Movies That Trick Us
July 18, 2003
Perhaps The Crying Game is to blame for all of this. This relatively unremarkable film, which got universal attention for its below-the-belt plot twist, may have begun the Hollywood frenzy for sneaky storytelling. You know the films I'm talking about. You're sitting there, an innocent audience member, enjoying your popcorned butter and WHAM! You're walloped with a plot twist or story revelation right at the end of the film that forces you to completely redefine everything you've just seen. Then the credits roll, and you're left to sort out the details as you wait in line for a free toilet. (Most of my film analysis is done while staring at linoleum.)
There are copious examples of this phenomenon. The trickiest films include: The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Game, Fight Club, and memento. And I'm almost certain there are more that I've forgotten. Why this sudden popularity to pulling the rug out from under the audience?
[ART REFLECTING LIFE?]
To get an answer, take a look at the films I've listed. Every one of these films was made by someone 30-40 years of age. These are Gen-Xers making films. The class of filmmakers that included Scorsese, Copolla, Spielberg, Lucas and De Palma has all but graduated. They've passed the mantle on to Fincher, Shalamayan and Singer. But what is this new class of filmmakers, who have such a fascination for playing with our concept of reality, trying to say to us? Or what about us are they merely reflecting?
While every film has its own objectives, I think it is fair to say that the movement on the whole is focusing on our own perceptions of reality. They are all pointing to the idea that we create our own truth.
In memento, the main character has a memory disorder caused by the trauma that resulted from a tragic violent crime committed against his wife. He has set out for revenge against his wife's killer. At the end of the film, (don't worry I don't spoil it completely) the main character learns a horrible truth, but manipulates his fragile memory to deceive himself into believing what he wants to believe.
Life is Beautiful, while not as "tricky" with the audience's minds, plumbs some of the same depths. A father deceives his child into believing a stay at the Nazi concentration camp is just a big game. He makes their seemingly hopeless lives livable by creating a different perception of that world. So, on the lighter end, these films are saying, "The world is what you make it," and on the heavier end, they are saying, "There is no absolute truth."
Some critics of this device claim it to be a cheap, overused literary trick that's supposed to wow the audience with its unexpected ending. Doug Cummings of FilmJourney.orgcalls it a modern version of the "it was all just a dream" syndrome. And while I'll agree the device is being overused currently, I think it stands up to literary analysis.
Ultimately, each of these films takes us through a journey with the main character, who is often the narrator. We find out at the very end of the film the narrator is not, in fact, alive anymore, or that he is a demon, or that he is not who he's been saying he is. The unreliable narrator is a long-time staple of literature. And so, like the main character, we are forced to re-evaluate the way we see the reality of the film.
Perhaps that's a benefit of these films. It becomes good practice for re-evaluating our lives, for asking ourselves if everything we think is true is, in fact, a lie. I believe a daily re-evaluation of reality is healthly. Why do I spend the majority of my waking hours at a job I dislike? Do I really deserve to have a great wife, kid and house more than the homeless man I've just passed on the street? Why do I pray daily to a God I can't see and who I often feel isn't there?
Questions are good, especially when they are on a metaphysical level. They tend to bring us back to our purpose. In the end, these trick films will have to decline in number to remain effective, but unfortunately, they won't. We'll probably find a glut of them proliferating the box office for another year or two. But this is the how the pendulum swings. Just as everybody is starting to think the same way about reality being, in ways, dictated by our perceptions, the pendulum is already headed the other way. Oh and by the way, the author of this article has been dead all along!
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