I just finished watching a thrilling thriller that bombed at the British box office. It made just $141 in a weekend. I’m so used to seeing box office figures in the millions that I had to go back to check the numbers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a movie with such a high caliber cast make just $30 per theater on opening. My taste in movies often goes against the critical reception, and this time is no exception. It’s always strange that two people can watch the same movie, then have diametrically opposed reactions to it. In the case of Misconduct, I seem to be swimming upstream in my enjoyment of this movie. Ah well, all the more reason for me to run toward something critics flee.
My title for this post is tricky. On its surface it is what it is. The case at the center of Misconduct is about as open and shut as they come. Not. Well, sure, it seems so at first. It’s obvious who the white hats are, and equally obvious that Anthony Hopkins’ character is a very bad man. A corrupt big pharma exec, with a ruthless black heart. But…but…but he does seem to care about his beautiful young girlfriend, when she’s kidnapped. Those but…but…buts keep coming until the final frames. By the time of fade out, I felt as if my center of intellectual gravity had shifted…several times. As I waited for the mental room to stop spinning, I realized the biggest but…but…but was the floppiness of this slick, red herring riddled twisty thriller. It may be fair to say every movie is at the very least somewhat different for every person who sees it. In this case I seriously feel as if I saw an entirely different movie than the critical pariah that bombed so badly in Britain.
Anthony Hopkins was riveting, but of course I feel that way about his Barclay’s Big commercial, so consider me at least slightly prejudiced on the subject. On the other hand I’ve seen at least…seventy five of his movies and only disliked two, while still admiring his performances, so I can speak with considerable authority on his prowess with whatever script he crosses paths with. The man is brilliant. Pacino is no slouch, of course, and I always like Josh Duhamel’s tall, charming, talented, good looks (not necessarily in that order). Those three came together as a multipronged powerhouse, of obfuscating cinematic glory.
The plot boasts as many twist as the Iron Throne does sword points. Yes, it is confusing. It is extremely complex. It takes a nimble mind to keep up. Maybe you have to like the three male stars as much as I do to even try, but the reward for the effort is sitting back in awed comprehension of a puzzle with not one missing piece. It falls together in a way that makes you want to hit somebody. Several somebodies. But there’s more than enough blood and bruise makeup on display to make you realize several some bodies have already been hit hard enough for one movie. So you mentally applaud, and in my case start the search for the next Anthony Hopkins movie in the quest to see them all.
Now about that title. Beneath the surface it’s a nod to the beautiful, seamless camera work in Misconduct. I started noticing the way we watch externally, as characters glide from one location to the next. They often traverse rooms, even buildings, with an elegant grace that is so organic that it almost seems they’re transported elsewhere by nontraveling motion. This way of handling scene transition is not only visually beautiful, but technically so as well.
The reason I’m so attuned to that kind of thing is that when I first started learning the art of crafting a screenplay, I had trouble with scene changes. I didn’t realize it at first, but as I started the extended period of proofread-and-rewrite that is such an integral part of the process, I came to see that I had not yet learned the how and where of location transition.
This odd sticking point may be due to the fact that I was a novelist first. With fiction writing, the narrative flows subconsciously, often intuitively and assumptively for both writer and reader. With screenplays it’s more technical. The script is all about what the camera sees. Physical transition is a series of opening and closing doors. While you don’t need to describe these doors, or acknowledge their existence even, you have to make sure you clearly get a character out of a location, without zipping him into a different room as if by magic. Unless you’re actually writing Harry Potter. Then you can apparate him to your heart’s content. What you can’t do is have muggles disapparate into walls.
The more you write, the more automatic proper transition becomes, but while learning it takes concentration. I was busy remembering proper slugline structure, to CAP or not to cap, and how many lines were trying to slip into any given action block. Eventually, I came to realize that while I concentrated on all that, I was slamming cameras into walls and doors and quite possibly people I’d forgotten to move out of the way.
Watching Misconduct glide people along from an external vantage point made me realize there’s always going to be more and more and more to learn about ways to make what a screenwriter sees in his head translate to the screen visual. Thus, location transition doesn’t always have to involve opening and shutting doors, literally or figuratively.
So, another movie I went to the opposite corner with the critics on. And the box office. I wonder what the handful of people watching in each almost empty screening thought. I’d like to think at least some left thrilled with the thriller they just saw, and wondered what movie the critics who panned it had seen instead.
Misconduct–Official Trailer #1
Barclay’s Big Commercial