Author: Alex Thompson

PhD student, amateur photographer.

A Separate Savior: How Abe is Visually Distinguished in Young Mr. Lincoln

In his film Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford creates a version of the American hero that is, for the most part, detached from the rest of the world. Ford loves the idea of community but how can you have a genuine hero in a place and a film that revolves around community? Henry Fonda’s Abe Lincoln is this kind of hero. There are visual clues that Ford uses to demonstrate that the only kind of hero that a community can use is one that isn’t part of the community. These clues come from the framing and the use of fences in those frames. Through these ideas Ford makes a clear case for the lonely and distinct hero.
            We’ll start with the framing of Abe throughout the film. Right through the film Lincoln is visually separated from other people by Ford’s use of “hero shots”, the juxtaposition of one shots and two-plus shots, and other miscellaneous framing devices. Let’s first look at the hero shot. Generally, a hero shot is a one shot from a low (as in below the torso) perspective looking up towards the character within the shot. The character will take up most of the frame and will therefore be very imposing and intimidating. John Ford uses this kind of shot on Lincoln during several key scenes to drive home the fact that Lincoln is worthy of the hero title. Our second shot of Lincoln comes in the form of a hero shot. He’s giving a speech on a porch in his small hometown. He’s not particularly imposing at this point but he does carry himself well and his speech, which is all given in the duration of this shot with the reactions saved for after his speech is over, is a good one. However, at this point Lincoln hasn’t become who he will be and is not as important or well developed yet. As such the hero shot is not very dramatic. It’s almost indistinguishable from what a normal mid shot would look like, save for the fact that we see a bit the wall above the door behind him which wouldn’t be visible in a normal mid shot.

           The next hero shot of Lincoln comes at what may be the most important moment in the entire film, if not his life. It is during the celebrations at his new town and Lincoln is the sole judge of the pie contest. We get a camera angle that is probably from the audience’s perspective and, since Lincoln is on an elevated platform to perform his sacred duties, we see a much more dramatic version of the hero shot as he struggles to decide between the two obviously delicious pies. But don’t let a little jesting fool you, this shot really is important to developing the themes of the film through the hero shot. Abe has previously recognized that the law and deciding what’s right and what’s wrong is an important concept to him and this pie eating contest gives him the opportunity to exercise that concept in a relatively unimportant venue. At this point Lincoln is building his career as a lawyer and the ability to distinguish right from wrong is a valuable tool in his belt as we see later in the film. It’s this discriminating characteristic that both separates Lincoln and turns him into the hero that the community needs. And the pies are tasty.
            The next three hero shots go a long way to distinguish Lincoln as a moral and just hero which is important for Ford to do so that the audience sympathies are firmly in his camp. They all accomplish a similar goal and I’ll therefore group them together and talk about them as a whole, for the most part. The first is at the jailhouse as Lincoln reigns in the mob that wants to lynch the two suspected murderers (who just happen to be Lincoln’s first clients), the second comes after he proves his clients’ innocence and the final is the last shot of the movie as Lincoln stands on a hill during a thunderstorm. This last one isn’t a typical hero shot and is actually more of a wide shot but as he is on a hill and super tall, I think it works for what I’m talking about here. These three shots are used to firmly establish Lincoln as an undeniable hero. First he turns the mob of people away from the jailhouse in order to get the two boys a fair trial. The moral high ground here is definitely Lincoln’s. Again, the shot is likely from the perspective of his audience, a theme which runs through these hero shots. The next one, as he leaves the courthouse to wild applause, is a similar situation and accomplishes similar things. Now he has a legitimacy from finding the real killer and proving his two clients innocent and the hero title is definitely deserved. The last shot of him on the hill sets Lincoln up as the national hero that everybody knows from history books and who pays the ultimate sacrifice for bringing his community together.
            Now that I’ve established that Lincoln is clearly a hero, I’d like to point out how he is defined as separate from the community through the framing and set up of the shots throughout the film. Ford consistently frames Lincoln in one shot while almost every other shot has multiple people in them. This constant visual separation sets Lincoln apart from the community he is trying to build and defend. Let’s look at some specific examples.
            The first example is also from the mob scene where Lincoln diffuses the crowd’s overreaction to the murder. He is framed throughout the scene in one shots either from the side or straight on (including the hero shot mentioned above). The rest of the town is framed together to emphasize how they are of a unified mind. They all think the same thing and are therefore visually equated within the scene by being shown in two-plus shots. Lincoln, who isn’t a part of this mob and knows that their point of view is incorrect, is shown separately from them to emphasize his severance from the community. Here Lincoln recognizes that the town requires him to stand and make a difference but he also knows that he can’t do it and still be a part of the community. This dichotomy is what Ford is trying to express throughout the movie and in this scene.

            Similarly, Lincoln is shown as separate from a community in the trial scene, though this time it isn’t the community as a whole that he is separate from but the judicial system. As the prosecutor begins his opening arguments Lincoln goes over to a bookshelf and begins to read one of the law books on display there. He is shown in a one shot here, too, while the rest of the trial happens in another shot that contains the judge and jury and prosecutor and everybody else. Lincoln is again established as an outsider that will eventually save the legitimacy of the court and the two innocent men’s lives. The court works as it is supposed to where both sides get a chance to argue innocence and guilt which is then finally decided by the jury, but Lincoln undermines the rules that are set up when he feels that they are irrelevant. This separation from the normal and accepted rules for the greater good is again echoed in the visual separation shown in the framing of him apart from the courtroom and with the law books that he will use when they fit him and ignore when they don’t. This dedication to the ideals of the law but not the sometimes unnecessary practices is another example of Lincoln being the necessarily separate hero.
             The way Lincoln is framed when he is shown in shots with other people is also a key to understanding how his character operates within the film. He is often shown to be separate from the others even in shots that show him interacting with them. Lincoln is usually shown to be either above or below the rest of the characters in the shot. When he is below them he is trying to be humble to people that are better than him, either in terms of class or moral stature. When he is above them he is trying to bend them to his own goal, that of bringing the community together. Lincoln was physically imposing but it is surprising how little Ford chooses to capitalize on his height. This, of course, means that when he does decide to emphasize Lincoln’s height he does so for a reason.
            Lincoln is shown in the bottom of the frame in three key scenes. The first comes when he goes to the 4th of July celebration and sits with the big wigs of the town. He feels uncomfortable here and decides to sit on the platform instead of in the chairs that the high class people are sitting in. He is a tiny figure in the bottom left of the frame when compared to these “better” people. Here Lincoln recognizes that he’s not a part of this community and is separated visually because of that. Later he pulls a similar stunt but for an entirely different purpose. Here he is meeting with the mother of his two clients at her house out in the country. This is the type of house he grew up in, and he tells them that he’s more comfortable there than in the rest of the town. He still, however, sits down on the porch floor instead of in a chair like the mother. He really respects the family he represents and is therefore humbled that they would let him be their representation in the court case. His humble nature compels him to position himself below the mother and therefore low in the frame. He is again the smaller character within the frame, a hard thing to pull off with a person like Lincoln. Finally, in the court case itself he is shown over and over again in the bottom of the frame. At the beginning it seems to be because he’s out of his league. He stretches out as we have seen him do throughout the movie and puts his feet up on the table so he takes up the entirety of the bottom of the frame. He seems unimpressed by the whole proceeding, or perhaps nervous about his first big court case. He isn’t conducting himself in the way that the prosecutor and the rest of the people in the trial are, with the pomp and ceremony that is normally associated with such an occasion. But later we see him again sitting on a kind of platform: the steps up to the jury box area. Here he’s below the jury, the witness, the prosecutor, and pretty much everybody else in the frame and courtroom. But he’s in charge here. He’s playing a role in order to fool the room so that his revelation will surprise them. When he does finally pounce he stands up and becomes the tall, impressive figure we expect from Lincoln.
            In fact, it is later in this scene that he is shown above the rest of the community in the frame. It doesn’t happen often so when it does it makes an impact. The most important scene where he is above the rest of the characters in the frame comes when he questions Jack Cass, the supposed eye witness to the murder. He knows something is fishy with Cass’s story and because of this he is framed to be taller than Cass. Lincoln hovers over him and makes him admit to the murder and conspiracy to implicate the two boys instead of him. Here Lincoln is in charge and has the moral high ground, so he is in the top of the frame. He’s powerful now, and he knows it. This difference in framing is only exacerbated when Cass gets off the stand to run out of the court room. He’s even smaller in comparison to Lincoln now that he knows he is busted.  One other example comes much earlier in the film, right after his first speech on the porch. He is offered some books as a form of payment and when he first opens the barrel of them he is below all of the characters around him in the frame. Once he realizes that they’re law books he steps forward to practically fill the same frame. He’s taller than everybody else at this point and it is all because he has found his true passion in life: law. I’ve already discussed how the idea of right and wrong shaped Lincoln’s future and this scene is the impetus for that change. When he discovers the law he fills the frame and becomes larger than everybody else, indicating how important an event it is. He is now going to be an educated man, a lawyer, which automatically distinguishes him from the rest of the community who seem to be generally uneducated.
            Fences are not normally a large part of the framing of a film, but in this case they play an important role in showing the separation between Lincoln and the rest of the community. I’ll walk you through the way Ford uses fences to cut Lincoln off in the remaining part of this essay beginning now.
            From the first there is almost always a fence of some sort within the frame of this film. This alone should be evidence enough that fences are important, but I’ll elaborate a bit more to better explain why they are important. The first critical fence comes when Lincoln and his first love Ann meet at the river side where Lincoln is reading one of his law books. They begin to walk along the river and as they do there is a fence running along the bottom of the frame. It’s presence in the foreground and the river’s presence in the background creates a path that the two characters walk down. The nature of this path means that there is no way to go but forwards. When the finally stop walking there seems to be a break in the fence. This allows Lincoln and Ann to be on seemingly equal footing. And their characters would seem to match this equality. They both love each other and want only the best. However, the camera then cuts to a wider shot and we see that Ann had moved to the other side of the fence at the beginning of the conversation. The fence hadn’t disappeared, it just got lower for a bit. When the camera shows that they were separated by the fence for the end of the conversation the audience realizes that something isn’t quite right. There is, of course, a reason that they were separated by the fence. Ann is convinced that nobody – even Lincoln – can love her. She is also dead by the next scene. Lincoln goes to visit her grave (predictably separated from the rest of nature by a fence) and there he decides to become a lawyer. Ann is the impetus for the rest of the film but even she is separated from him by a fence.

            Jumping forwards a bit and over a couple of minor fence scenes, the next important fence surrounds the clearing where the murder takes place. Not only does the fence fail at containing the violence (the mob later rushes out of a hole in the fence proving its worthlessness in its actual duties) but it also allows Lincoln to observe the entire happening. When the community comes to the clearing they all enter through a hole in the fence. Lincoln goes up to the fence but decides to stay back. He leans on the fence and watches what happens as the community turns into a mob. The fence allows for impartiality by way of separation. It is likely that if Lincoln had entered the clearing like everybody else did he, too, would have been wrapped up in the excitement of a hanging and joined the mob. Instead he watches from a distance and sees how foolishly the community acts. This visual representation of separation in the form of a fence allows Lincoln to fulfill one of the key components of law: objectivity. In these shots Lincoln is not only separated by distance but also by the fence on which he leans.
             Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, isn’t much of a character within this film, but she does play an important role in a scene involving one of the most creative fences on film. Lincoln is invited to a high class party and as he enters there is a big John Ford dance scene going on. When we first see him the camera angle comes from within the big dance area facing the hallway where Lincoln enters and talks to some old guys. The dance is still going on and at this point the dancers are all linked arm in arm and skipping around the circumference of the room. As they dance by the camera their bodies and clasped hands form an unbroken fence between the camera and Lincoln who stands in the background. This living fence blocks a clear view of the hero. The camera takes a side here, and it is the side of the rich. It’s within the walls of the dance hall where all the rich guys dance and intermingle. The rich even create a fence within the already extravagant walls to keep out the less desirable elements, which Lincoln clearly thinks he is a part of. He is hesitant to enter the formal area and dance with Mary Todd. In the end she practically forces him into dancing with her, and Lincoln isn’t the greatest of dancers. He seems out of place, which makes his separation at the beginning of this scene by the dancing fence all the more important. It establishes that Lincoln isn’t a part of this crowd. Earlier we saw that he wasn’t a part of the community at large, either, so he’s effectively an outsider to everybody. Yet when he saves the day he is welcomed into the masses as a hero. He epitomizes that separate hero and no more is this in evidence than in the courtroom scene.
            Again we return to the scenes that take place within the courtroom. Here there are several fences to separate Lincoln from everybody else. The first separates him from the rest of the community by keeping them in the back of the room and him and the prosecutor and other people actually involved in the trial in the front. There is a small fence (which some would call a railing) that can be seen in nearly every courtroom scene in film and real life separating the community and the trail participants. This isn’t a super important fence until the end of the trial scene when Cass, the true murderer, tries to escape Lincoln’s questioning by leaving through a small door in the fence. When he moves to the other side of the fence the community begins to close in on him, and the mob that he wanted to incite earlier is turned against him. Still, Lincoln is separated from him and the rest of them by the fence. He’s proven Cass’s guilt and now he’ll let him get what’s coming to him, but Lincoln won’t have any part in it. After not trusting himself and almost losing the trial he seems happy to have gotten his clients off. He still doesn’t need or perhaps he isn’t able to join the community at large. He’s the hero they needed but he doesn’t really need them, nor do they particularly care about him. Still, his part is performed and now the community is whole again.
            But we aren’t finished with those darn fences yet. As he says goodbye to the family he saved they leave along a road lined with a fence. He, too, leaves by way of this road. When he reaches the top of the hill there is a fence on his side. The fences seem to have been guiding him all along, from the river scene with Anne to the final scene on the hill the fences have done more than just separate Lincoln from the rest of the community. They are like the law, unwaveringly steady. They are used to impose order and boundaries on the world, much like the law is used to impose order and boundaries on people and the community. They are a tool used to make clear delineations, a vital part of any life, but especially crucial to Lincoln, a man who must necessarily be separate from others in order to help them. The fences and framing of Young Mr. Lincoln clearly show that Abe must be severed to some degree from those that he wants to save. He is successful but at the price of being integrated into a community. It’s a theme that runs through John Ford’s films and is perhaps most important in the story of Abe Lincoln’s early career.

Film Review: Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York – Directed by Richard Press
As photographers Bill Cunningham and I could not be any more opposite each other. Where he takes pictures of people in New York City from the streets to high fashion shows in order to capture trends and patterns in the world of clothing I focus on nature and the way the world works with itself. Where Cunningham is widely respected and works for the Gray Lady I wallow in obscurity and have never sold a photograph. Cunningham seemingly has no care for composition, his NYT spreads often seem like a cluttered mishmash of people with little to no context outside of a couple of words and the detail that he is focusing on in any given collection. I would dare to say that most of Cunningham’s collections would not be found on the walls of anybody’s homes. They work quite well in the context of his weekly spreads highlighting certain trends on the streets of NYC or the fashion of charitable galas or the wearability of fashion show clothes but few of them are “great” photos of their own accord. Bill’s photos might not be “art” but he is certainly an artist.
It’s telling that there is a documentary about Bill Cunningham. What he does is, as one of the talking heads points out, practically war journalism. Instead of taking pictures of the ravages of war Bill focuses his camera on the ordinary (low hanging jeans and knee length skirts) and the extraordinary (strange high heels and even stranger patterns) in the urban jungle. He just looks at things, all things, and finds what people are wearing in any given week. It’s a talent and a skill and an essential part of his voice as an artist. Everybody in the fashion scene, from designers to magazine moguls, knows and loves Bill because he notices what’s working almost instantly. In a telling segment of the film he sits on the side of a fashion runway in Paris and we see him begin to lift his camera only to put it down again when he recognizes that nobody would possibly wear a piece on a real street. If real people aren’t wearing the clothes he’s not interested. It is this singular focus that makes Bill a true artist. It matters little if the photos are singularly meritorious, it’s what he does with his entire oeuvre that’s the key.
Now that we’ve established why Bill works as a documentary subject and an artist let’s talk about the film itself. It mimics, in its way, Bill’s own approach. We see all the kinds of things that Bill does from walking/riding through the streets of NYC to attending galas (his method of choosing which of the myriad galas to shoot comes down to which charity he deems best) to deciding which pictures to use and pestering his art director/assistant as they work on the layout of the spreads. Each aspect shows us a bit more about Bill and confirming what we’ve learned before. At the beginning we see a nice older man who grew up in the 60s and 70s New York art scene and has found himself as a kind of establishment still. Then we learn about his steadfast policy of not taking payment or even free food while he’s working in order to keep absolutely unencumbered. We then find that he is one of the last few remaining tenants of the Carnegie Hall studios which at one time housed people like Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein and now gives roof to a few old eccentrics (Editta Sherman has been living there for 58 years and is one of the more interesting interview subjects in the film) who are reluctant to leave. Each new segment shows a bit more of Bill and the life he has built, but all is not happiness and sunshine. 

In bits and pieces we see that Cunningham is, perhaps, not exactly happy with his religion and at the end of the film the director asks him two questions point blank: how have sex and religion shaped your life? Bill answers the first part deftly, asking whether the real question is if he is gay or straight and manages to not really give an answer until he is asked the second part. There he pauses and looks down at his lap. There is real humanity in this moment and I give great credit to Richard Press (the director) for asking the question and letting it play out in a medium shot. A lesser director might cut to a close up or a different angle but Press keeps the entire interview in an off centered medium shot that allows Cunningham the space to be himself. The little coda after this moment in the film just returns to Bill’s exploration of the streets. We see him from a distance and as he observes the world we observe him, knowing more and yet still not everything about the man. What was just a guy taking pictures at the beginning of the film has transformed into an artist creating and defining the world through his own lens. In that way he can serve as an inspiration to any artist. Even if we don’t share subjects or techniques or values there is still so much to learn from Bill Cunningham. He’s a man who takes pictures of clothes and the people who wear them yet has no pretense of being fashionable himself. His blue workman jacket is more function than form and that dichotomy between subject and artist is the defining element of the film. Bill’s modesty only serves to highlight the extravagance of the fashion world and the “exotic birds of paradise” whom he captures on film reveal the true nature of the man behind the camera.

Book Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve been away from this blog for almost two months. I’ve been reading Freedom for about half of that time, on and off. After a fantastic beginning where we get a brief sketch of the Berglund family of St. Paul, Minnesota the book slows down and investigates seemingly every little detail in the lives of Walter and Patty (the husband and wife), Joey (the son) and Richard Katz (the college friend and third side of the central love triangle). It is firmly entrenched in the every day of modern families and their first-world problems. If this isn’t interesting to you or if you can’t connect with the characters this book just won’t work for you. However, if you can see a bit of yourself in each of these people there’s a lot to get out of this book.

Depression is a specter that looms large over all of the characters here. After a bit of post-game reading it seems that Franzen himself has battled with depression and his particular insight to this aspect lends quite a bit of depth to the characters’ individual problems. We see all kinds of depression and the ways that it embroils itself in each of the characters is slightly different. Patty’s love for her husband crossed with her passion for his best friend. Walter’s love for his wife crossed with the knowledge that he won’t ever be enough for her and his firmly held beliefs about overpopulation. Joey’s morals clashing with his need to get rich at the age of twenty. These are all very real people with very real problems and that tinge of depression colors the mood of the entire book.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some bits of cleverness. Particularly enjoyable elements include the opening and closing chapters where we see the Berglund family from the outside. The opening chapter sheds some light on Patty who, according to the neighbors, would never call anybody something worse than “weird”, though later we see that she has the capacity for a lot more than that. The final chapter sees the Berglunds not as a family desperate to hold together but rather a family torn apart by things left unsaid and things too readily said. It’s all very sad but there is an element of hope. Joey and Jessica (the daughter who doesn’t get much to say in this whole thing) seem to have learned from their parents’ mistakes and their own. At one point we learn about Walter’s father and grandfather and we begin to understand that a lot of the problems the Berglunds have come because they are trying to fix the mistakes that their parents made with them. Of course, this just leads to making even worse mistakes. It is, perhaps, not a new insight but it is well told and vividly detailed.

There are, of course, some things that aren’t so great. For a book so cleverly and carefully constructed there are some parts that overstay their welcome. After that corker of an opening there’s a hundred or so pages of Patty’s autobiography. No other sections go on as long as this one and, though it is important and there’s not a whole ton that could be cut out or trimmed up, I got a little tired of it. And there’s another problem with that section: I don’t think it is differentiated enough in terms of style from the rest of the book. It still seems like the narrator and not a character’s personal recollection. Late in the book the autobiography is revisited and that additional bookending device is clever and makes sense (and is thankfully shorter than the first segment) but I wish there was a greater separation between the two storytelling aspects. It’s almost as if Franzen is afraid to write in a “lower” style for a character who wouldn’t be as good as writer as he is. Franzen’s writing isn’t particularly hard to read and I rarely had to go back and reread a sentence or paragraph for lack of understanding on the first pass. It’s all very easy to read, which is good, but there were also very few sentences that stood out to me as beautifully constructed. I guess that’s kind of the point, these people are normal and the writing reflects that. I just generally like a bit more flavor in my reading.

This brief review can’t possibly capture all of the intricacies of the book. And I won’t profess to fully understand all of the implications of the book right now or in the future. However, coming relatively soon I will be talking about the book with my friend, John, on our new podcast, Canon Fodder. There we’ll likely talk about all of these elements and more (I’m particularly interested in the construction of the book and the fact that, besides the autobiography, we only get male-driven sections) and the potential lasting impact of the book. Should it be considered part of the New Canon? At this point, I don’t know. I will post a link on this blog whenever we record that podcast for your perusal and pleasure.

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Imagine a world where kids are picked at random to compete in an all out fight to the death which is engineered and broadcast by the government. Imagine an arena that is booby trapped and filled with implements of death with which the young contestants can maim and kill and monitored by hundreds of cameras. If you’re thinking of Battle Royale you aren’t wrong. However much The Hunger Games borrows from the concept of that novel/manga/movie – and it borrows a lot – it totally works on its own right. The idea isn’t original at this point but it is supremely well executed and hits all of the right emotional buttons.

Don’t think, though, that Battle Royale is the only influence here. There are heavy dystopian future elements with a government that forces its people from each of the 12 districts to play by their rules both in and out of the arena. One of the best elements of this book is the sense of hunger that Collins conjures throughout. Obviously in the beginning we see Katniss outside in her daily life where she must illegally hunt just to feed her family and the hunger is right there on the surface. As the story goes on and Katniss learns how to survive in the arena the hunger becomes something different. It’s a hunger to survive and get back to her family while trying to maintain her sense of humanity. It’s this central conflict between survival and her human nature which drives the story and kept me reading raptly as Katniss tries to win and subvert the rules at the same time.

Of course, there’s a twist. Each district sends two contestants, one male and one female. Peeta, Katniss’ counterpart, is also a really interesting character. He seems to be in love with her but it might just be a strategy to win the game. As these are two young people thrown together by circumstance and under intense pressure some kind of attraction must arise. What it means to each of them drives the second half of this book and Collins brings them through quite a few interesting circumstances. The emotions are very real and complex, an element I didn’t expect from such a book.

This book is, of course, very violent. There are all kinds of death and destruction and gore which makes the events seem very real. The deaths are emotional and thrilling at the same time. It’s being filmed soon and is aiming for a PG-13 rating. I don’t know how they’re going to do some of the more intense sequences unless they really push the ratings like the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (and probably Part 2). I hope they stay true to the intensity and if we must sacrifice some of the blood I guess that’s alright. The book is one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a while and I look forward to reading the remaining books in the trilogy.

Movie Review: 127 Hours by Danny Boyle

127 Hours by Danny Boyle

I can see why this film draws comparisons to 2010’s Buried. Each tells the tale of a man trapped in a very confined space and follows them as they deal with their situations and their own mortality. Where Buried focuses more on the plight of the man in the moment (Ryan Reynolds in that film) 127 Hours examines how the man got there and what it will take for him to get out (James Franco in an astounding performance that would likely have won all of the awards this season if it weren’t for that pesky Colin Firth). It is this fundamental difference that makes 127 Hours a compelling and intriguing story told in a fascinating manner.

Most know the story of Aron Ralston. He was a weekend warrior who, while on a climbing/hiking/biking expedition, got trapped between a rock and another, larger rock. He’s stuck there for, well, 127 hours until he realizes that the only way he will live is if he cuts off his own arm. This true story precedes everybody’s moviegoing experience and it looms large over the film. Much like Titanic and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we know how this film ends. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) knows this and decides to focus instead on everything but that. There’s a point early in the film where Aron tries to cut into his arm with a dull knife. It hardly makes a scratch. Now we know that it will take a heck of a lot of doing to fully de-limb himself and while Ralston tries everything under the sun to escape we know that every second ticks closer to the inevitable unpleasantness. That’s good tension building. That’s good filmmaking.

Of course, that’s not the only good thing that Boyle does. His films have always had a kind of crazy kineticism that ensures the audience won’t get bored or tune out. His films demand your attention and this one is no different. Strangely, though I wished that Buried stuck closer to the coffin which imprisoned its protagonist, I was glad that we got plenty of flashbacks and hallucinations while Ralston was stuck in his gorge. In addition to allowing Boyle to work his movie magic we also got to know Aron a lot better than we might have had we stuck with him through the entirety of the film. We see his family and we see how he keeps them – along with the rest of the world – at arms length. His predicament allows for a lot of self reflection and in a touching and fresh and real scene he apologizes for being a huge jerk. It’s not often that a movie has enough guts to condemn its own hero. Once Ralston realizes that he is the only person that got him into the situation he knows that he’s the only one to get him out of it. And then comes the arm amputation.

The big scene comes at the very end of the film, as you would expect. It’s an intense scene to be sure and, much like Tarantino’s deft use of sound and camera trickery in Reservoir Dogs‘ ear cutting scene, Boyle shows a lot with a little. That’s not to say that there isn’t blood and gore. It’s all there, but Boyle’s energy carries us through and saves us some grossness by cutting or moving away just as the worst bits happen. It’s the Jaws rule, we always imagine worse than they can show us. After Aron sets himself free there is a moment to breathe then the movie rushes back into top gear, this time with the greatest joy and zest for life that only one who has been trapped for more than five days and then escapes truly knows. The final ten or fifteen minutes of this movie are practically perfect in the ride they take the audience on. It’s a true examination of the human spirit, one that understands the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the self-centered and codependent nature of man. It’s a film that, by showing the truly horrible things we must sometimes do, encourages us to be the best we can be.