Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Use of a (Literal) Framing Device in Donnie Brasco

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Donnie Brasco and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

When we think of framing devices, we tend to think of retrospective voiceover, flashforwards, or a beginning scene that turns most of the movie into a flashback, but this movie has a more subtle approach.

As Donnie first gets in with Lefty, we intermittently get a literal framing device: we hear an ominous-sounding camera clicking and the action is rendered in a series of still frames, shot from far away at a high angle, until we go back to normal. We never have a clear sense who’s taking these picture or from where…we’re not even sure if Donnie himself knows about it.

The effect is sinister, for both Lefty and Donnie. These are both manhunters with licenses to kill, and they’re both potentially in each other’s gun-sights, but this creepy surveillance reveals them for what they really are: victims of forces beyond their control, ground up by the twin bureaucracies of the mob and the feds.

Like any framing device, this establishes the mood, the nature of the jeopardy, and the dramatic question. In most undercover movies, the question is “Will the hero survive long enough to get the evidence he needs?” Here, it’s more a question of “Can either Donny or Lefty get out of the boxes that their bosses have put them in, or are they both trapped?” The occasional intrusion of these ominous, fatalistic photos set up that dynamic nicely.

This device acts as the cold eye of fate, foreshadowing the ultimate powerlessness of both men. Tellingly, this is the only movie movies I’ve looked at in which the hero is not there for the climax: We finally see the photos manifest themselves in the story when Donnie’s fed bosses walk in to the mob club, toss them on the pool table, explain who Donnie was, and walk out. Donnie will never have the chance to intervene and save Lefty’s life: larger forces are in control now.

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