Sometimes, there are things about screenwriting you kind of know without stopping to think about it too much, proof that there’s a lot of innate knowledge about the subject from viewing so many films over the years. This week, I saw Transcendence and Blue Ruin a couple of days apart, and the failings of the first and successes of the latter were too distinct and different that they’re worth thinking about.
Blue Ruin starts with a homeless guy who’s sleeping in a car, which is in the same battered shape as him. A woman cop comes along, and gently informs him that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison. It’s clear that we’re heading for a revenge story of sorts, but writer-director Jeremy Saulnier makes some brilliant choices to shape our responses. We’re sympathetic to the protagonist because of his plight, and we understand that plight because we see what he’s doing to survive: breaking into someone’s home just to have a bath, searching through trash for edible food. So by the time our hero sets out to get some kind of dark justice for the killings of his mother and father, we’re in his corner.
The key to all this is empathy. My own suspicion is that we find it easy to empathise with low status characters such as the hapless Dwight, payed brilliantly by Macon Blair. The higher status characters in the film are…well, everyone else really. Dwight is at the bottom of the pile, whether he’s dealing with his sister or trying to scheme against professional criminals. Even when he gets a gun and points it at one of them for the first time, it’s the target who has more authority in the situation. And all of that helps create empathy for the plight that he’s in. We may not have tried to enact bloody revenge, but I suspect we can all identify with trying to do the right thing and falling short in the process. And that helps give the story a level of humanity which becomes the beating heart of a film where Dwight’s fate is sealed, but rather than view him as a merciless vigilante we recognise that he could be us, fallible and uncertain.
It’s different with high status characters. We tend to admire them rather than identify with them, I believe. To follow the theme above, a high status vigilante would, at its extreme, describe Batman, who if we identify with him at all is for things we’d like to do than are actually capable of. And it’s interesting that the director currently most associated with the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, is the executive producer of Transcendence, helmed by his long-term director of photography Wally Pfister.
Johnny Depp plays a brilliant scientist fixated on artificial intelligence. Which starts to point to the film’s problems: A.I. can be quite an abstract subject, and where the story goes with an uploaded version of Depp taking over the world is not something that’s easy to relate to. There’s high status, and there’s godlike. Clunky speeches to the audience to tell them what the issues for only remind us that issues and not people are at the heart of the narrative. Sure, ultimately it’s a love story – but it takes a lot of big stuff to get there, which as with many projects with the Nolan stamp, come across clever and ultimately feel cold.
If you’re going to have a story reliant on big ideas, it helps to have some choices along the way that audiences can connect with. Whether or not to upload a dying Depp kind of works, but once he is, he pretty much becomes God and works in mysterious ways, transforming a dead-end town into his own digital Heaven.
There will be more stories on this theme, mainly because A.I. is an issue that faces us as a species and it taps into the same vein that previously produced Frankenstein. What I’d be interested in seeing is a take on the subject that has more of that ground level ease of identification that Blue Ruin has, and doesn’t catapult the audience into the stratosphere in the way that Transcendence does. Maybe that accounts for the continued popularity of the work of Philip K Dick, whose protagonists were low-status characters.