Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Point Blank (A Bout Portant): Life's Full of Consequence, That Ol' Devil Consequence...

Point Blank has nothing to do with the Lee Marvin cult classic. It's an action-thriller (with the emphasis on the action) with a very strong premise: a male nurse's pregnant wife is kidnapped, and he has to free a mysterious wounded patient from hospital or his spouse and child will die. The nurse liberates the patient (a professional thief), committing several crimes in the process, and finds himself hunted by the police and by hitmen who desperately want to eliminate the thief. Together, both wanted men must find the evidence that will exonerate the thief from a murder charge (though he slaughters several people in the course of the movie) and reunite the nurse with his beloved.

So far, so good. The film starts off very well, has a fast pace, effective performances, and good editing - despite lots of hand-held camera-work, the action is hard-hitting and easy to follow.So why isn't this an all-time genre classic?

Ta-daa... it's all in the writing.

So what goes wrong? After all, the basic set-up is effective, and the first act (this is a French movie with a very clear traditional structure) expertly cuts between the criminal elements, the blissful domesticity of the hero and the traumatic results of the inciting incident (the kidnapping of the wife).

One big reason. But I'll have to SPOIL some elements of the film to illustrate my point. So - SPOILERS AHEAD!

Deep in the second act, our protagonists find the snitch who has set up the thief. A vigorous torture session later, the (grotesquely obese and nearly naked) snitch has spilled the beans and explained the plot. The thief wants to kill the snitch for revenge, and the nurse intervenes. 'You don't have to do this!' - you know the drill. The thief lets himself be convinced, turns away - only to turn back before leaving the room and firing several bullets into the snitch's head and gut. The nurse shakes his head in desperate disgust...... and that's it.

It's not referred to again, the relationship doesn't change, there's no confrontation about the thief's way of handling things or the morality of the act. An empty effect. Yes, it's true that the thief is a hardened and cruel criminal who is supposed to be hypercool, and the nurse is a carer and not a killer, so the actions of both men are true to their characters. But it's a moment which loses all emotional resonance when you realize the matter is dropped as soon as we hit the next scene.

What is the net result? Writer-director Fred CavayƩ & writer Guillaume Lemans show that they're dragging their characters through the plot without it impacting them on a fundamental psychological level. By which I mean that in order to truly engage your audience with your main characters, you have to be aware of how events will impact them beyond their surface level. How their emotions are triggered, how these influence their behaviour... Probably the only time you can get away safely with ignoring this is if your character is a cool, dispassionate professional who remains calm and methodical under the most extreme circumstances.

On the other hand, if you are ignoring the emotional impact on your characters of the events that take place, you are basically sending a subliminal message that your story isn't grounded in psychological reality.

On to the next major script problem.

Our protagonists discover that the needed evidence and the pregnant wife are stashed within a police station (the villains are murderous corrupt cops on the take). They need to get into the police station but can't just walk in there. So they need a cunning plan. Cut to our thief visiting every ethnic crime lord in Paris, and getting their co-operation. All criminal organizations launch a crime wave which completely swamps the police. Hundreds of thefts, assaults, robberies, sackjackings and carjackings are pulled off simultaneously, and in the resulting chaos, our 'heroes' sneak into the police station where much mayhem ensues.

Excuse me? You cause havoc and rioting throughout a major city (or part of it), claiming hundreds of innocent victims, just so you can sneak into police headquarters to save your own butt? And our hero nurse just goes along with this outlandish and fairly ridiculous scheme, without even putting up token resistance??

What's happening here is that the writers come up with an original and inventive idea, that's never or rarely been seen before. But there's a reason why this is so.

It's highly unlikely that anything like this could ever work in reality, so there's a credibility gap you have to bridge. But there's also the question of the moral implications of the act, and the way in which it impacts the audience. In order for both 'heroes' to reach their goal, they unleash suffering on a mass of innocent people, who correspond with a part of the demographic of the target audience of the film. (it aims both at the general, middle class audience and at urban youths).

This means a part of your audience is no longer enjoying the ride, carefree, but suddenly realizes that they are considered as acceptable collateral damage by the protagonists and the filmmakers. Making it very hard to empathize with your protagonists, just before you enter the climactic sequence.

It is, once again, a lack of paying attention to consequence. This time, not to the way the events in the movie should impact and shape the evolution of the characters, but to the way plot events impact the emotions of a part of the audience.

Of course, wild, unpredictable, somewhat controversial or shocking plot developments are often beneficial to a movie. They keep things fresh (a rare commodity these days) and open up new possibilities for storytelling in general. But if you alienate part of your core audience in a resolutely commercial movie, (note I do mean alienate, not challenge) you are behaving irresponsibly as a storyteller. And you flirt with disaster, as chances are that your film will take a major beating at the box office.

So - be aware that actions have consequences. Realize what these consequences are, and implement them in the script in order to increase its verisimilitude. And realize what the emotional consequences arefor your intended audience, and that these consequences are what you intend to achieve. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience forever. As a consequence.

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