Sometimes I feel like storytelling has gotten too complicated for its own good. I wonder how many writers have felt pressured to break new ground in their chosen genre, or how many would-be writers never put pen to page because they worry that their ideas aren’t “fresh” enough. Aiming high is good, that’s how progress is made. Yet I find myself slightly disappointed by some of what I read and watch because the stories don’t fully ascend to the apogee of their aspirations. The film version of The Fountain comes to mind. So does Sucker Punch. These aren’t bad stories per se, they just fall a little short of the inherent promise made to us by the tellers: “This one is different. This one is more.”
There’s a reason why fiction can be broken down into familiar structures taught to students young enough to struggle with cursive handwriting. Those structures may seem tired but they just work, and if one understands them well enough it becomes unnecessary to try to break free from them. Snowpiercer is a wonderful example of what happens when a writer doesn’t try to get fancy with format and just lets the story tell itself.
(Warning: this entry and its comments contain spoilers.)
What I mean by that last statement, mostly, is that Snowpiercer seems to get out of its own way while it’s being watched. I’m a stickler for the immersion factor of a movie, a big part of my enjoyment of a flick is how well it draws me in and makes me forget that what’s on screen isn’t actually happening. There are a lot of small mistakes or unintended flaws a movie can contain that quickly drop me out of that sensation, and often its the more subtle examples that are the most damaging. A line of dialogue that doesn’t seem to fit a character’s established personality but obviously serves to move the plot forward, or the editor’s choice to linger on the object that the audience doesn’t yet know is the McGuffin for just a few too many frames can nudge me right out of that elusive state of being. This happens to me every scene or so in bad movies, maybe a dozen times in a decent flick, and even really good movies can’t avoid having two or three. There was only once that this happened during Snowpiercer that I can recall, and it was near the very end of the movie, and by that point I was so on-board that they could have intentionally broken the fourth wall without much complaint from me.
That’s kind of remarkable, especially for a story set in the near-future of the real world and happens to include a character who is heavily implied to have precognitive abilities. The movie is based on a graphic novel which I have not read so I don’t know who to credit for the writing, but someone clearly has a firm grasp on garnering audience buy-in. (Edit: Apparently both volumes of the graphic novel are available in English.)
As for the movie itself, it seems obvious to me that everyone involved really cared about what they were doing. Remember watching The Matrix, with all of its interesting and beautiful framing choices? Snowpiercer learned well from Wachowski Starship‘s example. Simple scenes like a bit of expository dialogue and interpersonal fluff between two of the main characters is seemingly given a deeper significance thanks to the conversation happening in one long overhead shot while the pair lay in bunk beds immediately above and below one another. The casting was terrific as well; I can’t think of a single actor who didn’t pull their own weight, and there are several (Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton) who could have carried the movie all by their lonesome. The last act is pretty Evans-heavy and some of his work during the last half of that act makes me sad that he’s said he plans to essentially stop acting once his contract with Marvel Studios is complete in order to focus more on directing. The scene near the end where the audience is finally taken into the movie’s confidence is heavy; Evans’ character reveals his backstory as it relates to their surroundings, in turn revealing the nature of his motivation. It seems to have been filmed in a single, close-up shot of Evans (there’s a single cut away to another character) and as he spoke I was rapt. The story he told was compelling, yes, but his performance sold it. Once again, basic exposition elevated by simple choices and skill, not gimmicks or arbitrarily “different” methods.
The movie’s heavy on allegory, another tried and true technique. In case you didn’t know, the movie is set on a train and the main thrust of the plot involves traveling between the cars. Early on, the progression from one car to the next is deliberate with movement into each successive car feeling like a minor victory in itself, but unless they wanted to make a five-hour movie they couldn’t keep up the same level of difficulty or storytelling detail. So instead of ham-handedly montaging the audience through the remaining cars they simply reduced the difficulty and ratcheted up the level of introspection. Snowpiercer is a movie with something to say about humanity and as they reveal the purpose and contents of each new car it becomes clear that its opinion is not very flattering.
The film masterfully executed a handful of red herrings, too. Early in the movie a misbehaving passenger is punished with an ingeniously cruel method of limb amputation and immediately afterward the audience is presented with a number of characters who also happen to be short on arms and legs. The implication is clear but the truth is anything but. Perhaps the best bit of misdirection is the most subtle example, and something that I had missed until my wife pointed it out to me. At the end of the movie Evans’ character has a conversation with the train’s engineer, a title which rings true in every sense of the word. The engineer (Ed Harris) has a few choice words about John Hurt’s character which, in isolation, introduce conflict and complexity to the otherwise straightforward character played by Hurt. He claims to have been in cahoots with Hurt all along, and Evans’ journey from the back of the train to the front was essentially preordained. But there was a single line of dialogue earlier in the film where Hurt tells Evans “Don’t let him start talking”. This line makes what Harris has to say even more interesting and uncertain even though at the time it seemed rather like good but innocuous advice from an old man. Exactly who has been played, here?
Snowpiercer succeeds due to a workmanlike adherence to fundamentally sound principals. Not once does it play with the audience’s sense of linear time. Characters are straightforward and clearly defined, even as the audience is treated to revelations about some of them. The plot does not meander even when we the audience are most tempted to ask it to stop and tell us more about some interesting tangent. And on top of it all it masks the mundane aspects of storytelling with things that are beautiful or frightening or thought-provoking. The movie makes us forget that it’s following all the rules by following all the rules. And that takes true artistry.