it really is. occasional thoughts on how to make it survivable and keep from losing your mind in the process.

The Poetics of Surprise

The Poetics of Surprise

SPOILER WARNING: This essay is going to unabashedly spoil the shit out of Pain and Glory, Parasite, and Knives Out. You have been warned.

I generally don’t get the big deal about spoilers. I mean, I respect them because I know people get mad if you don’t and I don’t want to ruin other folks’ experience. I want people to enjoy things and to like things and if it means I don’t voice my opinion the immediate moment I have a thought, then good lord that’s an easy ask. This is not me advocating that we shouldn’t have spoiler warnings or we shouldn’t respect peoples’ sensitivities. But also… I generally don’t get why people get so fussed.

Twists, reveals, drops are all part of good storytelling. Every story has a beat where something unexpected is revealed. But largely that reveal is unexpected for the characters. For us, the audience, we have subconsciously seen the hammer coming for ages. But I’m also not interested in the game of saying “I knew who the killer was all along.” I generally don’t. But what I do know is, it’s probably not the guy who seems like the killer up front. Unless there’s a double game being played and we’re faked out about being faked out. I can spot the paths, the places the road forks in the story, not the destinations.

See, the thing is, stories are about patterns. The pattern is what defines characters, plots, pacing, beats. All of it is about evoking, conforming to, and subtly altering the patterns of deeply familiar stories. Twists aren’t breaking a pattern, they’re revealing you, the audience, are in a different pattern than the one you thought you were in. But, for that to work, the writers has to have seeded the hints, the structures, the beats that will reveal that throughout the story. A pattern isn’t a moment, its a structure.

The past month or so, I’ve watched three brilliant movies from master directors that all are structured around a single, profound reveal: Pedro Almodóvar‘s Pain and Glory, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. They are, in order, a quiet reflection on the life of an artist, a thriller with a deep vein of class rage running through it, and a quirky, clever revival of the classic closed room cosy mystery. I loved all three of these movies, although I will say Pain and Glory and Parasite are easily in my top ten movies of all time and, Knives Out, for all its charms is nowhere near that ranking.

I’ve grouped these disparate movies because they all are deeply reliant on the reveal, the twist. The beating heart of them is the moment of shock as the curtain is drawn back and you suddenly, finally, see what the whole damn movie is actually about. Pain and Glory’s reveal made me burst into full, sobbing tears in the final moments of the movie. Parasite had me clutching the arm rests so hard my knuckles hurt and my friend and I turned to each other and mouthed “WHAT!” in wide-eyed astonishment and delight. Knives Out… it didn’t land for me. I admired it, the way you do a sculpture, a crystalline structure of perfect shape and symmetry. It fit, but it did not delight.

But for each of them, being spoiled for the surprise would utterly ruin the experience. The twist was the point of the story and I run across an essential twist so rarely that I want to unpack how they work and why they matter. There’s a true artistry to setting up a perfect twist and to justify it to the audience as we all look back on the experience. Each director used such different tools to build to their respective twists and each deployed them to such different emotional effect. I want to spend a little time unpacking each of them and talking about how and why they work for me.

NOTE: This newsletter got very long so I’m splitting it into several parts. This intro has gone out to all subscribers, but the analyses of each individual film will be sent only to paying subscribers. Paid subscribers also get access to the full archive of newsletters. This series will be dropping throughout the week and will wrap up by next Monday. Hope you all enjoy!

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Jamie Larson