Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The sacrificial sleuth

SPOILER WARNING: The following post freely discusses plot details from The Loved Ones, Misery and The Shining. If you haven't seen those movies and don't want elements of their plots spoiled, stop reading now.

After sitting on our disc from Netflix for about two weeks, my wife and I finally watched The Loved Ones this weekend. Since my wife's Australian and so is this movie, I figured it would be a slam dunk for her. Unfortunately, I made a bad assessment of what type of movie it was. This poster made me think it was a campy horror comedy, maybe a Mean Girls meets Shawn of the Dead kind of thing. A bunch of kids at the prom have to fight off zombies, or something like that.

Uh uh.

This movie is straight up torture porn. Okay, not really -- the term "torture porn" is usually employed negatively, suggesting a movie that exists only for the purpose of tapping into that reprehensible part of our id that wants to see all the ways a human being might be made to suffer. The Loved Ones has much more of a brain than that.

But it is shocking in all the ways that torture porn is shocking, and that's what made me regret showing it to my wife, who would probably have preferred cinematic comfort food when she was sick, rather than seeing knives hammered into feet and power drills entering skulls.

What I really want to talk about related to The Loved Ones, however, is a cinematic trope it made me aware of, which I'm labeling "the sacrificial sleuth."

Since you bypassed the spoiler warning and presumably have seen this movie, you know that Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy, pictured in the poster) and her father (John Brumpton) have a hobby of kidnapping beautiful teenage boys, torturing them and then lobotomizing them. They store these lobotomized creatures in a dungeon under the floor boards of their living room. The film's protagonist, Brent (Xavier Samuel), manages to interrupt the process on the verge of his own lobotomy, and a chain of events leads to him being pushed into this dungeon, where the lobotomized creatures intend to make him their next meal. He wards off that threat (rather too easily, if you ask me), but he's still trapped down there.

Fortunately for him, there's a sleuth on his trail. The father of his best friend's prom date (Andrew S. Gilbert) is a police officer, and has pieced together enough clues to determine that Lola may have been responsible for kidnapping Brent. The police officer (Paul by name) drives to Lola's house, sees a bunch of blood on the floor, and breaks in with his gun drawn.

When I saw what was happening next, I was overcome by a sense of deja vu.

As the trap door to the dungeon has been left open following Lola and Brent's most recent skirmish, Paul is naturally drawn to the edge of the opening. He's barely had time to register a bloodied Brent standing among zombie corpses before he gets a cleaver to the head, falls in and takes his place among the bodies. Meaning Brent will have to find another (rather convenient and frankly improbable) way of escaping.

I've seen this kind of red herring savior before.

The first example that occurred to me was Rob Reiner's Misery. For much of the movie's running time, we see Richard Farnsworth's local sheriff (Buster by name) slowly and steadily investigating the disappearance of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan). He's doing it almost as a hobby, going on hunches and a sense that something isn't right, where we're led to believe that a lesser investigative mind would just assume (as most people do) that Paul is dead. Buster's sleuthing eventually leads him to the house of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), which is indeed where Paul is being held captive. As in The Loved Ones, Buster has only seconds to realize that he has, indeed, found Paul, before Annie shoots him in the back, killing him. 

But as I thought about it more, I thought of another example, also from the work of Stephen King. For the whole of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, we follow Scatman Crothers' Dick Hallorann during his winter-time retreat to Florida. (In fact, Filmspotting recently revisited The Shining, and the hosts noted just how much we check in with Dick, down to the minute details of his life that don't seem to be important.) Because Dick and Danny Torrance share "the shining," Dick steadily becomes aware that things are not going well back at the Overlook Hotel. Thus begins Dick's long trek back to the hotel -- another journey that is covered in minute detail. He arrives just in time to get an axe in the lower back.

It made me wonder how many other times in movies (or stories in general) we see this trope -- the secondary character who comes to save the day, only to die instantly.

The reasons for the near-immediate death of this character are sort of obvious. He can't save the hero, because the hero has to find his own way out of the mess he's in. The hero is the hero precisely because he summons a kind of inhuman ingenuity to save himself from a seemingly impossible situation.

So then why have this secondary character at all?

My guess is that the audience needs a red herring savior, needs this sense of a possible outside force who will arrive to save the day when it seems unlikely that the hero will be able to do it himself. Since Paul Sheldon has two destroyed ankles and a total lack of mobility, there's no way he's going to be able to overcome Annie Wilkes and crawl through a snowy Rocky Mountain winter to safety, right? So we need to feel like Sheriff Buster is going to put together the clues to rescue Paul. We need to feel the hope that Paul himself does not feel.

When this sleuth is sacrificed, it creates an even greater crisis for the hero. How will he escape now? And so he must be the master of his own destiny. He must find the strength to make a daring play that should never work, but does, because he's used his intellect to outsmart the villain in the end.

While the resolutions to The Loved Ones and Misery are far more similar, including the gender dynamic between the torturer and the tortured (and the fact that there are people being tortured in both films to begin with), The Shining differs a bit from those two. Dick Hallorann isn't really a detective putting together clues, and the hero is Danny, the boy, who only passively kills his father by continue to run away from him. But the dynamic of the outsider arriving to save the day, only to be cut down immediately, is the same in all three.

Can you think of other films that use this same trope? I'd love to hear about it. And let's just hope I've seen the movie you're mentioning, so you don't have to give me a spoiler warning. 

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