Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care very much about establishing shots. He likes details. The Counselor, his latest film, is a movie full of details, and it’s the audience’s job to put them all together. Scott’s is a form of storytelling that stays on the inside and forces you to figure out what lies outside the frame.
Many films and filmmakers tell stories from the outside in. They begin with a very wide shot to establish place, cuts to a mid-range shot to provide context, and then finally to a close-up to identify characters. This is the conventional way to tell a screen-story – start with the big and work your way into the small. Situate everythign within a comprehensible story universe.
Speaking of universes, here’s an extreme example from WALL*E in which we go from the Universe (establishing), to the towering trash-pile cities of earth (context), and then finally to WALL*E himself, our key character.
Much more is established by this opening sequence besides simply context and character, of course, especially in conjunction with the soundtrack (because WALL*E is an exceptional film), but the method represents the most standard way of introducing an audience to a story world and character.
Other films tell stories from the inside out. Hitchcock was a master at this. He starts with a detail, moves out to provide human context for that detail, revealing characters, and then moves out yet again to establish place. Here’s the opening of Vertigo – hands on a rail, then characters, and finally, the San Francisco rooftops.
This is a very effective way to create an air of mystery, because the sequencing of the shots immediately makes you start asking questions – “Why am I looking at a rail? Whose hands are those? Why are they climbing?” Those questions are all almost immediately answered – “It’s a ladder. The hands belong someone being chased. They are high up on the San Francisco rooftops.” – and then you find out none of that information was very important after all, because the story isn’t about that man being chased. It’s about the chaser and what happens to him long after this incident is over. (But of course, Vertigo is a twisty little film.)
Ridley Scott is a filmmaker who has always reveled in the details. He uses wide establishing shots and mid-range shots too, but his films feature an abundance of objects. This lends his films both a sense of authenticity and a kind of piece-meal effect.
His highly regarded or much loved films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator are renowned for this sense of authenticity. Even though they are each set in distant times and places, their worlds feel real. These films are highly voyeuristic – they convincingly take you to a fantastic place – and because they have compelling stories and/or characters, they work.
I find some of his other films interesting for their details even if they don’t really work very well for me as a whole. Robin Hood, to me, seems to be a movie about buttons and cups, about the ways those medieval men and women fasten their clothing and take a drink. Matchstick Men seems all about the shiftiness and stench of upward wafting cigarette smoke. I admire the craft even if I have trouble with the overall effect.
The Counselor, Scott’s latest, depends entirely on details, and it requires the audience to piece them together to make sense of what’s happening, who these people are, and what they want from each other. This makes for a compelling mystery. We’re never entirely sure what’s going on, and because we are given so many facts and shown so little of the ways they’re connected, it’s surprising when we see things come together in the end, or fall apart depending on whom you think the hero is here.
Or if there is a hero at all. None of these people are very heroic, and none of them, save one, possibly, elicit much compassion, but a story doesn’t have to have a hero or even likable characters to be worthwhile or have a point. The point of The Counselor is also something we’ll have to piece together from the many details we’re given.
Making a unified whole out of so many parts isn’t a strength of mine. I’m better at fitting all the parts into a whole once I’ve seen the whole. I need the “overall,” and then I can fit the details into it.
Overall, I left the theater after The Counselor feeling like all people are inexorably greedy, and that our greed will either kill us or make us inhuman monsters. Life is simply a process of soaking up the world’s worst until we’re nothing but the worst ourselves. Even confession (religious or otherwise) and other forms of moral expunging only spread our filth onto others. They do nothing to get us clean. There is no hope.
I don’t really believe that, of course. I believe that God already let the worst of humanity take God into the grave. God died there on the world’s account, and we can opt into that death and the accompanying resurrection that brings us new life free from all that filth. We can be new creations, not just dead or made into monsters, but truly recreated into something new.