Precious Bodily Fluids

Who’s Cheating? Mystic River, The Sixth Sense, and North By Northwest

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It’s been suggested over here that Mystic River employs a sort of narrative “cheat” not unlike the oft-repeated one in The Sixth Sense. It’s often true that movie watchers don’t like being fooled, but it should be acknowledged that some of the greats (e.g. Hitchcock) were masters at doing this in just the right way – a way that didn’t seem as offensive. Most of Hitchcock’s films work so well because the viewer is so well sutured to a particular character or characters that the narrative feels like one’s own. This effects an attachment to not only the narrative but to the film itself; the spectator feels part and parcel of the movie, something Hitchcock well knew and so exploited it through humor and adventure, making the audience feel like they were along for the ride and not simply watching someone else’s ride.

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Perhaps it shouldn’t be said that the narrative twist in The Sixth Sense is a “cheat,” at least not like it is in Mystic River. The main problem with the shock in The Sixth Sense is that it’s all the film is standing on. Whatever other notions might be suggested in the film are given the back seat (as in, the very back seat of a twelve-passenger van) to the not-so-little detail that changes everything in the film. However, it is not a cheat because the viewer is usually connected with Bruce Willis’ character Malcolm and is only privy to what he knows. Alternately, it can be said that the spectator’s point of view is Cole’s view of how Malcolm sees himself. We see what Cole sees, and what he sees Malcolm see. The viewer is only let in on the film’s big secret at the moment Willis realizes it. Shallow? Empty? A shameless conceit? It may be all of those things, but it’s probably not really a cheat.

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Enter Mystic River. In what is ironically an actor’s movie (it was even directed by one), it’s slightly trickier to determine just which character the viewer is supposed to identify with most. Maybe it’s not ironic; maybe the thespian ensemble functions precisely to confuse the viewer as to which character the film itself wants to see come out in front. This is doubtful. The characters are all types, caricatures, and oddities, personalities overly determined by their pasts or inconsistent in attitude and motivation. In fact, the film does choose its “main” character, the one whose point of view is given priority to the viewing audience: Dave. The opening scene functions as a flashback, giving the three main male characters a background that connects them and one that sets Dave apart from Jimmy and Sean in a certain, horrible way. Following the opening scene and periodically throughout the film we see flashbacks from Dave, a Rashomon-like forest view as he escapes his captors after four days of abusive captivity.

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What is the point of all of these flashbacks? It seems fair to assume that they are for either one or both of the following reasons: to give narrative background to the main story that will fill in important information, or, to paint a fuller picture of the character of Dave in order to create viewer attachment and all the accompanying emotions, etc. As with most either-ors, this one turns out to be both. And herein lies the real cheat of Mystic River. More than any other technical element, Dave’s forest flashbacks suture the viewer to the character of Dave. No other character has POV shots like these. Over the course of the main story, exceedingly important information about Dave, of which he is fully aware, is withheld not only from the other characters, but also from the viewing audience. The only reason to withhold this information is to create suspense, but unfortunately it’s at the expense of a consistent connection between viewer and “main” character. This makes the suspense artificial, a “cheat.”

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This is something that, again, The Sixth Sense did not do and something that Hitchcock didn’t do. These two counter-examples were chosen – one a film and one a corpus of films – because they represent the other two options: either let the audience in on what’s happening à la Hitchcock, or withhold information to the same degree that the main character is ignorant of it. One of the great twists in North By Northwest occurs after Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) escapes narrowly from the United Nations building after being framed for a murder. The camera makes a transition from the U.N. building (a bird’s-eye or God’s-eye view of the reflective façade) to the exterior of the Central Intelligence Agency (a man’s eye view), the sign of which mirrors the Washington, D.C. Capitol building across the street from it. Hitchcock makes it clear to his audience that they have a privileged outlook by removing them from the restricted and confusing point of view of Roger Thornhill to the much more omniscient CIA. This move doesn’t so much cater to the audience as respect it, understanding that Thornhill’s situation is too intense for the audience to experience it with him past a certain point.

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Interestingly, there is a later point in North By Northwest when Hitchcock does trick the audience. At Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint’s character Even Kendall appears to shoot Thornhill point blank in front of a large crowd. The audience is briefly left reeling as much as the crowd within the scene, which believes that the two characters are on opposite sides, if one wants to murder the other. A few moments later, the viewer meets the characters in a secluded forest where Thornhill emerges unscathed from a car, along with Kendall, showing that the scene was a hoax. The main reason why this conceit is not exactly a deceit is that Thornhill is not in on the hoax until shortly after the shot is fired, when he realizes that it was a blank. The amount of screen time that elapses between the firing of the shot and the revelation to the audience that Thornhill is alive is no doubt not much longer than how long it took Thornhill to realize he wasn’t hurt. Sutured to Thornhill, Hitchcock plays the same trick on the audience that SHE plays on him, briefly (and only briefly!) letting the audience/Thornhill think that something dreadful has happened when it hasn’t. The event was not the crux of the plot and was not drawn out as an artificial suspense element.

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The point may be done to death, but it amply illustrates how a film like Mystic River relies on an artificial and inconsistent plot device to distract the audience from some truly uninteresting characters and get the audience to focus on the only thing the film has going for it: the narrative. The aforementioned blog did well to note this point, as well. Granted, a film like North By Northwest loves and needs its plot. The plot, like in many of Hitchcock’s films, is larger than life, so the great director does what needs to be done to ground the film: give it a main character (or main characters) who appeal completely to the viewing audience. If the film isn’t “realistic,” at least let its characters appeal to those watching. The lack of realism in Mystic River’s story (Dave’s wife’s knee-jerk assumption that he killed the girl??) is piled on top of larger than life characters, rendered so by a kind of acting that draws more attention to the performances than to the characters. The characters in Mystic River repel the audience. The acting may appeal to viewers, but the characters themselves are generally unappealing, evoking sympathy at points but rarely if ever empathy rooted in a real connection with lived experience and a personable disposition. Some may say this is the nature of tragedy, but a quick look at Shakespeare disproves that idea. An effective tragedy does the same fundamental thing Hitchcock does, connecting the audience with the character for whatever effect best suits the genre or the work itself.

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Good thing it's a closeup

PS: Having not seen many films directed by Clint Eastwood, what’s with the finger-gun motif here and in Gran Torino?

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This entry was published on November 14, 2009 at 12:03 am. It’s filed under 1950s Cinema, 1990s Cinema, 2000s Cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, American film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Who’s Cheating? Mystic River, The Sixth Sense, and North By Northwest

  1. But the absolute WORST part of Mystic River?? Laura Linney. Hands down. Awful awful awful. Can’t watch her or stand to hear her “Bwoston” accent.

  2. Absolutely. She is the cherry on top of a very misogynistic sundae. She becomes full-fledged evil after being a not unlikeable character, morally speaking. Marcia Gay Harden is villainized when she squeals on her husband (for something he didn’t do). And Kevin Bacon’s estranged wife is presented as a weak victim. But Clint Eastwood movies aren’t known for their strong women, I guess.

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