Friday, February 15, 2013

Looper, Side Effects, and Genre Shifts

Note: This post contains spoilers of a sort. Just so you know.

Few storytelling tricks delight as much as messing with genre expectations, and recently I watched two movies that did just that -- Rian Johnson's Looper and Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects.

For the much of Looper, it seems like a standard enough (albeit well-executed) mash up of SF and noir. Joe Simmons is the titular looper, a hitman living in 2044 who murders victims from thirty years in the future. In 2074, criminals have co-opted time travel as a way to dispose of inconvenient individuals. Joe waits out in a Kansas field for targets to blip into existence with their hands tied, their heads shrouded, and bullion strapped across their backs. Then, bang. Of course, sometimes a looper will unintentionally close his own loop, meaning that the poor sap with the bag over his head and a load of buckshot in his chest turn ends up being an older edition of the assassin himself. No one likes to think about that much. But Joe has to, because his future self just appeared on that Kansas field -- and just escaped.

Sounds intriguing, yet predictable, right? With time travel crime movies, we know that plots will get snarly, guns will blaze, and only a last-minute twist related to the time stream will wrap things up. And that all happens with Looper. But Johnson throws in a very large nod to a (literally) foreign genre, namely anime. In the film's opening moments, Joe narrates that a small proportion of the population dubbed "TKs" has a genetic mutation that allows them to manipulate small objects. An interesting yet largely undeveloped idea, or so I thought initially. Johnson, though, sneaks in subtle little clues that more is going on than meets the eye. Joe meets an attractive single mother named Sara who can levitate heavier objects, such as a cigarette lighter. (Most TKs can only manage coins.) She exhibits an odd fear of her young son, Cid, and when Cid throws a fit at one point, Sara locks herself in gun safe. Very odd. The truth only comes out when a bounty hunter bursts in on the trio. Cid's face goes vengeful, all sounds fade to a static buzzing, Sara yanks Joe from the house, and the bounty hunter violently transmutes into a red mist. With a few subtle clues and a sudden shocking shift, Johnson thrusts viewers into the violent world of Elfin Lied and Galerians, where children can handily dispose of assailants using on the power of the minds. And you know what? It doesn't seem the least bit out of place.

Side Effects goes a step further: It actively deceives audiences as to its genre. Well, perhaps "deceived" is a bit too strong of a word. At first, Soderbergh leaves every impression that he aims to indict the drug industry with his tale about a depressed young woman named Emily who crashes her car into a wall and then murders her husband while on an antidepressant. Her physician, Dr. Banks, likes to get chummy with pharmaceutical reps and takes on drug trials to earn a little extra dough. He has no problem slipping to his wife pills that he thinks will help her with a big job interview or self-medicating with tons of Red Bull. ("Better living through chemistry," he quips to a disapproving nurse as he swills a 16-ounce can.) He seems to believe those sunny drug ads that pop up during daytime TV, but doesn't even know the medication that he's placed Emily on could have serious side effects, such as, say, causing her to go stabby stabby on her just-released-from-jail-insider-trading hubby during a fugue.

At first, I didn't want to see Side Effects because -- frankly -- I'm tired of progressive social statements masquerading as narratives. (The Constant Gardener, I'm looking at you.) What a relief to realize at the halfway mark that all of those high-minded sentiments were camouflage. Soderbergh doesn't want to condemn anyone; he's simply looking to create a super-complex and gripping thriller in the vein of 2007's Fracture. Isn't it interesting how the pharmaceutical sector of the stock market went into conniptions after Emily carved up her husband? Why did her former psychiatrist write an article on how the drug might cause sleepwalking, an article that doesn't seem to have received much attention? And why did Emily bother to buckle her seatbelt before that vehicular suicide attempt? Now you see why I hesitate to call the genre shift "deception." The clues are all there, even if it takes a jaw-dropping revelation for us to piece them together.

Such clues seem key to storytellers who want to pleasantly trick their audiences. Viewers or readers can accept any number of unexpected developments if we give them warnings, however subtle, first.

(Picture: CC 2012 by alexandre soma)

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