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
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.
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
Swept Away: Lina Wertmüller’s Maze of Sex and Politics
July 20, 2017 12:57 am
Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.
Wertmüller paints this simple tale with a raw, flawed, hard-to-pin-down approach. The 45-minute introduction sets up the political opinions of the two leads in a cumbersome, simplistic, repetitive series of scenes. We are asked to sympathize with the benign and comic Gennarino and share his resentment toward the rich yacht guests, the outspoken and spoilt Raffaella in particular. This comedy sketch-like opening paints a black-and-white picture of politics. The rich and the poor are stripped out of context and reduced to parroting very basic views of what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor. The rich are tyrannical, self-indulgent and rude; the poor are powerless, envious and resentful. While the film could do with more complexity and depth in its portrayal of political views by adding more context and backstory for the two leads, its lack of dimension brings a naivety and cartoonishness that lighten the mood and increase the power of the brutishness that is to follow.
After finding themselves shipwrecked, the primitive island life sucks them in; the power roles are reversed. With money taken out of the equation, the poor communist Gennarino suddenly has the upper hand. The social structures built around the class struggle are at once laid bare and ridiculed. Gennarino is savvier at hunting for food, building a fire and finding shelter and uses his capability as currency against Raffaella. He mercilessly exercises the privileges of his newfound status in his instant kingdom. Raffaella’s obeisance is not enough; she has to serve him and submit to his supremacy if she wants to survive. Primitive life apparently calls for primitive relationships. Money is replaced by survival skills; the fascism of the rich gives way to the fascism of the capable. Wertmüller suggests, in no uncertain terms, that even the poor will turn tyrannical when he holds the power; it is human nature.
If the opening chapter on the yacht gave us a watered-down version of fascism, the second chapter on the island reveals the fascism that resides in all of us. The third chapter turns our attention to the sexual tension between the castaways, and it is sex that finally brings complexity to Swept Away, filling its dull politics with conflict, giving them stakes and sophistication. The face of fascism once again changes: it leaps from fascism of the powerful to fascism of the male, and both kinds apparently look the same.
In the third chapter of Swept Away, Gennarino takes one step further in his insatiable desire to overpower Raffaella. In a near-rape scene, he attempts to conquer her body, but the catch is that he wants her to beg before he’s willing to bestow her the honor. Here things get increasingly murky. When Raffaella was the one in power, Gennarino loathed her and revolted against his position, but when the power equilibrium shifts and she is demeaned and forced to beg, she begins to enjoy it.
Primitive conditions first showed us that nature strips us of our class and enforces equality and cooperation upon our relationships. But now, Wertmüller dares to imply that once the woman loses her artificial power (one that comes with money and social status), she would surely come to appreciate and even crave her subordinate position. That her nature is, in fact, submitting to male power and brutality. Raffaella eventually chooses her privileged old life over a life with Gennarino on the island, but it is with great sadness and regret, as if she’s going against her true nature to fit back into her social role as a socialite.
The sadomasochistic relationship that develops between Gennarino and Raffaella is loaded with potential subversive readings. But if we take this couple as an individual entity, and not as male and female archetypes, then we can ease into accepting the strange possibility of Gennarino’s preposterous demands and Raffaella’s exaggerated willingness to become Gennarino’s slave. Just as the passionately intertwined mass of limbs we grow accustomed to watching, we also learn to see sexiness in the aggression and beauty in the haphazardness.
The last chapter of the film has a melodramatic tone that has an altogether different vibe than the rest. Civilization sweeps Raffaella off her feet despite her resistance. Gennarino and Raffaella know deep down that she would fail in her devotion to Gennarino once they’re back to the realities of a capitalist society. But, Gennarino takes yet another unexpected step and tries to win back Raffaella’s heart by buying her a diamond ring – the ultimate capitalist gesture. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. Raffaella is too caught up in her life to return to Gennarino, but she has also learned that love cannot be bought.
At its core, Swept Away is a film about simple dualities of rich vs. poor, man vs. woman, communist vs. capitalist. It starts out with a basic premise and takes us through the murky waters of desire, power, ego and love. If only for the nonchalant outrageousness of Wertmüller’s cinema, Swept Away is worth a look from today’s increasingly complicated perspective on feminism and politics.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on June 2, 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
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 email@example.com 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.
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Emma Donoghue’s Room
February 18, 2016 10:21 pm
Since my Ex Machina beat sheet, I’ve found it hard to come across a screenplay captivating enough to deconstruct. I think Emma Donoghue’s Oscar nominated screenplay for Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a gem of a study of human psychology in the face of hardship. It reflects a child’s perspective on life so purely that I found its sincerity and simplicity contagious. Room stands as a hopeful sign for the possibility of making small-scale movies that touch on refreshingly grand ideas. Hermione Lee’s description of Penelope Fitzgerald’s stories fits nicely with Donoghue’s Room: “[it] inhabits a small space, but seems, magically, to reach out beyond it.”
I hope you enjoy my interpretation of the story beats for Room and let it inspire your writing. I use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet method as a guide for story structure and highly recommend his acclaimed Save the Cat! for further study.
As a boy and his mother wake up to a new day, we discover their little world in Room. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) greets their few belongings with childish vigor, ‘Morning lamp, morning rug, morning wardrobe…’
As Jack and Ma (Brie Larson) eat their breakfast, Ma winces with toothache. She reminds concerned Jack, ‘Mind over matter.’ Jack chants their slogan: ‘If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ We get the sense that this is their survival strategy: we have the power to overcome our problems. Through their journey we will witness this battle of mind over matter – personal strength over circumstance.
Jack and Ma’s daily routine. Just like a regular mother and son, they eat breakfast, do activities, talk, take a bath, read stories and go to sleep, except they have to do all of this in a tiny space, clearly closed in for a long a time and resigned to the fact. We find out it’s Jack’s 5th birthday – a growing boy with growing needs and demands. With Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) visit, we are also introduced to their captor. Ma and Old Nick have a deal: he is not allowed to see or touch Jack in exchange for Ma’s full cooperation. Now we get a full picture of what life is like for Jack: what he knows and what he doesn’t know; how Ma is able to keep him deluded enough to live without too many difficult questions and occupied and active enough to give him something that resembles a regular childhood.
Jack encounters a mouse in Room – the first living visitor other than Old Nick. Suddenly the seed for a new set of questions is implanted in Jack’s imaginative yet purposefully restricted mind: Where does mouse live? Where does he come from and where will he go? Are there really other alive things in the world? Could the world be more than Room? Jack doesn’t yet ask these questions, but now there is tangible evidence of something other than the reality as he knows it. Ma distracts Jack’s train of thought, but she also begins to see that if Jack is able to question his reality he may be able to understand it too.
Is Jack old enough to understand and accept that there is an ‘outside’ and that’s where they should be? Will he believe Ma’s story about being captured and kept in Room and that the world isn’t just TV things but real things? Will he then be able to help Ma with an escape strategy? Ma uses mouse as a doorway to introduce the idea of ‘outside’ to Jack and, despite his initial resistance, Jack begins to understand what is real and what is not real, and that Old Nick needs to be tricked for them to regain their freedom and discover the world. When they are punished with a power cut in the middle of winter, Ma uses this opportunity to first fake an emergency sickness for Jack, so he can be taken into ER and deliver a message to save them, and when that fails she fakes Jack’s death, so he can be taken out of Room and then escape. Ma takes a huge risk by relying on a five-year-old’s ability to go out there and speak with people for the first time, but then again what have they got to lose?
Break into Two
Jack not only manages to escape from Old Nick’s truck but also raises enough suspicion outside for Old Nick to abandon him. He even gives sufficient information to the police to save Ma and they are soon happily reunited. A new life in the outside world awaits mother and son now.
Jack discovering the outside world and building relationships with people other than Ma is the B Story of the film. Jack’s bond with Ma also takes on a new form now that there is so much space and people between them. Jack slowly comes into his power to live the life he was supposed to live. What he learned from Ma now becomes his fuel to remind her that mind wins over matter.
Fun & Games
At first Jack and Ma enjoy their freedom in the outside world. Jack is not only in awe of his new surroundings, but also extremely timid to connect with anyone and anything other than his familiar Ma. Ma reunites with his parents and gets to go home. They seem to have all the protection and freedom in the world, but also a growing void between them now that the intimacy of Room is gone.
Ma’s father’s (William H. Macy) inability to acknowledge what happened to his daughter and accept Jack as a grandson is the first indicator that life outside is not going to be as easy for them as one might think. Ma seems to have only dreamed of getting out and wasn’t able to imagine anything beyond that. Now that they are out, she begins to realize that as far as the world sees it Jack is the son of a psychopath and the product of her suffering and abuse. If her dad can’t accept her and her misfortune, who will? How can she ever feel and be ‘normal’ again?
Bad Guys Close in
Grandpa, clearly unable to come to terms with what happened to his daughter, leaves. The family’s lawyer and the media put increasing pressure on them to act or give statements. It feels like Jack and Ma may not be in Room anymore, but they are still in confinement with much more complex problems. Realizing the years she lost and how she may never be able to have a normal life again, Ma grows more distant and unavailable to Jack. As the hole in Ma’s heart deepens, Jack opens up to his new world and the people in it. She projects her own frustrations on Jack and worries he’s not adjusting well when it’s really herself who is angry, fearful and haunted. Ma has a breakdown with her mother and ally Nancy (Joan Allen), blaming her for what happened. When she’s questioned at a TV interview about why she didn’t let go of her son earlier, in other words when she finds herself accused of being selfish, it is the final blow to her identity as a devoted mother and survivor.
All is Lost
Ma attempts suicide and is discovered by Jack. To Jack’s horror, Ma is taken away indefinitely. Her sudden disappearance from Jack’s life is a classic ‘whiff of death’ moment.
Dark Night of the Soul
Jack mourns Ma’s absence holding onto her bad tooth – ‘a bit of Ma’. He wisely observes: The world is so big and in a hurry. So Ma hurried to go to heaven, but forgot Jack. Jack gathers his superpowers to bring Ma back to him.
Break into Three
First act break happened because Ma ‘picked for both of them’ and made the decision to escape – a terrifying ordeal for Jack. Now, Jack tells Ma on the phone that he picks for both of them: Ma has to get better and come back to Jack.
As Jack patiently waits for Ma’s recovery, he begins doing normal things kids his age do like getting groceries and baking cupcakes with Grandma. He reveals the true essence of childhood while he expertly beats the eggs: Room was a good place for him, it stretched out infinitely and Ma was always there – a poignant revelation that children are blessed with a boundless imagination and resilience as long as they are loved. Now he returns this love and affection toward his mother by sending her ‘a bit of him’ – his hair that he calls his ‘strong’. Jack’s sacrifice brings Ma back and they are once again united. Ma admits she wasn’t a good enough Ma, but Jack is quick to remind her she is Ma and that’s what matters. Their world is now enlarged to include beaches and dogs and burgers. They are finally truly free to start life all over again.
Upon Jack’s request, they return to Room. Mirroring the opening images, Jack says his goodbyes to their old belongings – what he formerly knew as the extent of life. Having finally escaped Room and its haunting grasp, they are now not only free, but also happy.
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.