hopeful attempt, Lee proves to be less than capable of making even small talk with another person.
A big blow comes when Patrick’s –and Lee’s– last hope for finding Patrick an appropriate guardian falls through. Patrick’s mum and her fiancé are clearly not the right match for him. Finally, it’s obvious that Lee and Patrick are stuck together. To counteract this disappointment, Lee finds a way for them to keep the boat and gives Patrick a break to enjoy his girlfriend – two sweet gestures that ease the tension between them. But soon Lee will encounter the biggest challenge of all…
All is Lost
Lee runs into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) pushing a stroller down a Manchester street. Randi’s confessional apology has a shattering effect; the love and pain between them are palpable. Lee is crushed under the weight of Randi’s compassion and the knowledge that it is too late to mend their unsalvageable, grief-stricken relationship.
Dark Night of the Soul
Lee’s self-destructive defense mechanism takes effect immediately. He starts a bar fight and gets damaged enough to prove to himself that’s exactly what he deserves. What’s more, in a heart-wrenching moment, he sees his dead children warning him of a fire he’s about to cause. Lee’s jolted out of his stupor to tend to the spaghetti sauce burning on the stove. This classic Dark Night of the Soul moment underlines the haunting nature of Lee’s grief.
Break into Three
Lee does the only thing that he can do under the circumstances. He arranges Joe’s best friend to adopt Patrick. He tells Patrick that he simply cannot stay in Manchester, because he’s too heartbroken, because he can’t beat his demons.
Joe is finally buried on a spring day. Lee has a job in the big city and is looking for a bigger place to live. When asked why that is, he explains the extra room is for Patrick to come visit. Lee and Patrick bounce a ball between them as they continue to bicker. Regardless of how happy or unhappy they are now, it is clear that Patrick continues to live the life he chooses to live, and Lee has picked a safe zone for himself to function and made room for another person.
Lee and Patrick are out fishing on their boat – the only common ground quiet and gentle enough to hold the connection between them.
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
John Cassavetes’ Husbands: An Elaborate Study on Manhood
August 23, 2016 12:56 am
One of the most accomplished auteurs of American cinema, John Cassavetes makes a subtle, honest and deeply sincere film about being a man in western society. In Husbands, his three suburban New Yorker husbands represent the traditional male status quo, that of the married man with children, a dull job, a house, a car, a garage, a debt, a receding hairline, and a few buddies who faithfully remind them they are still who they always were, namely, hopeful young boys.
Husbands is about what it’s like to have had a vision of himself as a young man and what it’s like to have lost it without having stopped once to notice it slipping by. Gus (John Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) mourn the death of a close friend, whose sudden passing reduces them from a happily deluded quartet to a saddened and confused trio. Except, they don’t know how to mourn. Instead, they suddenly transition from middle-aged, middle class, professional family men to your average obnoxious, vagabond teenagers.
Stylistically radical, Husbands invites the audience to take an audaciously long and personal look at living the male bravado and the ultimate delusion of manhood – that man is free and immortal. The first half of the film is spent showing the three husbands drink, race each other, play ball, physically and verbally attack each other and their companions, display a scattered sense of self and life, and basically use up a day and a night in the pursuit of their lost youth and freedom. Only in the second half, prompted by Harry’s last of many fights with his wife, they all decide to go to London to take their depressed feelings to the next escapist level.
When you watch Husbands from a modern audience perspective, first thing to notice is its shocking freedom in exploring its subject matter. There seems to be no constraint on screen time, no stylistic limits on camerawork, lighting or acting, and seemingly almost no intention to make the movie fit in one category or other. It is simply and freely what it is. If this were a modern movie, the trio would be going to London by minute 25 of the picture, whereas Cassavetes shows us a phenomenal hour and 15 minutes of three guys mucking around, philosophizing in fragments, and getting nowhere… Husbands reminds us this is what movies could be, or perhaps should be, all about: life itself.
As the invisible onlookers and eavesdroppers, we get to experience life from the perspective of three husbands living out a bittersweet period of their lives in real time. The improvisational, fly-on-the-wall style of the film makes the occasional fleeting moments of subtle wisdom all the more poignant. We feel that we catch glimpses of raw truth about the male reality. Archie says at one point: “What do you prefer to do, if you had a preference?” Another time we hear from Harry, simply: “I’m confused,” and “There were four of us, now there are three of us, and you wanna be alone?” They utter uncensored expressions of contained passion, discontentment and frustration: “The legs, the breasts, the mouth”, “We have two lovely wives, the only problem is to go home and make love to them”, “Gotta be an individual.” In these lines, drama and deep emotions seep through between the lines without an ounce of sentimentality.
The most exquisite thing about Husbands is its finale. The men’s infantile romp is over, and they have not grown any wiser. Archie and Gus leave Harry, the more confused of the three, behind in London. On the sidewalk, they divide the toys they bought for their kids. It’s a solemn moment that screams with disappointment and perhaps relief from the unknowns of their great adventure in London. As they walk to their homes, Archie turns to Gus and repeats twice: “What is he going to do without us?” Never mind the childishness of assuming one grown man can’t do without the other two, the real meaning of this desperate remark is even more dramatic. It feels like Archie really means to say: “What are we going to do without each other? What are we going to do without us?” Just like they demand of the woman in the drawn-out singing contest early in the film, they are in search of ‘warmth, heart and soul’ and there is nothing else they can do to satiate their deep need to return to the basics but cling to each other.
The husbands in Husbands, just like most of us, are perpetually dissatisfied with and doubtful about life. By finale, we are not any wiser either, but we have faced our own delusion of freedom and immortality. Cassavetes’s portrayal of fragility of being a man in western society has captured the raw and painful side of a delusion we all share.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on August 11, 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.
Ingmar Bergman’s Elusive Persona and its Wordless Secrets
May 27, 2016 3:06 pm
One of the most academically and critically acclaimed films of all times, Persona is a precious jewel in the history of world cinema. Its creator Ingmar Bergman had relentlessly stretched the boundaries of what we call cinema today throughout his career, but never before (or since) as significantly as he did with Persona. Many brilliant critics and academics have analyzed the bottomless depths of Persona. Here, I will concentrate on a few points that personally resonate with me every time I watch it.
The famous actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for her sudden self-inflicted silence. Her doctor discloses her diagnosis of Elisabet’s so-called ‘disease’ as if it’s Bergman explaining to the audience the source of all dread that he himself suffers from: ‘…the chasm between what you are to others and what you are to yourself.’
The word ‘persona’, Latin meaning of which is ‘mask’, is central to Elisabet’s life in the theatre, where the pretense of taking on different identities, or masks, is the name of the game. Elisabet drops this pretense in the middle of a performance like dropping a mask that has long been unbearable. Her silence on the other hand becomes just another mask to hide behind in order to escape the demand for confessions and deliberations. Elisabet’s safely established new ‘role’ as a sick woman shields her fears and social discomfort behind a veil of silence.
However, Bergman himself often talks about silence as having the quality of containing ‘the only truth’. This duality behind the experience of silence on the part of the troubled soul is interesting: Is silence the only way out of the insufferable ‘chasm’ or is it simply not possible to avoid this chasm no matter how and how much you try to remove yourself from responsibility of expression.
Enters Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse, innocent of all self-doubt and questioning. Her future is laid out in front of her and despite her mild insecurity and impulsiveness, she is perfectly capable of nursing Elisabet back to health with her casual ease and pleasant demeanor.
Secluded in a summer home on an island, the two women forge an odd friendship, where Elisabet is the silent, compassionate observer and Alma, seemingly the patient lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, confessing all her sins. Alma finds a rare opportunity to open up and process her own existential angst to Elisabet, whose contrasting purpose is to be relieved from her extraverted existence. As Elisabet turns more and more inward, Alma exercises her multiple identities, suggesting that, if given the opportunity to release them, we all have a multitude of masks to potentially play out.
When Alma feels betrayed by Elisabet, her dormant rage blossoms violently, making her transformation all the more fascinating. Alma, now interchangeably viewing Elisabet as confidant and traitor, goes on to challenge Elisabet’s sense of self by suggesting, almost revealing, that there may not be a ‘self’ behind all of Elisabet’s masks. In their hideout, the two women not only exchange their identities, but also begin to present a case in which they share one identity, or embody two sides of the same personality. Bergman slowly but surely blurs our narrative perception: are these women one and the same, perhaps living out a schizophrenic episode? Or are they the thesis and anti-thesis of one persona getting painfully enmeshed in one odd summer together?
Bergman’s audacity in tackling one of the fundamental questions of existence is noteworthy. Don’t we all carry this self-doubt: Am I who I think I am, or who I seem like I am? If I were to remove myself from my world permanently and begin participating in a reality altogether different and, to top it all, if I were relieved from expressing my ‘self’, what would that ‘self’ turn out to be? And from Alma’s point of view, if I had the chance of being listened to without questions or judgment, what emotions and personalities would I have access to? Which demons would I be compelled to bring out?
Bergman takes our experience of observing the collision of these two identities one step further by stressing the idea of the audience as active observers of the dream-like phenomenon that is Persona. From the ignition of a projector through to film cracking and burning on Bibi Andersson’s frozen face, we are reminded that cinema itself is a mask that’s forever hiding its meanings and intentions. Perhaps Bergman is suggesting there is no meaning and intention behind his complex narrative and perplexing images at all!
Though Bergman himself refrained from explaining what he meant by Persona, he also wrote that, in Persona, he ‘touched wordless secrets that only cinema can discover’. Ironically, words are truly not enough to express what the elusive and marvelous Persona means to me. It is up to the audience to perceive and make meaning out of those wordless secrets for themselves and themselves alone.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on May 23, 2016
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