Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite
April 13, 2020 7:23 pm
In Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019), the protagonist is a family. I will refer to them as the Family.
The Family’s son is Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi), daughter Ki-Jung (So-dam Park), father Ki-Tek (Kang-ho Song) and mother Chung-Sook (Hye-jin Jang).
The Park family’s mother is Yon-Kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hae (Ji-so Jung) and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).
Housekeeper is Mun-Kwang (Jeong-eun Lee), and her husband is Kun-sae (Myeong-hoon Park).
Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung look for a wi-fi signal in their bathroom because their phones have been disconnected for failing to pay their bills and the neighbor whose internet they’ve been scrounging password-protected their wi-fi service. In their semi-basement apartment, they rise on top of a raised toilet to catch a signal—their desperation to connect with the world in order to earn their living is comical but poignant.
The Family make a meagre living folding pizza boxes. They’re accustomed to talk their way out of problems and sweet-talk their way into resolving issues to get better pay. They even keep their windows open during neighborhood fumigation to kill crickets in their apartment for free. Despite being jobless and unable to continue their education, they are smart and amusing. But most importantly they are relentless in their pursuit of what they need to survive.
Their window may be a convenient public toilet for homeless drunks, but they have the right attitude to have a laugh and make life work.
Ki-Woo’s college student friend Min-Hyuk shows up unannounced. He brings a viewing stone as a gift, which is meant to bring luck and money. The Family finds the gift symbolic and serendipitous. This is the symbolic Catalyst for the Family’s internal journey and will reveal what money will bring to their internal lives.
Min-Hyuk also brings a Catalyst to kick off the Family’s external journey. He tells Ki-Woo that a rich high school student that he’s tutoring needs a replacement tutor while he’s studying abroad. Could Ki-Woo take his place until he returns? Min-Hyuk adds that he’s planning on asking the girl out when she comes of age. Even though Ki-Woo is not a college student, Min-Hyuk says he’s even more capable than those who are and, plus, Ki-Woo is his only friend he trusts to hand over his future wife. And just like that, Ki-Woo is up for an interview for a well-paying job and has the potential to increase his family’s earnings.
Ki-Jung, who has been failing art school exams, is crafty enough to forge a college certificate of enrollment for Ki-Woo. The Family is impressed by their daughter’s forgery skills and are already brimming with pride for their son’s future success. Aware of the irony of not having achieved anything to deserve their respect, Ki-Woo says this is merely a precursor to what he’s planning on doing with his life: go to college and get rich; so how is this a lie and a crime?
Ki-Tek says, “That’s my son. Man with a plan.” This idea of having a plan will come up between them again and will become a thematic thread throughout the film. Is there any point in having a plan for poor people like them? How likely is it that they will achieve it, or even if they do, couldn’t it all go away in an instant? Let’s explore the possibilities of their life plans coming to fruition in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor feels unbridgeable and find out just how unbridgeable this gap really is.
Debate – Break into Two – Debate – Break into Two / Kalashnikov Effect!
The first question that arises from the film’s Catalyst is: will Ki-Woo be able to get the job? But this is only one of the dramatic questions that will lead us into Act II. The overarching dramatic question for the protagonist, as in the whole Family is: will the Family be able to get out of poverty?
Parasite has a unique and progressive First Act Break (which is often a single scene) and it responds to multiple dramatic questions that rise only after the previous one is resolved. Here’s how it flows:
Debate I: Will Ki-Woo get the job?
Act I Break I: Ki-Woo gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Jung a job as an art teacher for Da-Song.
Debate II: Will Ki-Jung get the job?
Act I Break II: Ki-Jung gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Tek a job as the Parks’ new driver.
Debate III: Will the Parks get fooled into firing their driver and give Ki-Tek the job?
Act I Break III: The Parks fire their driver and Ki-Tek gets the job. Then the three of them figure out a way for Chung-Sook to replace the housekeeper.
Debate IV: Will they be able to get Mun-Kwang (the housekeeper) kicked out, and then have Chung-Sook replace her?
Act I Break IV: Mun-Kwang is successfully eliminated; Chung-Sook gets the job. The Family has infiltrated the Parks’ house.
Each Debate question presents a tougher challenge for the Family, and in turn each Act Break is harder to achieve. The end result—leading up to the final Act Break—is increasingly more surprising and satisfying.
Fun & Games
The Family have settled into their roles within the Parks household. It’s been tough but they’ve made it and now they get to enjoy it. They playfully go about fulfilling their tasks at the periphery of the rich.
There’s a small but significant glitch, however. Little Da-Song can smell something. Not knowing that all four live in the same house, Da-Song exclaims: they all smell the same. The dank basement smell they all share is a tragicomic challenge to their plan that suggests they may have the smarts to pull this off, but their smell gives away where they come from, who they are. Suddenly, we get a whiff of the internal conflict of the film: they can change their circumstances, but can they fake where they really come from? Can the poor ever belong with the rich?
When the Parks family go on a camping trip for the night, they get to enjoy the house as a family. If only they can sustain the pretense, life can be safe, enjoyable and ‘rich’ just like this.
If ever there was a love story filled with passion, admiration, jealousy and longing, it is the love story between the Family and the Parks, i.e. the poor and the wealthy. The Family needs the Parks to fill the great voids in their lives: money, comfort, warmth, ease, relaxation and joy.
The Family’s flirtation with wealth is palpable in the sequence where Ki-Woo reads his student (and now girlfriend) Da-Hae’s journal in her comfy bed; Ki-Jung takes a bubble bath flicking channels on TV; Chung-Sook enjoys a peaceful nap on the sofa; Ki-Tek steams in the sauna and gets a taste of the numerous whiskeys and gourmet snacks in the cabinet. And they all enjoy the ultimate luxury: drinking bottled Evian water.
This is where their plan got them, but how long will this romance last?
They all individually enjoyed the house and the riches that it offers. Now, they sit in the living room together as a family watching the rain falling outside, sipping whiskey. They give thanks to the Parks for bringing all of this into their lives, even drink to Ki-Woo marrying Da-Hae in the future and the two families uniting as one.
But then, Mun-Kwang, the previous housekeeper, shows up at their door—an ominous presence reminding them of who they used to be and still are. Midpoint is usually a positive note that is the reverse of the All is Lost. But sometimes, if the contrast between the bad (Midpoint) and the worse (All is Lost) is big enough, Midpoint can be a foreshadowing of the All is Lost. In this case Mun-Kwang’s breach of their fun times is only the beginning of the end for them.
Bad Guys Close in
Mun-Kwang looks grotesque—a reminder of what it’s like to be Outside of the bubble of the Parks’ house. From here on out, progressively unimaginable misfortunes will pile on the Family.
The Family discover that Mun-Kwang has been keeping her husband Kun-Sae in a bunker in the basement for the last four years to protect him from the mob to whom he owes money for his failed business.
Now, the symbolism of the internal journey of the characters is worth a mention here: Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae are the original parasites of the house feeding on the rich, but they’re also physically beneath the Parks’ living space, suggesting the rich is upheld by the poor, and that there must be a symbiotic relationship between the two classes; the rich are able to rise thanks to the work of the poor in a system of unforgiving hierarchy, and the poor are able survive by bottom feeding on the rich. This is the system the Family is now a part of.
Mun-Kwang pleads with her successor Chung-Sook: we’re all in the same boat, help me! But Chung-Sook isn’t about to give up on her newfound wealth and threatens to call the cops. But then, the rest of the Family spills out of the staircase and Mun-Kwang realizes that the tutor, the art teacher, the driver and the housekeeper are all related and have their own scheme in operation. Embittered by Chung-Sook’s refusal to help her, Mun-Kwang threatens to send Yon-Kyo a video to reveal the Family’s scheme even if it means that her own scheme will fail along with it. A battle ensues.
The shocking news of Mun-Kwang and the palpable conflict between the two set of parasites is bad enough, but then the Parks cancel their camping trip due to torrential rain and decide to retreat to their cozy home. Ki-Tek must put Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae back in the basement; Chung-Sook is tasked with cooking Da-Song’s favorite dish; Ki-Woo must put Da-Hae’s journal back under her bed and help Ki-Jung in the impossible task of clearing up their decadent mess in the living room in under eight minutes.
It’s a cat-and-mouse effort to put everything back together and hide from the Parks as they innocently settle back in. Eventually the Family almost manage to sneak out, but Da-Song decides to camp in the garden under the rain and the parents happily settle down on the sofa to keep an eye on their beloved son. Ki-Tek, Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung get stuck under the coffee table inches from the Parks, close enough that the Parks can smell them.
Up until now we’ve been watching obstacle after obstacle to the Family’s external journey of clinging to their big break. When Dong-ik begins talking about Ki-Tek’s disgusting smell, bad guys begin to close in on the Family’s internal journey: they can get a taste for what it’s like to be rich, but can they EVER fit in?
Shame and fatigue descend on all of them when they not only have to endure the insults, but also witness the rich couple engage in a sex fantasy at their expense. As ridiculously obvious and cringing as this scene is, its effect is a deathblow on particularly Ki-Tek. He is transformed from his happy-go-lucky self we met in Act I into a devastated carcass of himself.
When they finally make it out of the house undetected there’s no joy in their walk back home; they’re forever mimed by the Parks’ piercing words.
But it’s not over yet! As they transition from the rich neighborhood of the Parks to theirs, they find that their whole neighborhood is flooded, sewage backflowing into their houses. They walk chest-deep into the brown waters of their house to save a few of their belongings. Ki-Woo uselessly rescues the viewing stone that was meant to bring money and luck.
Ki-Jung smokes sitting on top of the toilet seat that’s pushing up against her with sewage water—an expressive picture of a moment of peace for the poor.
All is Lost
Meanwhile in the bunker, Mun-Kwang takes her last breath. This death/loss may seem insignificant since Mun-Kwang was not a member of the Family. But since the story revolves around the Family’s losses in the pursuit of the rich life, their first murder becomes a sign of the humanity they’ve sacrificed along the way. This is exacerbated by the fact that Mun-Kwang was the only one of them who epitomized honesty, integrity and solidarity among her own kind, and so her death is a significant loss for them all.
Dark Night of the Soul
As Kun-Sae beats his head against the switches on the wall sending messages to the ether about his grief over his wife, Ki-Tek is in a dark place after getting insulted under rich people’s coffee table and then seeing their home sink into an underwater sewage. While Ki-Woo clings to the viewing stone as if to dear life, Ki-Tek has abandoned all hope: None of these people planned to evacuate their homes and end up on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers, he says. “If you don’t plan, you can’t fail.” He no longer wishes his son to be “a man with a plan”, because after the journey they’ve been through, he knows, “nothing matters.”
Break into Three
Yon-Kyo finds the heavy rain that ruined their camping trip to be a “blessing in disguise” and plans a birthday party for Da-Song in their garden. Ki-Tek must accompany her as she shops for wine and gourmet food; Chung-Sook must set up the garden with tables around Da-Song’s tent to surprise him when he wakes up; Da-Song’s favorite teacher Ki-Jung is to bring in the cake and Ki-Woo is invited as Da-Hae’s special guest.
The Family is no longer stuck in the poverty-stricken world of Act I, but nor are they enjoying or suffering through the world of Act II. In this new day, Ki-Tek is unable to experience gratitude or awe; every sign of wealth and joy makes his skin crawl. Even Ki-Woo, instead of enjoying Da-Hae and his newfound fortune, says “Do I look like I belong in this house?”
We are now in Act III that brings together Act I and Act II, and shows us what happens when the two merge.
The entire birthday party is the bulk of Act III. Kun-Sae flees the bunker seeking revenge for his wife. All hell breaks loose and a violent fight between the Family and Kun-Sae ensues, sending Da-Song into a frightful seizure.
Here, the separation between the rich and the poor is more striking than ever. The Parks ignore the dying Ki-Jung, and Kun-Sae’s vicious attack on Chung-Sook does not concern them. They expect Ki-Tek to drive them to the hospital for Da-Song. As Ki-Tek is busy trying to save Ki-Jung’s life, Dong-ik bends over them to grab the car keys. Dong-ik’s reaction to their smell is what becomes the final straw for Ki-Tek.
Ki-Tek kills Dong-ik with an axe; Ki-Jung is dead; Ki-Woo is heavily injured; Chung-Sook kills Kun-Sae and barely hangs on to life. The birthday party turns into a bloody pandemonium.
A while later, the brain-damaged Ki-Woo looks for Ki-Tek who disappeared after the birthday party. He spies the Parks’ house from a hill that overlooks the rich neighborhood and figures out that Ki-Tek is hiding out in the bunker. He deciphers Ki-Tek’s coded letter to him delivered via the blinking lights of the house.
In his letter, Ki-Tek tells his son that he’s surviving by feeding off of another rich family that moved into the house after the Parks. Moved by his father’s letter, Ki-Woo does what Ki-Tek advised him not to do: he makes a plan to go to college, get rich, buy the house and rescue his father.
As Ki-Woo is perched in the cold night on a hill overlooking the rich neighborhood and pondering how he’s going to get in touch with Ki-Tek to encourage him to hang in there until he makes his big break, he’s experiencing the kind of disconnection the Family was experiencing in the opening scene of the movie when they were looking for a wi-fi signal to connect with the rest of the world.
Now, far more brutally and tragically, Ki-Woo is face to face with the enormity of his disconnection with the world of the rich and the Family’s distance from happiness and peace.
–Image Credit: UK poster by Andrew Bannister for Curzon Releasing.
Don’t Look Now – with Nicolas Roeg, nothing is as it seems
February 18, 2020 2:07 am
“Nothing is as it seems” was the thematic starting point when Nicolas Roeg envisioned the iconic horror-drama Don’t Look Now (1973). The phrase not only matches the recurring events in the film where John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) desperately tries to make sense of what he sees, but also informs the artistic rendition of the idea, “doubt what you see,” imbuing the audience with a sense of mistrust. The imagery and editing style of the film are aligned with this thematic statement, reaffirming the film’s status as not just an awesome horror flick but also an art film where every element is carefully and purposefully designed, performed, and built to elicit a specific response from the audience.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the many brilliant cinematic ideas packed into this groundbreaking film. I am yet to see an opening sequence as harrowing and evocative as the one in Don’t Look Now. The scene depicts the death of a child, but does so much more than that. First, the scene is set with two children playing alone by the water, the boy riding a bike through the woods, and the girl, Christine (Sharon Williams), wearing a red raincoat on a sunny day, playing with a toy soldier. Then, their parents are seen cozy by the fire; Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) reading books, John Baxter looking through slides until something catches his eye—a red hooded figure sitting in a church.
For the rest of the sequence Roeg evokes our senses by match-cutting shots and orchestrating a dialogue between the two pairs. He speaks to the non-linear logic of our emotional intelligence rather than to our linear, rational mind. The juxtaposition of Christine stepping into a puddle and the bike riding over broken glass helps us intuit impending danger. When John knocks over a glass and water begins morphing into the slide he is looking at, we get a visual cue that the figure in the church is signaling something ominous to him. The parents’ movements and gestures dynamically and tonally match the children’s movements so well that we sense an ethereal communication between them, and a sense of loss and grief seeping in before the inevitable occurs.
In the opening scene, Roeg also foreshadows the next chapter of the film where John restores a church in Venice and is haunted by a figure in a red raincoat much like the one sitting in the church on his slide, and his deceased daughter. In this chapter, John’s clairvoyance is the subject of focus and his encounters with the mysterious figure are the source of continuing suspense. Meanwhile, Laura, lacking her husband’s intuitiveness, finds solace in a blind old woman (Hilary Mason), who claims to make a psychic connection with Christine. Roeg masterfully turns the ordinarily non-intimidating duo of a psychic old lady and her chubby sister into an unlikely source of dread. Are these sweet old ladies sharing Laura’s pain and trying to help her, or are they preying on her grief-stricken fragility, sucking her into hell?
Roeg often challenges our preconceptions about people and images. A bishop can seem utterly menacing; beautiful Venice becomes a city of shadows and death; a grieving couple lacks in sentimentality and morose. By creating contrasts, Roeg succeeds in unsettling our expectations and driving us to growing disquiet.
Most notably, Don’t Look Now’s historic love scene defies our expectations relating to not only how we view a grieving couple but also how we view horror films. An unexpectedly long and elaborate sex scene, marking the couple’s first love-making since their child’s death, is intercut with the couple getting dressed to go out to dinner. The non-poeticized, non-glorified intimacy is graphically matched to the ordinary comfort and practicality of marriage. This 5-minute break from the suspense and uneasiness of the narrative is unusual and bold to put it lightly, but once again it plays with our assumptions about grief, love, loss, sex, and even genre.
Roeg tells a story unencumbered by rules, depicting life’s complexity, vulnerability, and discord. His editing style paints an overall portrayal of marriage and love rather than chronicling a straight-up thriller following a sequential set of events. Don’t Look Now resembles life not as it’s expected to be seen in movies but in its unclassifiable form.
Another surprising decision made in the narrative is to reveal the identity of the red-hooded figure in the finale. Up until the end, we’re under the impression that the figure may be a figment of John’s imagination, or that he’s trapped in a supernatural maze. But then, there’s a twist that ushers us into a room we don’t want to go in, and showing us the face of this mystery figure. The story turns an unexpected corner yet again. It’s easy to be on the fence about this change in direction because it might have served the film better to keep the unknown unknowable. Instead, it’s as though Roeg chooses to pay the horror genre his dues in that final, horrific beat.
As a well of inspiration for today’s filmmakers, Don’t Look Now is a powerful reminder of why we need independent cinema. For who else but an independent filmmaker would or could make a truly radical film? And without that bold attitude toward the complex machinery of cinema, how can we hope to advance the filmmaking tradition, break new ground? Providing the space, time and opportunities for unique cinematic minds like Roeg is an integral way to broaden our minds about where else cinema can take us. At his passing we must appreciate Roeg’s contribution to rethinking and reinventing the medium of film, and remember to support independent cinema so that new voices can follow in his footsteps.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on February 6, 2019.
Catching a break on a Paper Moon
March 29, 2018 4:39 am
Hopes and dreams are a significant part of who we are as human beings. Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression era comedy/road movie Paper Moon artfully reflects that human need for dreaming. Ryan O’Neil’s Moses Pray and Tatum O’Neil’s Addie make a pair that brightens the sullen backdrop with their determined expectation of good things to come. Addie’s cunning ideas and sharp attitude are just what Moses needs to survive the hopelessness that surrounds them. Despite the comedic buddy-movie sensibility of the film, Paper Moon focuses our attention time and again on the melancholy symbolism of a paper moon the duo delicately balances on as they go through their adventures.
When Paper Moon opens, life feels bleak. The landscape is dismal. Addie’s mother has just died. Moses’s desperate attempts at conning widowers for small profits halt as he attends the funeral. The eagerness with which Addie’s relatives unburden themselves of the newly orphaned girl represents the dominant mood. This is a world where even a nine-year-old girl needs to fend for herself.
It is significant that a funeral opens the film, sending the message that nothing lasts. As Addie smokes away her troubles in motel rooms, we are merely in an intermission before the next thing runs out on the couple. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s a car, and sometimes it’s a companion that is lost. The temporariness of everything else is ironically what gives birth to a bond between the two misfits—the only one that promises permanence. On the surface, what holds them together is Moses’s two hundred dollar debt to Addie, but in truth it is their reliance on each other to keep their hopes and dreams afloat.
Trixie Delight’s (Madeline Kahn) appearance in the film threatens the fine balance between Moses and Addie. A perfect match for them, Trixie means competition to Addie. She’s a prostitute also looking for her lucky break, which she hopes to be Moses. Just as Addie plots to get rid of her, Trixie opens up to Addie about her true intentions. Her submission to failure is heartbreaking as she begs Addie to give her a break: “…if you wait it out a little, it’ll be over, you know. I mean, even if I want a fella, somehow I manage to get it screwed up. Maybe I’ll get a new pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs. Times are hard.” Addie recognizes Trixie’s implausible, paper-thin dreams and lets her enjoy her brief moment.
The deputy that catches the duo for bootlegging, their most profitable venture yet, begins his interrogation with “Just when ya think ya got it made… Just ain’t made, is it?” Despite Moses and Addie’s comic disputes and amusing getaways, Paper Moon is imbued with cynicism. It keeps circling back to the same message: However hard you try, you’ll never get it made.
László Kovács’s cinematography echoes the tentativeness of achievement of money and success in Paper Moon. The depth-of-field of Kovács’s black and white photography makes every corner of the frame look in focus. The flat and crisp images invite the audience to pay attention to everything. As a result, the main characters on the screen are just as important (or unimportant) as the supporting characters, the set design, and even the surrounding landscape. By projecting a glasslike, fragile world, the extreme depth-of-field not only reduces the characters’ significance, but also gives the visuals a paper-like quality that accentuates the vulnerability of the characters’ goals and emotions.
The actual image of the paper moon appears at a carnival scene where Addie badly wants a picture of herself and Moses seated on top of the moon. Moses is too busy to grant her wish. Addie walks away from the booth deeply disappointed, saying, “He’s not my father.” Addie’s photograph sitting on top of the paper moon alone becomes her emotionally charged parting gift to Moses in the finale. Having been dropped off at her aunt’s house, the gift represents her relinquishing her biggest dream, that of belonging to him as her father. It is the image of lonely Addie sitting on a paper moon that softens Moses’s resolve to leave her behind. That and the fact that his car won’t start, which makes a meaningful comic reference to the pattern of things falling apart around them, conversely working to their advantage at last.
Roads are natural staple images of road movies. In the final image of Paper Moon, the road that leads to nowhere on the infinite Kansas landscape is photographed statically from behind Moses and Addie’s car. It is one of the few occasions in the movie where the characters face away from us. The image of the winding road leading to the unknown is a fitting one that marks the unknowability of Addie and Moses’s future. But fortunately for them, they are armed with their dreams, even though we know those dreams are barely clinging to paper moons.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 29, 2018
What Have You Done to Solange?: Tracing the imagery of violence and eroticism in our collective psyche
October 9, 2017 6:25 pm
Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is a prime example of the 1970s giallo films where murder mystery often driven by sexual themes meets psychological horror. No wonder the popularity of gialli eventually gave birth to the American slasher movie: the core of this peculiar subgenre consists of gory violence powered by voyeuristic fascination and a basic whodunit plot shadowed by the gruesomeness of the central crime. ‘Solange’ showcases the elements of giallo in many ways and succeeds at expressing, and even exploiting, the societal obsession with sexual violence directed toward women.
‘Solange’s opening is a telltale sign that a sexually obscure series of crimes is about to unfold. An Italian teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and his high school student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) frolic on a boat when Elizabeth witnesses a crime where a man attacks a woman in the woods, penetrating the victim’s vagina with a knife. Unable to concentrate on fulfilling her companion’s erotic expectations, Elizabeth is met with accusations of making up excuses to avoid sexual intimacy. While assuring us of Enrico’s innocence of the crime for plot’s sake, this opening draws a suggestive parallel between young women’s romantic escapades and bloody violence rooted in sexual revenge. This proves to be an interesting combination, as the film goes on to explore young women being punished for sexual exploration, which eventually results in Solange’s (Camille Keaton) mental illness.
The association of female sexuality with brutal violence is a theme typical of gialli. In ‘Solange’ some of the murder sequences are shot from the point of view of the killer, putting us in the position of the mysterious man in the black gloves. Gialli are understandably accused of being ‘exploitation cinema’ as they provide voyeuristic access to women’s private lives and evoke identification with the experience of killing, which typically takes the form of punishment. While it’s easy to interpret the connection between women and violence in a film like ‘Solange’ as exploitation, it is also possible to see gialli as a reflection of the male psyche and an artistic expression of feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sex, an experience shared by men and women alike.
In ‘Solange’ young women are portrayed with a combination of sweet purity and bubbling, almost aggressive sexual curiosity. As Elizabeth and her friends transition into womanhood, they carry the essence of childhood along with an eagerness to transform into sexual beings. A pivotal scene in the film shows Solange being forced by her girlfriends to abort a pregnancy. They had shared a sexual adventure and now Solange has to pay for it with a painful, invasive procedure.
Somehow the abortion leads to Solange’s regression into an infantile mental state. Aside from the lack of logic in this—logic is not the strongest attribute of the genre—it is interesting that the punishment for an arguably premature experience of sexuality should be a return to infancy. It’s as if the film conveys a subconscious message here: if you do a deed out of step with your age, you might just entrap yourself in it. As Solange remains trapped in trauma-induced childhood innocence, her girlfriends go on to pay for their transgression by knives to their genitalia.
There is a sense in which the film speaks for the society’s intolerance for women’s sexual freedom. Despite the lascivious use of violent imagery to shock and entertain, ‘Solange’ displays undertones of our subconscious fear and guilt surrounding sex. The most striking example is the murder of Elizabeth. Because she remains a virgin, she escapes the usual knife-to-the-vagina penalty. Instead, she gets strangled naked in the bathtub, i.e. in her cleanest, purest form, as a red towel wraps around her legs giving the impression of blood gushing out from between her legs. Elizabeth is silenced for her testimony to the murder, but she is symbolically punished for her desire for Enrico, despite the fact that it never came to fruition. In ‘Solange’, women are not only subject to punishment for their actions but also for their desires. Coupled with the oppressive discipline of the school, tantalizing images of girls showering together peeked at through a hole in the glass, the film reflects on a so called ideal treatment of women and then shatters it mercilessly in an attempt to mirror our prejudices against women.
In the tradition of most gialli What Have You Done to Solange? suffers from incoherence in plot structure (Solange and her story only becomes central to the ongoing conflict in the last third of the film), lack of motivation for the protagonist to pursue the killer, awkward dialogue and unrealistic performances. But what it lacks in these domains it makes up for with its bold camerawork, slick production design, suggestive editing and artistic style.
No doubt the film succeeds in the realm of pulp horror pictures, but it is interesting to look more deeply into the genre’s popularity and interpret the sensational imagery of violence and eroticism, searching for its counterpart in our collective psyche.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 26, 2017
Aliens and Women in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact
April 20, 2017 6:33 pm
Robert Zemeckis’s Contact is a rare science fiction movie about humanity’s first attempt at making contact with the Extraterrestrials. The film’s representation of aliens is in many ways unique, but it’s Zemeckis’s approach to yet another underrepresented and often misunderstood species that makes the film exceptional, namely the terrestrial woman.
Twenty years after its release, Contact remains an outstanding depiction of not only a woman scientist, but one who is bright, strong, passionate, ambitious, stubborn, daring, unapologetic and -lo and behold- single and not looking. Ellie, portrayed by one of the ‘90s’ fierce female leads, Jodie Foster, succeeds in her fight against an army of men whose main objectives are to shape her into the scientist they are comfortable seeing – not one that wastes her potential on a laughable pursuit as discovering aliens. Since her work is ultimately funded by her male colleagues, she depends on her relationships with men to persist in her scientific goals. And somehow, remarkably, she hangs in there long enough to get the men’s attention.
Ellie’s fascination with Extraterrestrials has its roots in her deep-seated feelings of loneliness. As an 8-year-old she asks her dad if they could talk to her deceased mother via radio signals. Her desire for traveling into the heart of an abyss in search of the unattainable is somewhat romantic, if not melancholic. Herein lies Ellie’s inner conflict: she’s a scientist who only believes in the provable, tangible reality, primarily concerned with gathering empirical data to prove we are not alone in the universe. However, her desire comes from a place, not reason, but of love and a longing for existential truth. Ellie, as a female hero, is a complex amalgam of an unshakeable realist and the hopeful romantic, which makes her even harder to stomach for her male counterparts.
Ellie’s inner conflict is put to the test by her relationship with God and religion. Despite her academic qualifications and personal discovery of the alien signal, she is severely interrogated based on the male perspective that a representative of humanity must believe in a conventional understanding of God and faith. And what that conventional understanding teaches is that male superiority and domination is a natural truth in the patriarchal social organization. Ellie’s very being, regardless of her religious beliefs, complicates and challenges that assumed dominance.
Never mind all that she has accomplished, in the eyes of her male counterparts, she has already failed the test. This unexpected blow to her goal of travelling to a distant star comes from a place of rigidity, intolerance, and stern didacticism – presented as primarily male attributes in the movie. Even though her underlying goal is ‘connection’ – a most Godly notion demanding spiritual communion over an inert acceptance of God, she is reprimanded for her lack of blind faith. While her nemesis is celebrated for his faith in something he’s not even seeking to connect with, Ellie is rejected because she chooses to reach for and commune with God keep searching.
When Ellie finally gets a chance at making the journey to the star system Vega, her meeting with the Extraterrestrials is one that ironically requires reliance on personal, visceral experiences, rather than tangible evidence. In Contact, the alien species proves to be a shape-shifting yet comforting presence. They download Ellie’s memories and appear to Ellie in the form of her father and in a setting that is familiar and special to her. Contrary to the way aliens are typically represented in the movies, either as grotesque, threatening monsters or big-eyed, charming, wise messengers, Contact offers a truthful, honest and compassionate being that remains unknowable. Zemeckis seems to believe that since all we have about aliens are theories and speculations, humanity is not yet ready for them, and he presents us with a plausible picture as the beginning of what is likely to be a long conversation.
Though Ellie comes away transformed from the experience, back on Earth, things have not advanced very much. Strangely, the very men who had no trouble believing in a grandiose idea of God without any direct or indirect experience, have trouble believing a woman’s word that she has made contact. They want proof; they blame her for hallucinating, dreaming, and even fantasizing as a result of her personal losses. She is no longer a cold scientist, but a delusional woman. The antagonistic forces modify their attack tactics, but one thing remains unchanged: Ellie is not to be heard.
In Contact, women and aliens are rejected, feared and unwelcome. Ellie has more in common with aliens of Vega than with the men of the Earth. The film makes a final point that proves Ellie’s experiences in Vega were true, after all. Ellie never gets to find out about this proof. She doesn’t need it. She will continue her exploration of the unknowns of the universe, not with faith imposed on her by others, but with a ‘sense of adventure’ all her own.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 8, 2017
An Exploration of Cinematic Expressions in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England
February 1, 2017 3:04 am
A field suggests possibilities; its openness welcomes any old soul to seek his treasure; its terrain allows all sorts of physical or spiritual pursuits. The title, A Field in England, immediately brings to mind a vivid image, and gives away a carefree attitude about which field is the one in question, and what happens on it. The obscurity and infinite possibilities of the film’s narrative and style are hinted at first in the title.
Director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s field is a simple field adjacent to a battlefield. Theirs is one of possibilities for personal battles, discoveries, treasures, friendship and mind-altering mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, A Field in England cannot be contained in a single genre category, confined by one aesthetic style or another, or limited by the use of a distinct narrative device or two. It mishmashes a number of devices and forms, as well as lenses, sound effects, visual effects and music.
It is recognized as a historical psychological thriller, and while it has elements of all of these genres (and more), it also defies their conventions and expectations. Though clearly set in another century, we are not informed of its 17th century setting, as this information is not altogether relevant. The costumes and dialogues are perfectly naturalistic to the period, hence giving the film an air of realism, and yet it makes no effort to reveal its historic background and the culture in which the story takes place.
The film is more interested in the simple crevices of its four main characters’ psyches, but only as they succumb to the influence of the mushrooms they eat. Mostly, their goals and conflicts with each other are in plain sight, rather than obscured by some psychological dramatization.
As for the thriller/horror aspect, even though there is some gore involved in this classic tale of battle against evil, and unsettling events involving a skull, a smoky black sphere, and blood-curdling sounds of a witchcraft session do occur, these details are as humorous as they are disturbing.
A Field in England is more accurately an unexpected cross between (1) a British take on a classic Western in which hats, pistols, camaraderie and male bravado are the order of the day, with a characteristically British field taking the place of mountains and deserts, (2) a road movie, which has a singular goal, though it does shift from reaching an alehouse, to recovering some documents of alchemy, to finding a treasure, to outwitting the villain to save oneself, and (3) an allegorical comedy on the effects of mushroom circles, ruminations on occult mysticism and forming unlikely friendships along the way.
The shifts in genre are accompanied beautifully by the episodic changes in camerawork, editing, sound and music. The first quarter of the film is devoted to the chaotic impact of war on the bodily senses. The camera captures macro images of eyes, juxtaposed with frantic images of grass and weeds. Soon these settle into a rhythm of longer, calmer shots showing the characters getting to know one another. Tabloid images of the men uniquely invoke paintings in which characters theatrically enact a period we can no longer experience or even imagine. As we are plunged into the fake reality of this time, music remains more instrumental and sound design more realistic.
Once the mushrooms are introduced, there is a literal reenactment of the idea that it may take four men and a rope to pull one out of a mushroom circle. The fast-paced, cartoonish editing of this scene naturally gives birth to the warped images of the characters as they go deeper and deeper into their nightmarish, violently psychedelic state. Strobe effect, split screens where images fold and shift around, fast cuts between two simultaneous events that speedily convey information to the audience are a few of the radical methods Wheatley mixes together.
The relentless wind, the unnaturally quiet, echoing voices, increasingly electronic tones in the music, and the narrative genius of a reappearing dead man take the ever-escalating insanity of the story to new heights. By the time the wind dies down, the grass relaxes, the dirt settles, and our hero stands triumphant, Wheatley brings us full circle to the adjacent battlefield. Only now, the hero has achieved his goal; he is no longer the fearful, desperate, lonely man he was at fade in. Despite all the weirdness of its aesthetics, Wheatley manages to sustain a conventional tale of friendship, attainment of goals and personal change.
A Field in England is a refreshing modern specimen of the avant-garde movement, and a celebration of guerilla style filmmaking. Its professional amateurishness and elegant mixing of aesthetic expressions create an abstract beauty for modern cinema-goers to treasure for years to come.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 16, 2017
Rear Window: Funny Thing About Suspense
September 25, 2016 3:13 pm
If we had to pick a single film from Alfred Hitchcock’s individually unique and brilliant filmography to stand as his cinematic signature, it would undoubtedly be Rear Window. It is the most literal expression of his fondness for our ‘peeping tom’ nature and a great example of his expert coalescence of suspense and humor. Disguising what is primarily a love story, the murder mystery in Rear Window is a classic Hitchcockian tale seen completely from the point of view of the protagonist.
Hitchcock establishes his voyeuristic vision for the story as early as the film’s opening credits. As the blinds roll up on Jeff’s (James Stewart) windows, we are positioned looking out into a courtyard where a cat walks up a staircase and leads us to scan the neighborhood on a hot, lazy morning. Jeff’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) further emphasizes the suspiciousness of our guilty gaze by scolding Jeff: “you see something you shouldn’t see and you’re in trouble.” She will keep badgering on about how she can smell trouble as she helps out the wheelchair-bound Jeff, who can barely satiate his photographer’s curiosity by watching his neighbors.
Hitchcock’s comically obvious approach to creating an expectation of ‘trouble’ coincides with the real trouble Jeff is working with. A dark shadow looms over him as he opens his eyes to find Lisa (Grace Kelly) – the true source of his conflict. As with all Hitchcock films it is the human psychology, emotion and sexuality that are in the forefront of the suspenseful murder story. ‘Will Jeff fall in love with Lisa and surrender to married life’ is the central dramatic question, for which the murder mystery is merely an agent of change.
The neighbors not only contribute to the murder story, but also create a panorama of romantic relationships: a contented married couple, an unhappy married couple, a pair of newlyweds, a young woman having some fun in the absence of her lover, a lonely, melancholic man, a lonely, melancholic woman, and of course Jeff, the happy bachelor with a loving and gorgeous girlfriend anyone would be a fool to refuse. As Jeff and Lisa embark on a journey to solve the murder mystery, Jeff will see a new and adventurous side to Lisa and helplessly witness his love and affection for her.
Part of what creates the suspense – and the humor – in the story is the fact that Jeff cannot move. His nurse, girlfriend and detective friend come and go entertaining his whimsy and curiosity. These dialogues are funny and suggestive, giving the impression of a farce.
There are many moments when we wonder if we’re watching a comedy about a desperate man who almost wants a murder to compensate for his boredom, or a thriller revealing a terrifying question about our daily lives, namely, if we were to watch our neighbors for a week who knows what we might find?
Hitchcock’s approach to creating suspense in the murder mystery / love story is very much connected to his use of music and editing. When we begin scanning the neighborhood we hear the scales of what will later be a love song. When the Thorwalds are introduced to the story, instead of the diegetic music, we hear sirens going off in the distance. By the time Lisa climbs in through the murderer’s window in the finale – a gesture that proves to Jeff her adventurous spirit, the romantic, even sexy song waltzes through the courtyard. The song, in contrast to the suspenseful music we might expect to accompany this action sequence, underscores Jeff’s emotional transformation as opposed to his external goal of solving the mystery.
There are striking visual choices to delay or quicken what we see, creating an interesting approach to suspense. In the finale, Hitchcock’s weapon of choice for Jeff is the flashing light bulbs of his camera, which delays Thorwald’s approach. The pace of the editing then quickens when Thorwald finally attacks Jeff. These aesthetic choices not only mark Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’ method of primarily relying on images, editing and sound to create suspense and drama, but also, by invading the peeping tom’s lair, reflect the idea of the sinister face of life seeping into and shattering the formerly innocent and banal act of voyeurism.
In the end, aligned with the symmetrical resolution of all the characters’ stories –like, the newlyweds turning into a bickering old couple, the older couple getting a new dog, the girl reuniting with her lover and the lonely man and woman coupling up– Jeff appears with both legs in a cast, a victorious Lisa by his side in a surprisingly modest outfit. The suspense story once again returns to its farcical origins by coming full circle to the idea of marriage. In Hitchcock’s world there seems to be nothing better than an old-fashioned murder mystery to bring lovers together and seal their fate in a happily ever after. The suspenseful mystery ends on a funny note, as if to say humor is always right alongside murder and tragedy.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 19, 2016
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook
June 14, 2016 5:32 pm
Following my breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, I have set out to write up beat sheets of other fascinating dramatic horror movies with a psychological and emotional message about the human condition. Interestingly, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook also happens to be about processing grief and sorrow – powerful emotions which evidently provide a great foundation for cinematically depicting our deepest fears about death and loss.
Take a look at my interpretation of The Babadook’s story beats as inspiration for your own screenplay-in-progress. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, ideas and suggestions for which scripts you’d like to see analyzed in this blog. Enjoy!
Amelia (Essie Davis) relives the experience of the horrific car accident that killed her husband – the event that is the basis of her trauma and the seed for the emergence of Babadook, the monster.
Early in the movie there are two moments that thematically paint a picture of the story we are about to watch. First is when Amelia’s at work at an old people’s home. She tells her co-worker Robbie (Daniel Henshall) that she has to get to the dementia ward and Robbie says, ‘It’s a few more years before you end up there, isn’t it?’ Disguised as a joke, it feels like a warning for Amelia to take care of her sanity – a foreshadowing, somewhat eerie message that signals that things will not go all that well for her. This line sets a tone and theme where Amelia’s sanity will be discussed.
Second moment is when Amelia’s 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) tells another mother shopping at a grocery store that his dad was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital for his birth. Shocked and uncomfortable, the mother awkwardly tells Sam, “Your mother is very lucky to have you”. The story is now clearly established to be about not only Amelia’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s death while raising the son whose birth brought about the disaster, but also about her capacity to love Sam. Is she really lucky to have him, or quite the contrary, would she have been luckier and happier if it wasn’t for him?
In a double-stated theme, we are about to explore the possibilities of a mother’s ability to hold onto her sanity while processing her grief and to learn to accept her son as a blessing rather than a curse.
Amelia is portrayed as a meek, compassionate mother, if somewhat on edge. Sam is a sleepless and highly imaginative child, clearly soaking up every gesture and mood of his one point of contact for love, affection and communication – his mother. They are both scarred by the same event: Amelia, by her husband’s untimely and brutal death; Sam, by his mother’s distant, vacuous and ever-shifting tone and presence with him as a result of their shared loss.
The mother and son’s home, a typical night and day of their life, Amelia’s work place, Sam’s school, their kind neighbor, and the relationship dynamics between Amelia and Sam are quickly and economically introduced in the first 20 minutes or so. In terms of plot, two major things happen within this section. One, Sam is in trouble for bringing dangerous instruments to school to ward off monsters, and Amelia’s natural and motherly response is to take him off school to find better care for him. Second, Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), is the only relative and friend to Amelia and she represents a much different world of conventional family life. Her function for the story is to mark Amelia’s true loneliness and otherness. Sam’s extreme behavior at an innocent playdate with Amelia, Claire and Claire’s daughter Ruby further clarifies that our mother and son couple are deeply isolated and tinged by their unfortunate life circumstance.
The mother and son’s difficult day out in the strange world wraps up by a cozy reading time in bed. Sam picks a ‘new’ book that neither of them knows how it got to their home. The mysterious character of Mister Babadook in this unusual pop-up picture book prophesizes that once the reader has become aware of its existence, the torment shall begin. This fires up Sam’s already inflamed monster obsession and deeply disturbs the emotionally fragile Amelia.
So the central dramatic problem for our characters has arisen. Where did the book come from? What does it mean? Is there really such a monster, a demon with a power to plague their house and their minds? What is it and what does it want from them? Sam’s fears of being attacked by monsters become focused on this one clear threat. Amelia, although upset and confused, is mostly troubled by her son’s difficulty in managing his psyche. She doesn’t know how to help him.
Unaware of and unwilling to acknowledge her part in the impending horror, there is the overarching question for Amelia: Is it this brand new monster that’s the threat or is it her son himself?
Break into Two
Earlier in the story it is established that the basement is kept locked and off-limits to Sam. Following the haunting reading of Mister Babadook Sam is playing in the basement, pretending to be telling his dad that he will keep his mum safe from the Babadook. Sam’s entry into the basement violates the dead husband’s dwellings, and by default the sacred bed of Amelia’s grief, fear and sorrow. When she follows Sam into the basement, it feels like she hadn’t dared go in there for a very long time; the memory of her husband floods her.
Now we are in the realm of the Babadook – the embodiment of her unprocessed grief and loss, the home for her trauma as a mother.
B Story is clearly the love story between mother and son. They are both trying to reach out to each other in some way. Amelia is trying her best to keep her own demons at bay and truly love her son (a feat that all mothers who feel like their life is hijacked by their children do face) and Sam is trying to protect his mother from the monsters – meaning, from anything that might draw her away from him (a role that all children who deeply feel their mother’s vulnerability and emotional wreckage do take on).
The mother and son’s evolving and shape-shifting relationship is the core of the story where the theme is discussed: the idea of Amelia being lucky to have Sam is tested, and so is her sanity.
Fun and Games
The basement scene opens the Pandora’s box and now the real nightmare begins ever-tightening its grip on Amelia. She finds broken glass in her soup and her suspicion is solidified: does the evil presence really exist, or is it her son trying to harm her to prove that the Babadook is real. It is hard to say which one would be worse: a supernatural monster, or your own flesh and blood turning against you. And that’s the fascinating conflict that drives the first half of the story. Amelia responds by tearing the book into pieces and throwing it out.
At Claire’s daughter Ruby’s birthday party, Amelia loses her cool against Claire’s friends. Their problems and worries are reminders of all the could-have-beens of her own life. What’s worse, Sam pushes Ruby off a tree house giving both mothers a big scare. Is Sam possessed? What kind of a monster did Amelia raise? On their way home Amelia’s limits are pushed and Sam has a seizure. At the hospital the question keeps escalating: what is wrong with Sam? A desperate Amelia begs for sleeping pills to effectively knock her son out for the sake of them both. Sam finally sleeps.
Following their one night of much-needed sleep, Mister Babadook the book turns up at their doorstep, neatly bandaged back together. Convinced that it couldn’t have been Sam that did this, and realizing the true threat that they may be facing, Amelia calls her sister. Claire has clearly had enough of Amelia and Sam and refuses to extend help or comfort. Amelia goes to the police to report the event, but the police treat her as if she were insane. When Amelia returns home, she knows she is alone with her son and her demon the Babadook.
Bad Guys Close in
The home that Amelia now knows is plagued by a monster is also infested with cockroaches. A roach infestation is the ultimate sign of loss of safety and comfort. Her home is suddenly rendered invaded, dangerous, alien. As she is engaged in the impossible task of burrowing into her rotten walls to severe the root of the roach colony, community services arrive to question her about Sam’s school absence. What could be worse than an already troubled mother in the midst of a battle with roaches facing officials who will judge herself, her son and her home, and potentially make the decision to take her son away from her? On top of that, Sam comes out and says the drugs he is on are making him nauseous. Amelia is distraught and dysfunctional; the house is in bad shape; her kid is on drugs… BUT, there is still room for worse.
As Sam sleeps next to her, the Babadook makes an actual appearance – it is clearly after Amelia with a vengeance. Amelia loses not only sleep over her frequent visitor, but also her shifts at work. She is further confined to her evil home with no sleep or comfort in sight. She begins to turn against her son, suggesting that the Babadook is successfully taking hold of her body and mind. Amelia begins her descent from a mother in terror to a terrorizing threat against her son. Now, the question is not about Sam being possessed, but Amelia embodying the Babadook. Sam stops taking his pills and tries to call their neighbor to no avail. Amelia, sporting a horrific groan and a butcher’s knife, becomes the ultimate terror. Our emerging fear for Sam’s safety is much worse than our earlier fear for Amelia’s safety. Sam is far more defenseless and powerless against his towering and blood-curdling mother.
A basement scene where Amelia and her dead husband unite in a loving gesture illustrates that she is under a spell – a spell of her love and loss and, if kept untended, it will destroy herself and her son.
All is Lost
Amelia kills their dog, her first innocent victim. Now, more than ever, it feels like Mister Babadook’s prophecy is in full swing.
Dark Night of the Soul
Amelia’s now fully under the influence. The Babadook has embodied her and their next victim is Sam. But, Sam stabs Amelia’s thigh and ties her up in the basement, incapacitating his monster-mum. Amelia’s shocked and furious reaction to Sam’s betrayal makes us feel the weight of her trauma once again. Could Sam be the cause of all this? Is it his arrival in her life that created all the suffering? Is she finally driven insane because of him? What is the source of her venom? In a powerfully metaphorical ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ moment, Amelia vomits volumes of blood, symbolizing a long-neglected well of pain gushing out of her like a raging river. She is purified.
Break into Three
Instead of denying it or escaping from it, a transformed Amelia confronts the Babadook. She takes Sam’s side for the first time and protects him from the evil of her own sorrow. She is finally able to look at her pain straight in the eye and accept Sam as her son. A and B stories cross as she is empowered by a motherly strength.
Finally the day breaks. Amelia is back at work. Sam is safe with their neighbor and due to begin school again. Life has returned to them both. Amelia speaks out about their collective loss for the first time, when she explains to the community services what happened to Sam’s father and why they have never celebrated his birthday on the actual day until now. Sam’s birthday is no longer a day of mourning but a celebration.
Amelia plants in their backyard and Sam collects earthworms. Amelia takes the bowl of worms to the basement to feed the Babadook who still resides there. The Babadook symbolizes her grief and fear of loss after all; it cannot be escaped but it can be nourished and made benign. Amelia learns to heal her demon with love.
Amelia holds Sam in her lap as if cradling an infant – a gesture she has possibly never experienced before. She tells him, ‘Happy birthday sweetheart,’ finally at peace and content.
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation
April 15, 2016 3:22 pm
Karyn Kusama’s mystery/suspense drama The Invitation opened last week to great reviews. I had the opportunity to see it in its opening night and found its approach to storytelling and specifically its style of acting, rhythm and tone refreshing.
In Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay, the hero’s perfectly implausible suspicions about a dinner party slowly turn out to be worse than anything he could have imagined. The film is neither glossy in its approach to revealing thrills, nor solely concerned with art-house aesthetics. It’s unusually naturalistic in its portrayal of an awkward gathering and the unexpected events that follow.
Considering Kusama’s distinctly non-Hollywood way of handling her material, I thought it might be interesting to take a deeper look at the script’s story structure and explore how it fits with the universal language of storytelling. I used Blake Snyder’s much celebrated Beat Sheet method to dig out the story points of The Invitation. Check out Snyder’s Save the Cat! for more information about his screenwriting methodology.
Please be sure to read on AFTER you watch the film, which is unfortunately on limited release. Enjoy!
Our hero Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party. The invitation is from Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman). It’s established that the event will be a hard one for Will to stomach and he’s already questioning the motives behind throwing such a party.
The invitation for the party itself is the catalyst for the story, and in this case, thanks to its no-nonsense title, it hits the audience before they even see the opening.
Will and Kira accidentally hit a coyote on the way to the house. Will takes pity on the whimpering coyote and clubs the animal to death to put him out of his misery. Will’s decision to choose death over suffering for the coyote will be a running theme throughout the picture: is death more desirable than a life in pain?
It quickly becomes clear that Will not only has to face Eden after two years of losing contact with her, but also he’ll be returning to the same home where they lived as husband and wife along with their son, Ty, who accidentally died in that same house.
When Will and Kira enter the house, the psycho-emotional dynamics of the dinner party begin to unravel. Will sees the first image of his son upon entry to the house – a boy playing with his toys alone in a room. Will and Eden are clearly moved to see each other again, whereas there is clear tension, if not subtle hostility, between Will and David. We get to know their close group of friends who also fell apart after Ty’s tragic death. With every passing minute, Will’s unprocessed grief over his son and his struggle to accept ‘time heals all wounds’ seem to float to the surface with growing urgency.
From the very moment Will enters the house, he, and us too, have an eerie feeling that something is not right about the house and its occupants. He soon notices that the windows are all blocked and the house seems cold and sterile in spite of its warm colors and lighting. Despite appearances of excited and welcoming hugs, there’s something phony and forced about the whole gathering. And of course, it is the hosts who are the oddest with their overly friendly and exuberant tones. There are awkward silences and emotional holes between them all. Though they don’t seem wholly uncomfortable, they all seem on edge about something unspoken and heavy.
Eden and David’s mysterious housemate Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and David’s perfectly unlikeable friend Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) do nothing to ease Will’s discomfort. Will notices David locking the house and confronts him about it, managing to settle with leaving the key on the door. Upon further observing the hosts’ pushy attempts to soften the tension by offering uber-expensive vintage wine, Will knows something is seriously wrong. But what? Should he accuse Eden and David of something? But of what? What CAN be happening, let alone what IS happening?
Break Into Two
Eden and David screen a video of a group they’ve been involved with in their travels to Mexico. At first, it seems like a cheesy retreat, promising lightness and happiness amidst all the pain and suffering we all live with in our lives. Death, according to the cult leader, is simply a shedding of the burden of being in our bodies and a happy passage into something bigger and better than ourselves. A young cancer patient’s peaceful and well-supported suicide is shown at the end of the intro – death seeps into the picture. Will’s unfounded suspicions begin to find some grounding.
Along with the developments of the second act, Will begins to reconnect with his dead son as he walks around the house alone, revisiting his memories and slowly saying goodbye to him. His private moments with the memories of his son become points of the story where the theme is further discussed: would you choose death over life, simply because the pain of loss is so unbearable?
Fun & Games
Fun & Games begins with a literal game of ‘I Want’, inviting the ‘you only live once, carpe diem’ philosophy of life. The apparent aim to relieve the tension caused by the morbid suicide video fails miserably when Pruitt goes on to tell the guests how he accidentally killed his beloved wife. Eventually Claire (Marieh Delfino) feels unsettled enough to decide to leave the party. David and Eden’s efforts to make her stay alarm Will to defend Claire’s exit. As Will watches intently, Pruitt moves his car to let Claire go, but then disappears out of sight, presumably, to say something to Claire, at which point David interjects and confronts Will about his suspicions.
Will continues to explore unsettling details about the party as he spies on Eden taking pills, rejects Sadie’s offer to sleep with him and finally gets a cell phone signal to receive a voice message from the only guest who couldn’t yet make it to the party. Apparently, Choi (Karl Yune) has already been to the house and had to leave to run a quick errand. So, how come he’s still not around? Suddenly Will’s ludicrous suspicion that ‘nobody can leave this house alive’ seems significantly more warranted.
Will accuses Eden and David of inviting them for a brainwashing session for their weird cult project and having clearly done something to Choi. As Will demands explanations, to his great embarrassment, Choi enters unexpectedly with an excuse – a moment of false defeat that not only throws Will’s balance and confidence, but also puts him in the position of the wounded guy who can’t handle his grief and doubt.
Bad Guys Close in
Will has now lost the little credibility that he did have. Even Kira suggests they should leave to avoid further embarrassment. His attack has failed miserably and Eden and David came out looking like the sane and together people Will intuits they aren’t. Accepting his defeat and almost beginning to doubt his own sanity, Will asks to visit Ty’s old bedroom before he presumably leaves the house with some dignity. Will and Ty share a smile in Ty’s bed – a heart-breaking father and son moment.
Will then explores the room that’s been turned into a study and finds the cult leader’s video in Eden and David’s laptop. His suspicions that something is seriously off are renewed but his confusion is at its height. Through the window, Will watches David light a red lantern in the garden.
When Will returns to the table, his friends are celebrating a birthday with a cake and pink-colored liquor brought in especially for dessert. Just as everyone raises their drinks, Will knocks off everyone’s glasses, claiming that they’re all about to be poisoned. Sadie pounces on Will, accusing him of ruining everything. Will pushes her off, which causes Sadie to knock her head and collapse, echoing Pruitt’s story about killing his wife. Sadie still has pulse, but Will is thought to have gone way too far, when…
All is Lost
Gina (Michelle Krusiec), who apparently was the only one who took a sip of the drink, is discovered to be foaming at the mouth, unconscious. To everyone’s horror, Will turns out to be right: they were all meant to be dead by now.
Dark Night of the Soul
It’s a Dark Night of the Soul for everyone, as they all begin to witness the aftermath of what was meant to be a mass (forced) suicide.
Break into Three
People scatter in horror to no avail; Pruitt quickly shoots a couple of the guests. Will and Kira manage to momentarily hide, as they acknowledge their fate: they’re locked in the house with a death sentence and the only way out is either a miraculous escape plan or to kill off the cult members. They overhear David trying to convince a distraught Eden to keep going with their plan to kill everyone – it is the only way they’ll be freed from their pain.
As they scramble to find a way out, Pruitt confronts Will and Kira, and Kira manages to kill Pruitt. Eden shoots Will on the shoulder and then shoots herself in the stomach to put an end to her own insanity.
Finally the villains are dead and Eden is drifting away. She asks to be taken out to the garden where their son died and takes her last breath. Eden’s death feels like a choice to let go of the burden of life, whereas Will holds onto life, when he is the one still openly hurting from their loss.
Will stands up from Eden’s lifeless body to notice there are a many number of houses with red lanterns in their backyards. Sounds of gunshots and sirens wail in the night, suggesting many others are carrying out plans of the same nature. Suicide cult has clearly resonated with many, all suffering from their own version of grief and pain.
Will and Kira hold hands at the sight of a horror that swarms LA. No matter how unbearable life may continue to be, they are united in the goal of living over succumbing to death.
Revisiting Fritz Lang’s Film Noir Classic: Ministry of Fear
March 9, 2016 3:05 pm
When Ministry of Fear’s hero Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) steps out of the mental asylum in the middle of the night to confront his new life, we already have a sense that things are not going to look all that bright for him. As he promises his doctor that he’ll stay out of trouble and live a quiet life, we’re already dreading what awaits. We owe this feeling to director Fritz Lang’s eerie setting, lighting and pacing. As expected, Lang does not waste any time before he turns his hero’s life upside down.
Lang’s cinema always asks us to question what’s expected and prevalent. Only few answers are provided as more and more questions pile on, taking us –and the hero– farther and farther away from innocence. Stephen’s inevitable nightmarish life outside is set up in the most innocent way possible. Upon winning a cake at a contest in a lively fair, he finds that his little welcoming gift into his life as a free man may just be the thing that will hold him captive. A festive and delicious cake turns out to be delivering a secret message to the Nazis in World War II England and Stephen happens to be the lawful man who is in the way. He is yet to experience mystifying deaths, disappearances, accusations, secret hidings and deliveries gone wrong. The more Stephen searches for answers the deeper he goes into the depths of a labyrinth of crime.
As it is common in Lang’s cinema and in contrast to the spy thrillers of the era, Ministry of Fear presents a world of characters where the heroes and the villains are not clearly defined. Even the Scotland Yard inspector is aesthetically portrayed as a Nazi agent until we get to see his real identity. In Ministry of Fear, everyone is suspect until proven innocent, and even then we are led to ask, ‘Can we really be sure?’
The reasons for Stephen’s asylum stay reveal a dark side to his past, but this new information quickly morphs into functioning as a way to establish him as wronged and victimized rather than guilty. Contradicting his questionable past, Stephen’s soft and giddy demeanor adds yet another unusual dimension to the movie. The common themes of paranoia, uncertainty and fear of the unknown are contrasted with a concerned but determined hero, who’s peculiarly not so much scared as intrigued.
Stephen’s eagerness and joy to begin his new life at the start of the movie sets him up as a hero who’s determined to enjoy life no matter what. And even in the face of clear threats to his life and freedom, he seems to cling to the task at hand and keep following the thread of events with sincerity and good intentions. The one weak point of the story is Stephen’s lack of understandable motivation to pursue the mystery of the cake and keep getting sucked into the dark affairs of the Nazi spy ring, but his indomitable curiosity and enthusiasm keep us on board with him.
As Stephen’s innocence slowly becomes contaminated, a love story flourishes between him and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), the Austrian refugee who runs the organization that delivered the cake to Stephen by mistake. Carla also gets her fair share of scrutiny as Stephen suspects that her organization may be a front for the Nazis. Stephen’s good-natured belief in Carla and Carla’s immediate trust in Stephen paint this idyllic picture in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. Carla will end up committing the toughest social transgression and her action will link the two characters in a complex bond of guilt and innocence.
Ministry of Fear has an air of romance and melodrama despite the mounting plot of action and relentless suspicion. The dominant mood of paranoia is mostly delivered via the atmosphere, set designs and lighting as opposed to acting and dialogues. The expressionistic high-contrast lighting, the way characters are framed in the sets and the choice of objects that appear in complex compositions all work to prepare the audience for a mood that is called for in the narrative. The creepy atmosphere is accompanied by a touch of Hollywood glamour, especially in the style of acting, light-hearted romance scenes and particularly the finale.
Ministry of Fear is an especially important piece of cinema because of its stylish atmosphere, interesting direction of acting and captivating narrative. Made in 1944 among many other Nazi propaganda movies, spy thrillers and numerous examples of Film Noir, it captures Fritz Lang’s unique approach to the genre and distinctive cinematic style.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on March 8, 2016