David Mamet’s thriller The Spanish Prisoner is the very definition of “fun but forgettable.” Campbell Scott has invented a process that will revolutionize his industry. Steve Martin is a con man who tricks Scott into stealing his own formula and handing it over, and then frames him for murder. Once Scott realizes he’s been tricked, he does a lot of poking around, investigating, running through alleyways, etc.
Scott is the classic Everyman hero. He shows no special skills in the first act, and he doesn’t need them to get through the rest of the movie. In the end, he just needs to reach within himself and become a little smarter, a little savvier, and a little more courageous to get out of the trap. Basically, he muddles his way out. Because the movie has a good cast, a twisty plot, and Mamet’s crackling dialogue, we may not notice right away how uncompelling Scott’s character is, but the movie has no weight to it.
Compare this to Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. Like Scott, Ford is framed for murder. He’s arrested and has to escape with Tommy Lee Jones hot on his heels. How does Ford get out of it? He doesn’t transform into a generic hero. Instead, he finds a way to use his pre-established skills to solve the problem. Since he was a doctor, he spends the entire movie in and out of hospitals, using the resources of those settings at every turn.
Audiences prefer their heroes to get out of trouble in the second act using talents they already displayed in the first act. Even heroes who seem to be starting from scratch are actually adapters. They find ways to use skills from a completely different job to surmount their current problem.
What about that supposed zero-to-hero story Back to the Future? On the surface, it seems like a story about a neophyte who’s hopelessly floundering when faced with the biggest challenge of his life. Marty has not trained to be a time traveler, nor has he studied up on the fifties. He seems totally unprepared for and baffled by this situation.
But, like most heroes, Marty does have a hidden reserve of special skills, and those are what he relies on to get out of trouble, time and time again. In this case, most of his skills, like skateboarding and playing rock guitar, shouldn’t apply to 1955, because they don’t exist yet, but he figures out how to use them anyway. He actually invents skateboards and rock and roll just so he can use them to save himself. That’s how dependent heroes should be on their pre-established special skills.
Let’s look at a complex adventure story with three competing heroes: Pirates of the Caribbean. Of the three heroes, only one is in his element: Johnny Depp is using his long-honed pirate skills. But the other two, though totally out of their element, still rely on pre-established special skills. Orlando Bloom is a blacksmith by trade, and he finds all sorts of ways to use those skills, from his experience with forging swords to his knowledge of how to pry open a cell door using a makeshift lever. Keira Knightley has never prepared for any trade, but she makes use of her copious reading about pirates and knows, for example, that they can’t turn down a demand of parley. Depp is already an expert, but Bloom and Knightley adapt using their preexisting knowledge.
Relying on past knowledge gets you past the “wouldn’t the bad guys have thought of that?” problem. There’s a good reason our hero can outsmart the villains: He knows something they didn’t know he knew (but we know he knew it, because we saw it in the opening scenes). Otherwise, in a movie like The Spanish Prisoner, where the hero doesn’t reveal any special skills, you can really only credit his success to the villain’s incompetence. It turns out that “every man” could have defeated this villain.
It is, however, crucial that a special skill be established in an organic way. When it’s set up in a clunky way, and then it comes back later, the audience groans.
- One laughable example is the girl who gets past the dinosaurs using her parallel-bars gymnastic skills in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
- Even dumber is the spy-thriller Salt, in which Angelina Jolie uses her husband’s random spider-venom advice to create a special venom bullet.
Audrey Hepburn’s newly blind housewife in Wait Until Dark seems like a truly unskilled heroine. When she comes under siege by thugs who want to retrieve a heroin-filled doll that ended up in her apartment, she feels that she lacks even the basic tools of the average person. Not only does she not have any assets, but she has a huge liability. But, eventually, she decides to smash all the light bulbs and use her superior ability to navigate without light to her advantage. She turns her liability into her only asset.
You can’t become a hero by doing what anyone would do. You have to do that thing that you do.
I could go on much longer about character, but, ultimately, even if you have a wonderfully compelling hero, you still don’t have a story. These hypothetically perfect characters have to get up, get going, and test themselves.
James Kennedy and I sang the praises of Total Recall on our podcast, but we didn’t mention one of my pet peeves about that movie. Arnold eventually ends up strapped to a chair: He seems to have accomplished so much, but now he discovers that everything he has done was really just bringing him into Ronny Cox’s elaborate trap. Ronny has been playing ten moves ahead this entire time, guessing everything Arnold might possibly do and effortless manipulating him into bringing in the mutant leader. Now Ronny just needs to wipe Arnold’s mind again and restore his original personality.
But then Arnold does the one thing that Ronny couldn’t possibly have predicted: he raises his arm! He then breaks the chair, and runs away.
This drives me crazy: You could predict every possible movie Arnold could make, but you couldn’t predict he would raise his arm? Arnold doesn’t use some clever trick or special weapon he’s found as a result of his journey. He just does what anyone could predict he would do, and gets away fairly easily.
Chris in Get Out faces a similar predicament. He, too, ends up 2/3 of the way into the movie strapped to a chair, outdone by a villain who has been way ahead of him and manipulating his behavior the entire movie. He is even more helpless than Arnold, because the villains only have to ding a spoon on a teacup (live or on tape) to turn him to jelly.
But couldn’t the villains have predicted that, too? Why would they put him in a place where he would have access to cotton stuffing with which to plug up his ears? And wouldn’t a previous captive have figured out the same thing?
But this brings us to another very ironic special skill: When Chris is being hypnotized, he flashes back to when he was a child, watching TV, correctly fearing his mom had been in an accident, but doing nothing. We see that he was betraying his anxiety in only one way: He was obsessively scratching at the armrest of the chair he was sitting on. As he’s being hypnotized by Missy, he starts to do the same thing, but Missy doesn’t notice. When he’s in the basement, hypnotized off and on for days, he naturally does it again, until he’s ripped open the leather and exposed the cotton.
In a thriller, it’s essential to establish early on the special skills that will allow your hero to get out of trouble later, preferably something the villain could not guess that the hero would know how to do. Total Recall failed to do this, but Get Out does it in a very ironic and odd way. Missy does not suspect Chris’s real superpower: The obsessive ability to scratch open armrests, given enough time. Sorry I'm running late, but you’ll get four posts next week!
As director Andrew Davis says in the commentary, “The idea of Richard Kimble the doctor using hospitals to take care of his wounds, find the one-armed man, his intelligence is all tied into his being a doctor and knowing how to operate, literally operate, in a hospital.” In weaker thrillers, the falsely-accused schmuck simply transforms into a superhero as soon he goes on the run, but in this movie, the hero solves his problems in a way that is unique to his character.
But we should also acknowledge that there are many aspects of Kimble’s character that do make him seem generic and/or unengaging, and clearly violate our rules:
- He’s incredibly passive at first, both in his normal life and in the aftermath of his wife’s murder.
- He has a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment of humanity, when he mumbles that he always feels like a waiter in a tux. I had to watch the beginning twice to spot it.
- He’s not frustrated with a social problem (until he loses everything)
- Both in daily life and after the crime, he’s not especially curious about what’s really going on (and we later find they’re related). Even as late as the third act, he doesn’t really suspect that they’re a conspiracy out to get him until he’s already exposed it.
- His reactions are notably less volatile than the average person. He literally refuses to take a step in the right direction until he’s about to be run over by a train!
- This one’s always a problem in these sorts of movies: After the crime, he’s over-motivated, which means that he isn’t doing something that’s hard to want to do. It’s a tricky line, because heroes need a strong, clear and not-selfless motivation, and he certainly has that, but if you tip too far, then the hero doesn’t get to make any choices.
- He’s inarticulate and unable to convince anybody of anything verbally.
The next big factor is, of course, Ford. As with Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity, Ford’s performance obviates the need for many of the traditional likability tricks simple because he’s so effortlessly compelling. The producers submitted this script to Ford three times over five years, and he turned it down each time, so they simply kept rewriting it until they could win him over. They knew they needed his qualities.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Just barely: he uses his sleight-of-hand abilities to win over Trish’s daughter. He uses his online-poker skills to make friends with the guys.
YES, she knows the ship and the rules better than anyone else, even the captain.
Sort of. She uses her knowledge of classical music and art to get into a tonier world, but that creates more problems than it solves.
YES. Amelie tries and fails (using the same type of medications she uses at work) Samuel does and succeeds: He’s been preparing for this fight for a while, building his own machines.
YES. He’s an almost-magical trickster with the ability to run circles around racists.
Somewhat: he uses the bug spray to get in, etc.
The Bourne Identity
YES. very much so, even though he doesn’t remember where or how he got them.
YES. Uses baking skills to get her man.
YES. Both his shady associates and his history with the resistance will be useful to him.
YES. Yes, he’s a master detective, and he was a cop before that.
YES. knows how to evaluate jewelry. We learn in the special features that the real life Donnie was sent to a six-month jewelry program, but it’s never mentioned in the movie. That’s okay because we can guess it.
Do the Right Thing
NO. Not really. He’s not solving a lot of problems.
NO. Not really. I mean, you could say she uses her writing skills to fake the document, but not really.
YES. he learned his boxing philosophy as a child.
NO. She’s an everywoman with few skills.
YES. Very much so. Davis from the commentary: “The idea of Richard Kimble the doctor using hospitals to take care of his wounds, find the one-armed man, his intelligence is all tied into his being a doctor and knowing how to operate, literally operate, in a hospital.”
YES. He finds his camera flash very useful. Also, even since the night his mother died, he’s had a nervous tick of scratching at the arms of chairs, and that ironically saves him. Even more ironically, once he’s scratched open the chair, he then picks the cotton from inside it, which Peele implies in his commentary is Chris drawing on some racial memory.
NO. he pretty much does what anybody would do.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. He uses his blacksmith skills to make weapons, make an appendage for the dragon, etc. Uses his ability to draw to make friends, design devices.
In a Lonely Place
YES. “It was his story against mine…Of course, I told my story better.” “I’ve had a lot of experience in matters of this kind, I’ve killed a lot of people…in pictures.”
YES. Very much so. Even in the final fight, he uses his engineering skills to figure out the right part to rip out of Stane’s suit (“that looks important”)
YES. To a certain extent. Her lack of skills is part of her problem. But she shows uncommon social ability to navigate different worlds.
YES. Armed robbery, which he resorts to again and again.
YES. He attacks Blume with bees, etc.
YES. He explains that he’s learned how to antagonize southern sheriffs into violence.
No for Jack, who does what anyone would do. Very much yes for Danny.
YES. He wins Maya over with his wine knowledge and his novel.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Knowledge of dress-making, knowledge of how small town people think.
YES. Mainly just second hand (he boasts and others compliment him “I understand you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself.”), but we see his innate talent for the force when he practices his lightsaber.
YES. he gets both romances using his screenwriting abilities.