30.11.09

A Perfect Getaway lies to its audience

The following paragraph closes out Chapter 1, Part 1 of ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie:

“Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself, was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery. Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… He slept…”

Christie was an accomplished mystery writer, and she understood both the importance of leaving clues in the text for the audience to find, and how difficult it was to fool an astute reader. In single point-of-view novels, traditionally told from the POV of the detective this can be relatively simple to accomplish – since the reader doesn’t get access to any of the suspects’ thoughts, anything they say can later turn out to be a lie. It’s more of a challenge when dealing with a multiple POV narrative, when we’re let into the minds of each character, including the killer’s. How do you let the reader know what the killer is thinking without giving away their identity? Hack writers, like Tom Savage, lie, having their characters say, think, and do things they they never would simply to make them more or less suspicious, depending on the need of the story.

Good writers, like Agatha Christie, understand that one of the hardest and most satisfying things they can accomplish is to write a line that seems to mean one thing when first read, then take on a clearer meaning after the ending is revealed. (Spoiler Alert until the end of the paragraph) That excerpt above is the closest Christie ever came to lying to her audience, and when considering the book as a whole, you can kind of understand why she feels the need to toe that line, considering that she’s essentially opening the book by revealing who the killer is.

David Twohy could learn a few lessons from Agatha Christie, because his film ‘A Perfect Getaway’ flat-out lies to its audience over and over again in the hopes of protecting its twist, which is kind of silly given how painfully obvious this twist is just moments into the movie.

That’s right – it’s so obvious that the movie has to lie just moments into the running time to trick the audience. Permit me to demonstrate.

The film opens intercutting between a wedding ceremony, and (presumably) the same couple on their honeymoon. There’s a problem with believing that it’s the same couple though, and it’s kind of a crippling problem, given that if the audience doesn’t believe it, there’s no twist.

That’s the groom, in the headlock.

That’s Steve Zahn, on his honeymoon. You may have noticed that Steve Zahn’s hair is shorter, and a different colour than the groom’s. I noticed that too.

Apparently David Twohy noticed as well, because, in the actual film he flat out lies to the audience here. I’m not talking about the way the husband and wife’s faces remain maddeningly just out of frame – that falls into the area of honest misdirection through editing, no, during this sequence the groom has some dialogue. Dialogue that is spoken by Steve Zahn!

This is roughly the equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan worrying that people would figure out Bruce Willis was a ghost, and then adding a scene right at the beginning where he carries a woman’s groceries up to her apartment on the way to Osment’s house.

That one line is such an obvious cheat that the rest pale in comparison, but I’ll zip through them anyhow.

Around the 33 minute mark Milla and Steve have their first conversation meant to mislead the audience. While taking a look at an indistinct surveilance camera photo of the killers (that still manages to clearly not depict Timothy Olyphant), Steve and Milla begin talking about the killers in the third person, and then become concerned about just how little they know about the couple they’re sharing the hike with.

This is a conversation that exists only for the audience to hear, and a perfect example of bad mystery writing.

There’s an even more ‘the killers would never have this speech’ at around the 52 minute mark, with the killers full-on acting like they’re in danger from the innocent people that they’re planning on murdering.

Frankly, I’m not even sure why Twohy bothered with his flailing attempts at misdirection when he’s going to put such painfully obvious facts right in our faces. After Olyphant’s girlfried announces that Tim is ‘really hard to kill’, Steve and Milla share the following look.

What could that look possibly mean other than ‘we look forward to killing him’?

Hell, five minutes before the reveal Twohy basically gives up on the whole ‘subterfuge’ thing, and has Milla announce that she’s the killer. A police helicopter lands, and some cops arrest the red herrings that Zahn had planted evidence on the day before. Her line upon seeing this? “(The police) think it’s them!”

See, a completely innocent person would assume that the police had the right person, and just said ‘it’s them!’. Especially an innocent person who had been scared by the couple the day before. Of course, a killer who was pretending to be completely innocent would have said that as well – there’s really no reason to but the ‘think’ in there, unless you’re going out of your way to point out that you’re the killer.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Twohy’s a terrible writer or anything – he just should have written the movie a little harder. To his credit, he does attempt to come up with a villain motivation that will explain his characters’ absurd behviour and conversations when they’re alone, but it’s a half-measure, and on second viewing their conversations don’t suddenly make sense the way they should, had it been good misdirection.

The explanation offered is that Steve Zahn’s particular brand of crazy is that he enjoys pretending to be other people, and his conversations with Milla are supposed to be about their plans to replace Olyphant and his girlfriend at some near point in the future. Except the conversations don’t even really work in that context, and, more importantly, that’s way too far-fetched a motivation.

Consider the film ‘Taking Lives’ – its premise was so incredibly unbelievable that a good 40% had to be spent either showing flashbacks or just laboriously explaining how someone could have such an amazingly preposterous MO for killing people. This film expects us to accept that Steve Zahn would do it just because. Or maybe he’s just a big Ethan Hawke fan. Okay, the only big Ethan Hawke fan, I guess.

I kid – of course the only reason that Zahn had such a preposterous MO is because it’s the only way that Twohy’s precious second-act twist would work.

Except it didn’t work, hence all the lying to the audience.

Maybe Twohy should go back to making Riddick movies. Just saying.

3 comments:

AppellateAttorney said...

You are right on, Vardulon. Watched the other night on DVD, and had the same reaction. Despite the movie's red "herrings" and so-called plot twists that reviewers around this country blog about ad naseam, I couldn't get beyond the fact that there was no reason for the killers to act/say certain ways/things when they were ALONE with just us/the camera watching them. Poor mystery writing.

Barry said...

During the flashback black and white shots there is one where Zahn thows the video tape from the stolen camera into the ocean after supposedly studying it. Then how is it that the tape is in the camera when they are on the beach later?

Vardulon said...

Barry - I think the idea was that it was a hybrid video/still camera, and while they threw out the wedding video, they forgot to erase the camera's memory, so the still photos from the ceremony were still there.