Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Straying from the Party Line: Reversing Payoff and Set-Up in The Fugitive
Interestingly, this was not the case in the script, which begins with a much longer party sequence in which we hear all of these set-ups casually mentioned. Indeed, director Andrew Davis’s DVD commentary implies that the first cut of the movie matched the script: we’re seeing clips that were originally shot to be in the first scene.
Withholding the set-up until after the pay-off has risks. The movie has a whodunit aspect, but thanks to these withheld scenes, we can’t play along at home, congratulating or kicking ourselves when we see the connection we either noticed or missed. Instead, we feel alienated from Kimble’s quest: we want to help him solve this puzzle, but we don’t have all the pieces, so we can only watch him do it.
Nevertheless this version does work well, and I think Davis was right to reslot those moments as belated flashbacks. Why? Because there just isn’t time to set them up properly. This was never primarily a whodunit: It’s called The Fugitive and the bus crash happens precisely at the 15:00 mark, the point at which most movies get going. If the final cut had stuck to the script, the crash would have happened 22 minutes in, and those extra seven minutes might have left the audience exasperated and bored.
Davis even reverses set-up and payoff within that opening fifteen minutes: In the script, we see her 911 call as it happens, and then we hear it again in the courtroom, at which point we belated realize how damning it sounds. That would have been a powerful and chilling moment, but it also would have been a repeated beat, so in the final cut, we’re belatedly introduced to the 911 call at the same time as the jury. There’s no time for chills: we have a chase to get to.
And of course, the final reason to deny us a “play fair” mystery is that the movie wants to frustrate our expectations and desires. This is a nightmarishly unfair situation, and Davis makes us feel that. His final cut frustrates and cheats the viewer in the same way that fate has frustrated and cheated Richard Kimble. In its own way, that’s only fair.