“Does This Work?”
When you work creatively with other writers, you will ask this question a lot: “Does this work?”
Keep in mind, you’re not asking whether the moment you’re writing is funny or cool or interesting. You’re asking, does this work. Meaning, you’re really asking if the scene properly functions within the story. And that analysis of function brings us to the core tenets of drama, which revolve around a series of questions. They include: Do we know what the characters want? Is this behavior consistent with each character’s psychology? Do we know what the scene’s central conflict is? Is that conflict expressed through dramatic means? Does the scene have a negative and positive exchange of purpose? What are we rooting for? Why do we want that to happen? Do the events in the scene move us into the next scene with purpose? And are the scenes building to the proper crescendo within the larger sequence? What all of these questions are really concerned with is the notion of “dramatic clarity,” and that happens to be one of the most important aspects of storytelling, especially in blockbusters.
Dramatic clarity is exactly how you create tension and craft an interest for the audience to root for. Take the opening jump scene from Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Ethan Hunt lectures his new partner (who he is not getting along with) about the breathing apparatus required for their jump, the dangerous obstacles, and how they absolutely need to pull their parachutes by a certain point or else face certain death. Immediately, Hunt’s partner’s bullheadedness comes through when he pulls Hunt’s oxygen tank and springs out into the lightning storm. We not only hate him for this, but his behavior ruins everything—suddenly they’re both fighting for their lives. Best of all, every single detail that was just explained is suddenly relevant to their survival. The result? A tense as hell scene. And the movie is full of them because it’s full of dramatic clarity.
The coming together of these elements is equally important in making the drama between characters feel emotional and affecting. In Black Panther, it’s not just that we understand both T’Challa and Killmonger’s differing philosophies, but we understand the way their experiences have created those differences. From the hero’s prideful errors in judgment to the villain’s wounds and deep-seated anger, we understand their behavior so concretely that their words, acts and the injuries they’ve inflicted on each other all feel incredibly loaded. And the result of their dramatic face-offs? They genuinely mean something to us (one character’s final words particularly are still rattling around in my ear). Because we understand the emotional conflict between them, we are able to lean in and not just anticipate what will happen next, but fear it. So for the big emotional truths, dramatic clarity is simply paramount.
And the lack of it is why Venom is a complete mess.
The Almost Movie
You can see brief snippets of the movie Venom wanted to be. Specifically in the oddball, funny interactions between Tom Hardy and Venom itself, where the alien effectively plays the “devil on his shoulder” who keeps wooing Hardy to do bad, crazy things because Venom is really just bad, crazy symbiotic goo. A film centered around this relationship should be a perfectly fun, pulpy, even dark action-comedy.
The problem is that fun pulp is also built on clarity and function just as much as any drama. That’s because comedy also works off tension, using it to create setups for the punch line. Without these elements, the movie can’t really ground itself in anything functional. We can’t genuinely fret over the possibility of Hardy ruining his own life, or what’s being risked in a given situation. Everything a character says, every direction of the film, feels random and unmotivated. So you just end up “reacting” to everything happening in the movie without ever getting a moment to lean in to a single dramatic construct on screen (and if we do, they’re weak and fleeting).
Take Michelle Williams’ character, who I had to look up to find out her name is Anne (Egg? Her?). Williams is one of our best actresses, and I can see fleeting moments where they’re trying to wring some personality out of her with a random joke, but the problem is simple: she doesn’t have a real character to play. That’s not even to say she’s thin or one-dimensional. Take away her job and we don’t know what she wants or is trying to do in any scene. There isn’t even any real tension between her and Hardy. She, like us, is just reacting to everything with one big “WTF?!?!”
Then there’s Riz Ahmed, another incredible actor who is given so little interior for his character. We just know he’s bad and doesn’t care about people. Even the late moment “reveal” of his own symbiote doesn’t play dramatically, because it (like most of the movie) feels so rushed and out of nowhere. There’s just no emotional clarity that can be played for real tension. The same can all be said for Jenny Slate’s scientist character, who pulls Hardy’s Eddie Brock into the web and then is just left for death fodder so damn quickly. Was it meant to be a shocking, early surprise that her character was cut out so soon? Whatever the intent, the film not only fails to capitalize on her talent and personality, but it doesn’t even capture any tension of her death. We see her alone, and then dead on the ground while we are left to react: “I guess that happened?”
Worst of all, the same “reacting to everything” approach could be leveled at Eddie Brock himself, which is never a good trait in a freaking main character (even Cary Grant starts directing the action halfway through North by Northwest). For a character who spends the first third being an investigator, he’s seems constantly in a state of reaction—clearly understanding as little as the audience. Both he, and we, are like, “I guess Venom wants to stay on earth now?” Or, “I guess the symbiotes have different personalities?”
Moreover, Brock is never really in control, nor is he even really fighting against Venom. He’s more at the mercy of it and along for the ride. I don’t actually understand the real difference between Venom and Brock’s personalities, nor what the huge conflict is in their philosophies. Venom just seems like a weird, out-of-control spaz (I guess?). He’s sort of just a constant joke. An occasionally funny one, but with every line like, “I’m sort of a loser on my planet,” I’m left to wonder where’s that movie? Where’s the film that actually understands that those throwaway lines need an articulation of character? Without them, there’s no real way to settle in and watch with a sense of genuine, rooted interest because we never really understand those central dramatic questions.
Like us, the film clearly seems to know that all of this is a problem. But when someone is drowning and they don’t know how to swim, they just sort of end up flailing their limbs and trying to stay above water. And in a lot of Hollywood films, when dramatic clarity is a problem, the studio’s solution for a fix focuses on the wrong kind of clarity, which is “logical clarity.” They literally try to verbally explain the situation. Nothing says dramatic experience like “why don’t you have the character stop in the middle of the scene to explain exactly what’s happening.” Yeah, it’s the most boring thing in the world. More importantly, it’s foolhardy. There’s a reason all the exposition happens before the action scenes in Mission: Impossible and that’s because it’s how you create anticipation. If you have to stop in the middle of the scene, it’s already too late. But Venom is a movie that is stopping itself constantly, trying to explain itself, its motives, its reasons, which just comes off like a series of affectations because the understanding of those core dramatic questions really aren’t there.
Which brings us to the missing minutes.
Tom Hardy did a very un-press-tour-like thing recently and revealed that there are 40 minutes missing from the movie and that footage contained all his favorite parts. You don’t see an actor talk like this unless they’re genuinely pissed off. Usually, everyone involved in a project wants to rally around it; they’re also generally hesitant to throw all the people they worked with under the bus. It’s not done lightly. Ergo he’s pissed. And it would be nice if we could blame the film’s incoherence on these missing minutes—to imagine their contents provide all the golden bits of character work and the missing puzzle pieces that paint a more complete story. To be frank, if that were the case then I honestly assume they’d still be in there. Because I honestly get nothing from the surviving scenes that imply an understanding of dramatic clarity (nor would this film be Fleischer’s first offense in this regard), so I can’t imagine they just magically exist elsewhere. The whole thing strikes me as a studio effort—“None of this works so let’s just chop it up and make it shorter.” Which doesn’t fix anything, it makes it worse, but less “boring.” So I guess they wanted to cram more showings in?
The whole mess makes me think back to the origins of this film and why Tom Hardy wanted to do it. He’s great actor and you can certainly see the movie he wanted to make. He seems like an adventurous actor who likes trying bold things, whether it be characters, voices, prosthetics, etc. (an experimental style I touch on in a column from a few weeks ago). As a result, he’s been so utterly compelling in some movies and has completely misfired in others. Sometimes you see him disappear into a role and embody a new reality for you. Other times he appears totally lost on screen. It’s often fair to blame this difference on the guiding hand of coherent direction, but I always like to point out the bevy of actors who seem to be completely grounded in story sense first and foremost.
The names of actors who have a nose for drama—who constantly seem in to be in tune to good story sense and could quickly tell you when a character would or wouldn’t do something—won’t surprise you. They’re the ones like Streep, Lewis, Winslet, and Phoenix. And there’s a reason why Stanley Tucci is great in everything too, and that’s because he’ll always find the story of the scene. These actors are so absolutely about communicating the dramatic construct, not the mere affectation of the emotion. And yet here we have a film that feels so far removed from that kind of functionalism that I have to wonder how it all got to here. I have to wonder what guided all these decisions and how it added up to this kind of movie. But whatever the intentions, whatever the solutions, whatever the secret effect, it doesn’t really matter.
Because the film’s now a hit…
Venom’s 80 million dollar weekend kind of fascinates me.
It’s not the matter that people went to see it. Of course people went to see it. It’s more how we’re left to wonder “what now?” about a film that seemed dead on arrival. I guess we’re gonna get Woody Harrelson returning with that Ronald McDonald wig? Whatever happens, it’s going to be doubly curious because even though a lot of people saw it, the popular reaction was all over the map. Which is perhaps fair for a film that seems as shattered and confused as this one. But films with broken stories always end up having this weird prismatic effect that reveals how different people watch this sort of train wreck.
Sure, maybe there are a few moments where the film manages to evoke the textural feeling of fun (if not the deeper function) and maybe that’s genuinely enough for some audiences. I know some people can cut loose after hard days and roll with the fluff of any kind of escapism, just as some like to pick apart the faulty logic. Some like to have a few beers and crack jokes, others will find the incoherence laughable, while still others will find that incoherence endearing. And some were also probably completely bored. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any one of these reactions; they all help tell us the story of how we deal with a movie that’s trying to spin its wheels and offer us something entertaining while missing any central dramatic clarity.
But for me, I mostly have a different reaction. I don’t like laughing at movies. I never really have. Sometimes I’ll get caught up in a kind of bewildered indignation afterwards, but it always slides into a slow kind of existential sadness. My having a hard time with it doesn’t really have anything to do with morality or hand wringing. I think it’s more the issue of proximity. When I see a big movie like this I can’t help but see the mountains of work that went into it. I see every late night. Every cold night shoot. I see someone in an edit bay for the tenth hour trying to edit something together that clearly won’t work. I see someone slaving through the night with a late push on VFX. I see people struggling to find and create real moments within the frame as they got lost in the sea of unclarity…and I have empathy for it.
Because movies are incredibly hard to make. And they’re even harder to get made. But if their mere existence is a miracle, then when I see failures of the most basic, broad conceptual levels it always feels like a crisis of purpose. What are we even doing? What is this all about? How many movies are made with an understanding of what they should be striving for? There’s no real answer to these questions. Especially because you can’t make filmmakers sit there and take the “I understand dramatic clarity” test, nor should you. Because it takes a lot more than merely understanding it to implement it into a film. But at the same time, understanding it can certainly go a long way. Not just in the way it can help us understand how films like Venom come to be.
But what we can learn going forward.
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