So I like thinking about movies and maybe if you also like thinking about movies you’ll find this interesting.

I was watching a film, and was momentarily stunned by the delivery of a line, and I realized that I was watching a very special kind of storytelling device which is extremely rare.  I’m going call it the Internal Epiphany.  See, I was watching the precise moment a character come to a realization that I had already known, sort of semi-consciously, but it was a genuine revelation to the character.  It shuddered the character, and changed his whole perception of the events of the story in which he just took part.

Boom: epiphany.

I’m not talking about Fight Club.  See, what you’re thinking of is a twist.  The director has to make a lot of aggressive choices to keep the fact that Tyler is Jack from us.  Scenes get shot precisely so that we don’t notice that Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) is dead.  It is so much more elegant when the director shows us so clearly, that we understand it long before the characters become aware.  It is the character’s own flaws that cause them to be ignorant of what it is that we know.  Would Fight Club work so well if we knew from reel one that Jack was Tyler?  Probably not.

Now this doesn’t help from a storytelling perspective at all, but the delivery of this line, this moment, can make or break the film.  If any of the lines I’ve selected below had been delivered poorly I think it would have crushed their impact.

I’m gonna give terse descriptions of films to focus on the epiphany part.  I know I’m missing key elements of the films.

This is the one that got me going:

 

Micheal Douglas, Falling Down (1993)

Falling Down is about a man on a bad day.  William Foster (Michael Douglas) is stuck in traffic, driving to a dead end job, paying child support to the wife who left him.  Something in him snaps and he leaves his car in traffic and just starts walking, with the aimless goal to “go home for my daughter’s birthday.”  On the way he is accosted by various ruffians in Los Angeles, and the violence surrounding him escalates to catastrophic levels.  There is a bit of comedy here, he starts with a baseball bat and finds/steals bigger and badder weapons until he fires a rocket launcher, but the escalation of the violence only highlights the escalation of his desperation.

See, there are so many cases where we identify with William Foster that we get as wrapped up in his shitty day as he is.  Yeah, 0.85$ is too much for a can of coke (this was ’93).  Yeah, it’s shitty when you watch someone be a homophobic asshole.   There’s a kind of vindictive joy that you share with William when he smashes the corner-store to pieces with the bat and when he stabs the neo-Nazi.  But you’re always aware this dude is just taking it too far.  So finally, when Detective Prendergast (Robert Duval) catches up with him and confronts him about his day, it doesn’t turn into a comical shootout.  They talk about his day.  In sort of the same way we’d confront a friend about some bad decisions he’s made, Prendergast asks him:

“What were you going to do?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“Oh, guys like you always say you don’t know what you were going to do until you do it, I think I know exactly what you were going to do.  You were going to kill your wife and child, yeah, and then it would be too late to turn back, it’d be real easy to turn the gun around on yourself.  Now lets go meet some nice policemen.”

 

 

"I'm the bad guy?"

“I’m the bad guy?”

 

The delivery is so good.  So good.  He whips through the line, because the realization is whipping through his mind.  This is him suddenly realizing that HE’S the one who’s taken it too far.  Suddenly he knows that what he’s done is wrong.  When the final shootout occurs with Prendergast (as it must) he doesn’t draw a weapon, he lets himself die so that his daughter can get the insurance money.

 

David Dorfman, The Ring (2002)

The Ring is an American horror remake of a 1998 Japanese film called Ringu.  In it, characters who watch a spooky VHS video immediately receive a phone call where a creepy voice whispers “seven days” and seven days later they die horrifically.  When I write it out like that it really fails to capture the magic of the film.  It does a great job of merging the traditional ghost/supernatural type elements which are staples of the horror genre with modern technological elements and this is one of the few attempts at this type of merger which manages to pull it off with panache.

Rachel (Naomi Watts) is exposed to the tape investigating the death of her niece (via the video).  She tracks down the locations and people depicted in the tape, finally tracing its origins back to the daughter of the Morgan family, Samara.  She’s an adopted daughter of unknown origins who seemingly brought with her a malignant presence.  Now we know from the start of the film that this Samara girl is the real evil in the story, but through uncovering the mystery Rachel finds Samara’s body (murdered by her mother!) and for a moment all seems well.  Then, Rachel’s precocious son Aidan speaks up:

“Is she still in the dark place?”

“No, we set her free.”

“You helped her?”

“Yeah”

“Why did you do that…

 

 

...you weren't supposed to help her"

…you weren’t supposed to help her”

 

Now it may be the handful of potently hallucinogenic mushrooms I had taken immediately before starting this film, or it may be David Dorfman’s creepy face and impeccable delivery, but my stomach dropped into my feet as he said those words.  The whole sequence where Rachel is “rescuing” Samara’s corpse you -know- that its wrong, it’s all wrong, but you want to believe it will be ok.  Rachel let herself get tricked into helping raw evil, and the denouement that follows after this is fantastic.

 

Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven (1992)

Now Unforgiven is considered one of the great Western films, but I’ll bet most folk who watch it won’t be aware why.  The plot, briefly, is that a cowboy slices up a prostitute in a wild west town and is not properly punished for it.  The prostitute’s friends gather up some ransom money, post it, and then some retired criminals come to claim the ransom and murder the men who cut the girl up.  I’ve read (somewhere) that Unforgiven was supposed to embody The Last Western, to kind of be a Western to end all Westerns.

Will Munny (Clint Eastwood), is the retired criminal who answers the call, and Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is the lawman who tries to stop him.  But it is very clear, so quickly, that the Westerns’ clearly drawn lines of good guy vs bad guy are not so clear here.  Munny is a violent murderer, reformed by a wife who’s died of tuberculoses.  Daggett is a terrifyingly violent man, keeping law through fear.  There are a ton of ways that the film plays with Western elements, but the one I want to focus on is the redemption of Will Munny.  That’s a big part of Westerns, bad men who come through to do great good.  From the start of the film Munny is the perfect reformed villain, just coming through for one last much deserved bounty hunt.  We realize, though, that he is not reformed, and when his partner Ned is killed, and he has the bounty money and is safe to escape to his family, he walks right into the saloon where 20 or more men are preparing to gang up on him.  Daggett turns to him and says:

“Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch.  You just shot an unarmed man.”

“Well he should have armed himself, he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”

“You be William Munny out of Missouri.  Killer of women and children.”

 

 

"Thats right, I've killed women and children, killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another, and I'm here to kill you Little Bill, for what you did to Ned."

“Thats right, I’ve killed women and children, killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another, and I’m here to kill you Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

 

William’s convinced himself up until this point that he was a good man.  He’s stayed faithful to his dead wife, avoided alcohol, and tried to teach his children to be Christian.  But when he had the money, he was free to go, he walked back into a saloon and chose to murder 6 (7?) men in cold blood.  The prostitutes who hired him shy away in fear.  We, the viewers, don’t feel like a hero won the day, just that a sad, terrifying man became aware that he was a sad, terrifying man.

 

I deeply wish I could find more examples, but my Netflix Rated list is like 40 pages long and scouring for examples is an excerise in frustration.  Fuck, maybe The Ring is a bad example because the realization comes from someone else?  I dunno.  Can anyone think of movies I missed?

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