Monday, October 23, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Before & After (1996) - Emotional Engagement in a Thriller

[Quick Summary: When a teenage girl turns up dead, the parents of the prime suspect (girl's boyfriend) struggle to navigate the emotional repercussions.]

Ah, the 1990s, how I miss your emotionally engaging thrillers.

Today's thrillers are often so plot driven that they lose some humanity, i.e., making mistakes, showing vulnerability, making the audience worry.

This story has its issues,* but the script is good at making me feel.

First, I like that Jacob's parents (and sister) are the protagonists, not Jacob.

We're experiencing the consequences of his actions from the parent or sibling POV. This sheds a different light, i.e., how the people who love you experience your pain.

Second, I like how the writer externalizes the internal conflict.  This is tough!

In the scene below, Carolyn is Jacob's mother.


POV ANGLE, MOVING across the site where Martha's body was found. Trampled snow, a highway shoulder. Many tire tracks, footprints. In one area the snow is still tinged pink. Several small floral tributes have already been left here, on the ground or tied to the split-rail fence. Hand-written notes, heartrending little signs: "Martha, We Love You" ... "For MT from BK & CG"... "God Keep Our Angel." [We see the sad scene that Carolyn is seeing - the blood, the tributes.]

Carolyn turns away, her eyes moist. It is bitter cold. She stares off into the woods. After awhile she climbs over the fence, walks in amongst the trees, staring all around, looking for - what? She doesn't even know. Any sign at all of her son. A few more halting steps, then something stops her ... [She can barely process all this roiling emotion: trauma, loss, uncertainty.]

A spot where the ground is churned up, clods of frozen dirt mixed with the snow. Like a shallow grave. [Primal fear strikes her heart.]

Choking back a cry, Carolyn falls to her knees, begins scrabbling at the snow with her gloved hands. no good. She looks around, seizes a piece of fallen branch, stabs at the snow with this, almost frantic, till a voice stops her. [She's reacting without thinking.]

VOICE: Ma'am?

Carolyn turns, frightened...

It's Tommy, the young cop we met at the house. He looks down at her anxiously from the fence. His cruiser idles nearby, pulled in behind Carolyn's Audi.

TOMMY: We've been all over this area? And that's just somebody's dog.

Carolyn stares up at him, becoming aware of how she must look - dirty, wild-eyed, her breath steaming... [Very vulnerable, very human. I look a mess.]

But Tommy's face shows only a kind of embarrassed sympathy."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To keep thrillers fresh, find another way into the story.

I don't think the tried-and-true formula of following the perpetrator here (Jacob) would've been as effective.

Before & After (1996)(dated 9/20/94)
by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by Rosellen Brown

*I can see why the critics didn't like it as a film:

"The story elements here are dramatic, but it's impossible to determine what the point of the film is. The characters behave stupidly and pay a price for it. There are no bad characters, and no lessons to be learned."    

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