I went to see Focus at some point prior to writing this post and it was … alright. Entertaining enough. Sort of.
I thought it suffered in a couple of ways. One movie-specific, the other genre-inherent.
SPOILERS FOR FOCUS
BUT PROBABLY NOT
The movie-specific problem was a lack of through line throughout the script. There was no clear goal for the protagonist, no indication of what he wanted or needed and (crucially) when he will have achieved it.
In other words, it’s a bit like watching a race and not knowing if it’s a 100 metre sprint or a marathon. Or possibly a triathalon. Or maybe they’re all running to a pasty shop? If you don’t know when the race will be over, it’s hard to build tension towards the end or care about whether or not the protagonist will win.
I’m aware not everyone wants this in a film, but I do. I like to know where the finishing post is … and then be surprised at how the protagonist crosses it.
Or not. Not crossing the finishing line is fine too. Not saving the day or the guy or the girl or the city or yourself or … anything. That’s fine too. So long as I know what they meant to do.
Focus doesn’t seem to have that. Or if it does, it’s not apparent to me what it was. Which might be my failing rather than the film’s. To me, stuff just happened … for a bit. And then, at an undefined point … it stopped happening. Then it turned out to be carrying on for a bit. Then it really stopped. Then it started again a few years later … and then stopped again.
Fun, entertaining stuff … but just stuff for no apparent reason all the same. Maybe it would be more fun the second time around?
The genre-inherent reason is more problematic and pretty much derailled the story for me.
And it’s this: it’s a heist movie. Specifically, it’s a conman heist movie.
Con movie. The whole movie is a con.
The problem there is we all know how these movies work – nothing you see is real. Nobody is who they say they are and nothing they do or say is what you think they’ve done or said.
Don’t bother getting attached to any of the characters or invested in the plot because it’s not real. The movie is lying to you. Everyone on screen is lying to you. The filmmakers are challenging you to spot the lie.
That police man? He’s working for them.
That older person? She’s someone’s parent.
That bank? It’s not a bank, it’s a fake bank.
They’re not in a taxi, it’s a lie.
That’s not a plane, it’s a lie.
It’s all lies. All of it. Nothing’s real. Believe nothing and trust no one!
And that’s a problem for me. I find my brain making assumptions which aren’t right. Assumptions which obfuscate whatever character goals may or may not be present.
In Focus, I thought she was playing him from the beginning. I thought she might be a cop. I thought maybe he was a cop. Or maybe they both were and it was just a very badly planned operation.
None of those things happened …
THAT THING I JUST WROTE IS AN ANTI-SPOILER!
I JUST MADE THE FILM BETTER!
… but because I spent the whole film assuming one of them would, I didn’t bother getting invested in what was actually happening because I didn’t believe it was.
This might be the old age cliche kicking in – perhaps I’ve just seen too many of these kinds of films and it’s aimed at a younger audience who don’t expect these kinds of twists?
But maybe we should be trying to compensate for this built in suspicion? Maybe the only way to effectively write a modern con movie is to start the con before the movie opens? Maybe the only way to nip this kind of audience detachment in the bud is to hide the fact you’re watching a con movie?
That’s what I’m doing with my current script. I’m not letting anyone know it’s a con performed by a conwoman until the very last scene. I’m giving her a completely false set of goals, problems and intentions … with a genuine need underpinning it all. She will never achieve any of the things she sets out to do because she never intended to do them.
The film can be marketed and sold as a completely different genre and (hopefully) no one will know what they’re really watching until the final image.
I don’t think that’s a unique solution and I know other films have done the same thing … but to me it’s an elegant solution which fixes a genre-inherent problem which may not even exist outside of my own brain.
But fuck it, it’s my brain and I want to write a movie which will fool me.
Basically, I’m running a con on myself.
Or am I?