What’s in the box? What’s in the envelope? Leaps of logic and assumptions in movies
Okay, so you’ve come to a critical part in the movie you’re watching, and you as a viewer have got to make a leap of deduction in order to understand what’s going, which is hopefully seamless and part of a carefully crafted script. Sometimes it’s a simple visual trick, like a character going out and then being shown walking into a restaurant to meet their friends. How’d they get there? How’d they know where to go? We’re never explained all this, because it’s left to the viewer to assume they took a cab or drove or maybe walked if it’s close by. Sometimes hints about this are planted in subsequent scenes, but it’s the details that are important.
I was watching The Departed on TV the other day and one of these important details struck me. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gives Vera Farmiga a crucial envelope, which he tells her is very, very important. She is to never open it, unless something happens to him. Of course, something does happen to him, but we’re never given an explanation about what’s in the envelope. In fact, it’s never mentioned again. The importance of another piece of mail is substituted for the envelope, and that second piece of mail contains incriminating evidence against Vera’s husband, a liar and a rat in the police force, so the envelope is really never needed. But the seeds were planted earlier that Leo had something important yet to share, and that’s a critical plot point the script gives us to prepare for the later revelation, before we go ‘hey, I never knew he was collecting evidence’. Yes, he was, remember? He gave his girlfriend some. And some more arrived later, that’s become even more important.
The ending to the movie Seven is probably one of the more famous climaxes in thriller history. This David Fincher movie is pretty well-written, so I’m not surprised he doesn’t deliver everything to us on an silver, exposition platter. No, instead, he invites us to speculate about what’s in a mysterious package that arrives for Morgan Freeman at the end of the movie. As Morgan Freeman arrests the killer, a delivery arrives and he recovers the box. Freeman opens it and becomes surprised and erratic. Brad Pitt rushes on scene and demands to know what’s in the box, because it was never shown directly to the audience. At that moment, before the killer lets us in on the little joke, the audience is in a state of suspense and it’s amazing. It’s a great moment. What’s in the box? That question became an in-joke on Saturday Night Live and other talk shows, as they poked fun at the over-the-top situation. I’d say it was perfectly scripted, to elicit just the right emotions from the audience. Over-the-top? Maybe, but I liked it.
Other movies give you a little bit of exposition and expect the audience to go a little bit further in order to understand what’s happening. This happens in Interstellar. Big surprise, right? The main character, Cooper, is played by Matthew McConaughey, and he seems drawn to some greater purpose, in order to figure out what is going on and save Murph. NASA didn’t know he was coming and Cooper certainly wasn’t expecting to go to NASA, but something sent him. But who is that? Something makes a message in his floor and starts to “haunt” him. Cooper later speculates that it’s the future of humanity reaching back into the past, but the movie never quite explains what started all of the ghost business in the first place. Who is it? Is it all a product of his future self? Is it someone else? Maybe God? The movie never really tells us. But is that really a problem?
There are other more obvious examples of movies asking us to take leaps of logical faith, like in 12 Monkeys or Lost or Inception. Christopher Nolan likes making us think, I guess. Or maybe he likes making us confused. Either way, it’s a good time at the movies. Now I expect to think when I go see anything with more pulse than a Michael Bay movie. That’s what a good time is at the movies for me. This year, it’s happened a couple of times, and I hope it continues in 2017.