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What Would People Think?

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Well-Constructed Thriller

(Wow, this post is going to seem bipolar and trivial after the emotions of the last post. Guess that's what happens when life happens between blogging.)

It's time for yet more Ben's Unsolicited Expert Advice on Movies You Should See!

I just got back from seeing Red Eye, an above-average thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. I didn't quite like it as much as my Mom, who was raving about it, but it kept me on the edge of my seat at times. I appreciate this film.

See, Red Eye is part of a genre - if you can call it that - I like to call The Well-Constructed Thriller (WCT for short). Examples of these movies include (in no particular order) The Net, Cellular, Panic Room, Phone Booth and (the best example of the genre that comes to my mind) Collateral.

These movies aren't particularly meaningful. I don't look to them for any commentary on life, politics, or the human condition. They are pure escapism. They range from the cartoonish (Cellular) to the powerful (Collateral). But they are alike in this: they are smart.

First, and most obvious, characters aren't stupid. Nothing bugs me more in a thriller than a character engaging in Movie Behavior. The soon-to-be-dead character walks down a hallway by herself and says "is anybody there?" (See: Any horror movie.) The helpless woman cringes while the hero and villain/creature fight it out right in front of her...even when the hero is in grave danger. (See: Buttercup watching Wesley get bit by the Rodent of Unusual Size in The Princess Bride - not a thriller, I know.) Cary Grant's character pulls the knife out of the recently murdered diplomat, thus appearing to be his killer, in North By Northwest. (Which is otherwise a superb example of the WCT genre. Come to think of it, Hitchcock is probably the father of the genre.)

But WCT characters don't do that. They react as real people would in these unreal situations. Or at least, as real smart people. Hero and villain alike play a game of cat and mouse. They try to outsmart each other and behave in occasionally unpredictable fashions. Sandra Bullock stops running and puts her computer smarts, and a fire extinguisher, to good use at the end of The Net. Chris Evans finds 101 new uses for a cell phone in Cellular.

Second, with the possible exception of Cellular - which launches right into its elaborate plot with little exposition - WCTs take the time to get to know their characters. They treat them like real human beings who exist outside of their place in this movie plot. Jaime Foxx engages in a long conversation about hopes, dreams, and fears with Jada Pinkett Smith in Collateral, long before Tom Cruise becomes his second, fateful passenger of the night. Jodie Foster and her daughter move into a new house and fight before any robbers arrive in Panic Room. Rachel McAdams handles crises at work, her bored and divorced father, and rude airline passengers before the plot is sprung on her in Red Eye.

I like the care with which these films treat their characters because it makes their actions more meaningful later in the film. You get to see how later behavior is in keeping or against their character. Character MATTERS in these films, not just explosions (although those may exist, too).

Third, I like the care with which WCT screenplays are constructed. That's how the got their name. Small details which happen early in the plot - and help enrich the characterizations - suddenly become crucial by the end. The plot isn't in a rush to jump from one exciting moment to the next....it takes time to slow down and set up its surprises and thrills.

Fourth, all this setup and careful craft pay off. By the end of every single one of these movies - once everything had fallen into place like clockwork - I was on the edge of my seat (sometimes literally). The tension is deliciously unbearable and the outbursts of action and violence are that much more satisfying for their context.

None of these films will win any Oscars. They aren't the movies that inspire and move me (there are plenty of those). They aren't cinematic masterpieces.

But enjoy them for what they are: well-executed film-making which delivers your money's worth.


  • It's really silly to comment on my own blog, but I wanted to point out one other random element that a number of these films (at least Collateral, Red Eye, and The Net) have in common: a charming leading man who turns out to be a vicious, amoral killer. Don't really know what to make of that.

    By Blogger Ben, at 9/03/2005 10:18 PM  

  • You're right about WCTs - any given year offers up one or two, they're usually the best movies of that year outside of the Best Pictures and usually one or two good comedies. On the surface, they also tend to blend in with a lot of crap. On your recommendation, I may now have to see "Red Eye", which I was otherwise planning to skip.

    I do have to disagree with you on one point: while the other movies you cite are all very good, I personally think "Collateral" stands above them. In many ways, it fits the quasi-genre, but the acting is of a higher caliber and it does have its own philosophical take on the human condition. But that's just one man's opinion.

    And don't dis "The Princess Bride". :-P

    By Blogger Mike, at 9/04/2005 3:18 PM  

  • Hey man, I think I indicated in the post that Collateral is the best of the genre. (Unless there's some Hitchcock film that has slipped my mind.)

    The Princess Bride is, of course, one of my all time favorite movies. I merely cited as an example one scene from it that kind of annoys me. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the quality of the film as a whole. That would be....inconceivable!

    By Blogger Ben, at 9/04/2005 6:24 PM  

  • This is just to let you know that you haven't posted anything in two weeks. Boo.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 9/18/2005 10:39 AM  

  • But Collateral is meaningful. As Mike said, it makes a stab at further explicating the human condition. Furthermore, it was nominated for Oscars. Although it may have some of the trappings of your genre, it is not a member of the genre, any more than Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy, or American Beauty is a family comedy.

    By Blogger Barzelay, at 9/20/2005 8:10 PM  

  • Collateral and Eternal Sunshine take some of the trappings of a genre and raise them to a higher level. I'll grant you that. I'll have to go back and look, but I don't remember being blown away by Collateral's philosophical insight so much as its excellent character development and labrynthine plot.

    American Beauty is in a genre by itself.

    By Blogger Ben, at 9/20/2005 9:08 PM  

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