Got around to The Revenant at the weekend; a pretty bleak and unforgiving tale of revenge based on the experiences of Frontiersman, Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a brutal watch and the historical accuracy is questionable (then again, who cares?) but it is a beautifully shot and acted film, well worth a viewing.
For over two and a half hours we follow Glass as he hunts down Fitzgerald, the chap who kills his son and leaves Glass alone in the wilderness to die from his bear-related injuries. Obviously he doesn’t die, but he faces one hell of an ordeal before finally facing down his nemesis against the backdrop of snowy mountains and an avalanche. The film ends with a close up of Glass’ face and the sound of him breathing as he watches his dead wife walk off into the snow. The screen goes black and we hear a few more breaths before the credits roll. There is debate on the internet about what all this means, whether Glass is alive or dead, but the thing I was thinking about was that final visual; Glass looking up the hill, after his wife and then turning to stare directly into the lens of the camera.
Now, this isn’t full on “breaking the fourth wall” as Glass doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the camera or audience. Again you can read endless debate about this online and what it all means. However, what it did for me, which is what breaking the fourth wall often does, is it dragged me even deeper into the film (if that was at all possible after the previous, intense 150 minutes) and into Glass’ soul, if you like. I’m not going to debate whether this was a “break” – I don’t really care – but it did heighten my connection to Glass, his story and the predicament he finds himself in at the end of the film – it made me almost an active participant, as opposed to the dumb-bystander I had been for the rest of the film.
And that is what breaking the fourth wall should do… what any screenwriting tool should do; enhance the story and the viewer’s experience. Thinking about how it can be used then got me thinking about one of my favourite examples.
*****MORE SPOILERS AHEAD*****
There are plenty of examples of films that have broken the fourth wall over the years. I’m not going to look at them all here, just Google “Films that break the fourth wall” and you’ll find them. I just wanted to concentrate on one of them, to show how effective the tool can be and, possibly, how devisive it can be as well.
I chose Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), a remake (pretty much shot for shot) of his own 1997 film, also called Funny Games. I’m talking about the 2007 version as it is the one I have seen most recently and is fresher in my memory, but either will do if you want to watch it. It is, arguably, a lot more disturbing and hard-going than The Revenant and is, essentially, a home invasion story, where a couple and their son are terrorised in their own home by two sadistic teenage boys. For no apparent reason. It is brutal, with bursts of extreme violence and certainly doesn’t have a happy ending but, for me, what Haneke was doing was holding a mirror up to the audience and get them to explore what it is that keeps them watching an extremely violent film with a seemingly unjustifiable plot; it’s just violence for the sake of violence. Haneke himself described it as “pointless.”
The film breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasion with one of the teenagers repeatedly acknowledging the audience’s existence, through monologue and knowing winks. But one particular scene does this superbly, breaking the fourth wall and playing with audience expectations. Following the murder of their son and the imminent murder of her husband, Ann (Naomi Watts) grabs a shotgun and kills one of her attackers, giving the audience what it wants; the twist and fight back that will lead to a satisfying (for the audience) ending of revenge. But we don’t get that relief, as the surviving tormentor finds the TV remote and rewinds the film to before Ann grabs the shotgun. He restarts the film and this time makes sure she doesn’t get the gun.
It is a device that split audiences. I’ve spoken to people who hated it, and the film, largely because of that scene. I thought it worked perfectly. In a film that questions audiences and voyeuristic behaviour, it teases us with a glimpse of the ending we want to see and think we are owed (revenge) and then whips it back away from us, leaving us watching what is then simply a bleak, violent and ultimately pointless film. We can justify watching a violent film because we are waiting to see the good guys prevail, that’s our justification for sitting through the bad stuff. But Haneke highlights this to us when his characters break the fourth wall. Not only does it make us willing participants in the action on screen but it tells us things aren’t going to go the way we think. The two violent teenagers are in control and the rules have gone out of the window – so why do we keep watching?
It was interesting to me that the people I knew who watched it, disliked the film more because it screwed with their expectations of what was going to happen in this type of movie than they disliked the violence being perpetrated on innocent people. By breaking that wall, Haneke makes us complicit in the action and people didn’t like it. It made them uncomfortable (me included) and that is wonderful film-making. Films should make you feel something.
There are lots of other incidences and examples of this in films. I don’t have space to talk about them all, and they are all done for different purposes but, ultimately, they draw us into the action and make us a part of it. Whether that is a good thing (Ferris Bueller) or a bad thing (Funny Games) really depends on the film and the mirror it holds up to the audience.
As another tool at our disposal, I would think it is probably one for the experienced writer and one that should be used sparingly, to avoid lessening its impact. But, when it is used well, it can make a massive impact on your audience. Most audiences these days a pretty savvy and understand how movies work – any tool that we can deploy that changes this, subverts expectations and can help us take them by surprise, has to be a good thing.
Yeah, okay I’ll admit it, The Revenant doesn’t really break the fourth wall, but it was the trigger that made me want to write this post. I’ve never used the tool myself (although I have suggested it to a friend for one of their projects and have an idea for its use in one story I am working on) but I do recognise how it can work well and perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as a gimic.
Have you ever broken the “fourth wall” in a story?
Do you think it is a useful tool or a pointless gimic?