Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Timecrimes, Triangle and the Trouble with Twists

Note: The following post contains some spoilers for the titles in question.

Plot twists are trouble. A story that upends our expectations at the last minute can thrill, no doubt about it. But it also poses pitfalls for even the most seasoned writers, and two films I recently watched illustrated the point. Timecrimes and Triangle both deal with time travel (a twisty subject in and of itself) and both also trip over the same stumbling block -- suspension of disbelief.

Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes focuses on Hector, a married man happily residing in the mountains. Happily, that is, until Hector spends a lazy evening scanning the hills with his binoculars and spies an attractive young woman shucking off her shirt. When he goes off to investigate, a man with a bandaged face bursts from the trees and stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors. The subsequent flight leads Hector to an isolated research center where he hides in a vat full of a strange milky liquid. A vat that clangs shut over him. A vat from which he emerges moments later into the blaze of a noonday sun ...

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the scary guy with the pointy implement in Timecrimes is an iteration of Hector himself. What disappoints, though, is the lazy way in which Vigalondo rationalizes Hector's actions. Why does he wind a bandage around his head and force a comely hairdresser to disrobe at scissorpoint? Simply because he concludes that he must reenact the bizarre series of events to avoid fracturing the timeline. No philosophizing, no rationalization, nothing more than rote repetition of soon-to-be-future happenings (at least until events take an amoral turn in the final act). Vigalondo obviously wants to make a point about the triumph of determinism over free will, yet the proceedings cease to make sense when you take a step back from their emotional impact.

Christopher Smith's Triangle fares better. Jess has long planned to go sailing with her friends on Greg's boat, but she shows up to the docks haggard and withdrawn. However, no one has time to muse over her health when a sudden storm capsizes the sailboat. Salvation arises in the form of a cruise liner christened Aeolus -- or is it hell instead? The liner appears deserted except for a masked assailant who starts attacking the castaways. While fleeing, Jess finds herself assaulted by one of her wounded friends, who claims that she's the one who instigated the violence.

Smith goes a good job laying out his speculative premise, alerting audiences early to the fact that Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus, the man condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill. You can see how this is going to unfold, can't you? Circumstances will dictate that Jess murder her friends, always seeking and yet never achieving a certain goal (and I won't spoil the plot by revealing what it is). At crucial junctures, Smith jolts viewers with unexpected images of repetition. Dead birds piled upon a beach. A grate filled with broken necklaces. A mound of identical corpses where the same friend has crawled to die time and again. Yet he also cheats in one crucial point: Following internal logic, Jess should know everything that will happen to her by the movie's three-minute mark, but Smith gives Jess every indication ignorance while failing to provide a mechanism for her forgetting.

Herein lies the trouble with twists: Such stories must do more than your normal narratives. They have to function like regular tales and then subvert themselves in some way. That's a tall order, and a few have done it well (e.g. Twelve Monkeys, The Usual Suspects, The Prestige). Too many, though, fall flat or resort to outlandish resolutions or violate their own plot rules. The lesson is plain. If you want to tell an effective twist story, get ready to do some serious work.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Fellowship of the Rich)


Existence said...

On the yacht, Jess falls asleep and suddenly wakes up from a nightmare. Upon her friend asking her what she dreamed about, she says she cannot remember. So there IS a mechanism for her forgetting.

Loren Eaton said...

Hmmmm, interesting. I guess I need to watch the film again!

Radiator said...

The point about his enacting of the crime he witnessed is that his previous self HAD to see it or he wouldn't be motivated to find the time travel device. It didn't matter that it was a fake version of what was presumably a real murder in one reality- he just had to THINK he saw that murder. It makes perfect sense to me and functions as a clever get out clause to the classic time travel paradox.