Monday, February 13, 2012

Dear genre filmmakers - If you want your surprise reveals to be surprising, don't make the opening credits the ultimate spoiler.

SPOILER warning - this post contains third-act spoilers for a handful of recent and not-so recent thrillers, including Safe House, which just opened on Friday.

I'm not going to go into too many details about Safe House, but I will say that it's such a painfully conventional thriller that it could have been written in a Mad Libs book.  If I crack that it would have possibly been a riveting thriller in 1988, that's not entirely an insult.  In 1988, the film would have seemed a little less boiler-plate and its now-standard political cynicism wouldn't have been quite as formulaic.  Moreover, the picture likely would not have been shot with a puke-filter over the camera and wouldn't have been edited within an inch of its life, rendering its shoot-outs and fight scenes incomprehensible.  It's not especially more violent or action-packed than something like Andrew Davis's The Package (another genre entry that also somewhat deals with getting a dangerous prisoner from point A to point B), but the moments of action and violence were cleanly shot and coherently edited.  But its most frustrating element is something that has been a problem for decades.  Like so many thrillers over the last 20-30 years, a large chunk of the tension in Safe House depends on trying to uncover which of the alleged good guys may actually be a bad guy.  And like so many genre entries of late, the would-be mystery is anything but mysterious due to some inexplicably obvious casting.

I usually make this joke when discussing television procedural, but if there's a dead man in an elevator, and the suspects are the lawyer, the doctor, or the architect played by Dylan Baker, there's a pretty good chance that the murderer is indeed 'that character actor who always plays villains'.  If Tom Berenger is the special guest star in this week's C.S.I., then Tom Berenger is probably the killer.  The same concept sadly applies to films as well.  If there is a mystery to be solved, it can usually be deduced by figuring out which character is played by 'that guy'.  Even though 'That guy' of course refers to a small stable of character actors who pretty much always play the villain in mainstream features, filmmakers still expect to shock audiences when 'that guy' is in fact revealed to be the traitor/mole/killer/Hamburgler/etc.

So it is with Safe House, where we get an inkling pretty early on that at least someone whom Ryan Reynolds works for at the CIA might not be on the up-and-up.  For the sake of not spoiling the film for those who somehow read this far without wanting to be spoiled, I offer you the option of going to IMDB and checking out the cast list for Safe House.  Okay... you back yet?  Do you want to guess who the mystery villain might be?  You are correct, it was Brendan Gleeson after all!  Try the same trick for David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake.  Someone among Christopher Plummer's family is a murderer and it's up to Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara to figure out who.  Could it be one of the handful of mostly unknown actors, or could it possibly be the one actor that everyone recognizes among the Vanger clan?  Have you looked at the cast list?  Want to take a guess who the mystery murderer might be?  Wow, you guessed Stellan Skarsgård!  Right again!  David Fincher spent $90 million remaking a $15 million television mini-series adaptation of a popular Swedish novel.  Would it have killed him to spend a couple bucks to hire a few more recognizable character actors to at least to attempt to create a little mystery?

Even certain television procedural have figured this one out.  I remember an episode of C.S.I. many years ago which had the decency to cast both D.B. Sweeney *and* Nicholas Lea, which caused the episode to actually be a "mystery" right up until the third act.  Numbers, while more character-driven than who-dun-it obsessed, had a fine habit of casting crusty character actors as cops and not having them turn out to be rogue police officers.  There was a late-in-the-run episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that cast Dylan Baker as the killer, but cleverly revealed as much to us right off the bat, had the detectives figure it out pretty quickly too, and add another smart wrinkle (which I won't reveal) to keep the case humming along.  Why is it so hard for a big-budget action thriller to cast more than one major character actor (usually in an otherwise pointless role) in order to make audiences question their instinct to scream that OF COURSE Martin Donovan is the mole?  Why is it so hard for feature filmmakers to have a little fun with audiences' expectations when it comes to figuring out the primary puzzle of the movie.

If you want to create suspense or surprise in your thrillers and mysteries, put a little work into it.  If you're trying to create surprise about your antagonist, do not cast anyone named Skarsgård in a seemingly inconsequential role.  Do not cast Brendan Gleeson as the superior who is just oh-so-supportive of the wet-behind-the ears rookie agent.  And if I may finally unwind about the otherwise fantastic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bplease donmt cast the biggest star in your ensemble for a role that is seemingly a glorified cameo.  Obviously literary adaptations are a bit hamstrung, but if its an original screenplay, play around with the formula.

Cast an unknown as the eventual villain or give your secret killer enough of a substantial role so that we're not patiently waiting for that big reveal and evil monologue that justifies his inexplicably high billing in the credits (so why is Cary Elwes given third billing in Kiss the Girls despite having almost no screen time in the first 90 minutes... oh right!).  Let the female agent be the secret villain once in a while (as was the case with Sleepy Hollow and Stark Trek VI, although both mysteries were solvable by respectively, the inexplicably high billing and the otherwise pointless character with unmotivated close-ups).  Let the black guy be the turncoat.  It's not racism if the bad guy is a racial minority, it's actually social progress. Make the surprise reveal be that the seemingly idealistic rookie agent was in fact the mole all along!  Mix and match these ideas to your heart's content, but please do vary the formula a bit.  Because it's a long slog through a feature-length movie when we can solve the mystery just like glancing at the credits.

What was the first movie you correctly guessed the end-reveal for growing up?  What are some mystery films that you feel successfully tricked you?  Share your thoughts below.

Scott Mendelson    


Erbthebest said...

Great piece! Tinker tailor soldier spy is another clear example

Maxwell H said...

A real twist in the mundane Safe House would have been if


When BG goes to shoot Vera she quickly shoots him back and is an even MORE evil villain!!!!


Scott Mendelson said...

That would have indeed been awesome.

Daniel P said...

I so wanted Vera to be the evil one.

There was so much foreshadowing that it would be Brendan, I kept hoping it wouldn't be that obvious.

It would have added some nice shades of grey if Brendan was actually straight dealing.


Oh and the ending, so much fail. Straw bails on fire.... so I'm going to stand out in the open. Or the Top boss and Ryan Reynolds meeting, I don't understand why Ryan wasn't thrown in a cell on "suspicion" (working with Frost or even the shooting of the police) while they searched for the darn file.

obthavariable said...

And then of course, movies could just follow "Se7en"s example and not even list the villain actor in any of the marketing.

Should there be something else added here: "And if I may finally unwind about the otherwise fantastic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyObviously literary adaptations are a bit hamstrung, but if its an original screenplay, play around with the formula." ?

Disco Paco said...

Genius insight

Scott Mendelson said...

That's the second time a conclusion of a paragraph just *vanished* after publication. Thanks for noticing that, and it has been fixed.

Shakeyourcoconut said...

Hah, I've thought about this a lot too. I remember watching Kiss the Girls with a friend in fact and Half-way through I said that Elwes was the killer, and said a lot of what you said.

Another one was Dario Argentos Trauma.
Piper Laurier had one-two scene before she was "killed", but I was sure something wasn't right, why hire that actress for no screentime, and lo and behold, she faked her death and was indeed the killer.

dyldog81 said...

A long time ago but 'Goldeneye' is a good example of this, where Sean Bean dies before the opening song but is still listed second or third in the credits


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