When Characters Know More Than the Audience

SPOILERS AHEAD

I recently watched Safe House (starring Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington). While the movie was bad, watching a bad movie isn’t always a bad thing.

This movie helped me crystallize something that has bothered me about movies for quite a while but I could never quite put my finger on it.

The longer the characters in a movie know more than what the audience does, the less likely the audience will be invested in the story.

Here’s what it comes down to. In a movie, if the characters know more than the audience, that creates an air of mystery. The audience, ideally, should be intrigued enough to stick around and figure out why the events of the movie are happening the way they are.

But in a movie like Safe House, that didn’t happen. The movie starts off showing Denzel Washington selling off government secrets (“What secrets?” the audience asks). Then Washington is captured and put in a government safe house guarded by Ryan Reynolds. Through some exposition we learn that Washington is a notorious rogue CIA agent who has been running and hiding from the CIA for nearly a decade.

The safe house is compromised and Reynolds and Washington must hit the road. Now there are two story plot points running concurrently from this point forward. One, Reynolds must get Washington back to a safe house to be convicted for his crimes. Two, the men must figure out why a group of bad guys are chasing them. But that second point isn’t quite accurate. Washington knows why he’s being chased. Reynolds doesn’t. The audience doesn’t either.

Even more frustrating is that we are told that Washington is Evil with a capital E. But throughout the movie, we are given glimpses that Washington isn’t actually as evil as everyone says. This creates confusion for the audience member. Are we supposed to root against him or for him?

We don’t learn what Washington knows until the verrrrrry end of the movie. At that point, I’d venture to say most audience members have checked out of the movie. We’ve been teased and kept in the dark for so long, it no longer seems worth it to stick around for the reveal. And when the reveal finally does come, it feels hollow and empty.

A movie’s narrative cannot sustain itself on mystery and intrigue alone. The film must let the audience know what the stakes are so they can be emotionally invested in the character’s struggles. Whereas with Safe House, the audience has no place to attach their emotions or interest.

Keeping an audience in the dark and letting the characters know more is a good tactic to get people hooked into a story, but that’s it. It’s just a hook. It’s not a viable tactic to base a story off of.

Even if the overall mystery stays a mystery until the end, if the audience is given an idea of why the characters are doing what they are doing or what exactly they are doing, then the audience can become invested in the story.

A simple change I can think of for Safe House is to have Denzel Washington, at some point early in the film, tell Ryan Reynolds why he’s gone rogue and what the secrets he sold were. That way the audience can use Reynolds as a proxy. Is Washington telling the truth or not? Whereas in the movie now, we are expected to believe that Washington is Evil and he should be stopped.

There’s a scene quite late in the movie where Washington explains the last mission he was on is what set him down the path of becoming a rogue agent. Even if that scene was moved up closer to the beginning of the movie, it would have given the audience a better understanding of the events of the film.

Here’s another quick reason why filmmakers should be hesitant to overuse the idea of characters knowing more than the audience. When the audience knows more than the characters, that creates suspense. When the audience knows less than the characters, that creates confusion. It sort of goes back to that saying by Hitchcock. He gives the example (I’m paraphrasing) that if two characters are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off. That induces shock and surprise. If the audience knows that there’s a bomb under the table, and the characters don’t, that creates suspense.

Before I wrap this up, there is a place for letting the characters know more than the audience. That storytelling device exists for a reason. It is capable of working. However, to base an entire movie off that storytelling method is what I’m lambasting.

In summation, when filmmakers adopt the philosophy that characters should know more than the audience, it runs the risk of creating a lackluster movie going experience. It becomes a chore for the audience to watch and wait for the reveals. It creates an experience that is frustrating for the viewers.

Harrison

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