Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musing Pictures: State of Play

I did not expect to see this movie. With so little time to go to the movies anyway, I imagined I'd hit the major blockbusters, if I could. But this past Friday, with relatively few spectaculars hitting the screens, I found myself catching an opening matinee of "State of Play", the new political thriller from director Kevin Macdonald, whose "The Last King of Scotland" was quite engrossing.

If you catch this film, keep an eye out for the way that Macdonald uses the incidental, mundane moments of a busy, urban life to generate tension. I found myself marveling, by scene two, at the deft way that a morning commute could build to a tense, dramatic (and amazingly, un-revealed) climax. All we see are normal, every-day occurences, transactions and scenes. People walking, paying, driving, crowding... but that, combined with the score, the sound effects and the frantic (but not distracting) pace, becomes both engrossing and suspenseful.

Like many of the great political thrillers of the '70s, "State of Play" is presented at an observational distance. Macdonald presents us with the situation, the players, and their problems, and allows us to follow their worries, and in a way, to worry with them, but not through them. We care about the characters (or, at least, some of them), but we are not in thier shoes. In this way, we are provided with an opportunity to participate in the mystery without being quite as lost as the characters within it are.

The observational element takes on a sinister tone at some parts of the film where we are given a rare sequence of perspective. Typically, a point-of-view shot is book-ended by images of the character whose point of view we are seeing. We are primed, often by a close-up or a medium-shot of a character looking off-screen. We are provided with the image of what that character sees, the point-of-view shot. We are then returned to that character, to see that character's reaction, and base our own off of it. Several times in "State of Play", Macdonald provides us with a subjective perspective, indicated not by the book-end shots, but by a slightly bobbing camera, focused on a subject (a character in potential jeopardy, usually), with some element of the setting (like the hood of a car, or the corner of a building) partially visible in the foreground. We are provided with the sense that one of the characters is being watched, but without being presented with the watcher, we incorporate the role on ourselves.

"State and Play" pits characters against one another -- everyone is wrong about something at some point in the narrative. Just like the characters secretly scrutinize one another, so do we scrutinize them. It makes us uncomfortable, and we feel concern for the characters we see (thinking, for a moment, that someone else, not us, is watching them) but we are in this way drawn in to their world, and become at least partially complicit in the kinds of behaviors that lead the film along its narrative course.

The net effect is a good one. "State of Play" is a terse, effective, engaging thriller. I'm quite curious to see what Macdonald will work on next...