- In Badlands (1973) fifteen-year-old Holly Sargis falls for James Dean look-a-like Kit Carruthers. He’s handsome and charismatic, but he’s ten years older; a looser without a future. When Holly’s father vocally disapproves of her relationship with a rubbish collector, Kit murders her father and they flee. The rest of the story plays out like a self-destructive suicide note.
This is an American tragedy that’s told more of less objectively, even Holly’s voiceover narrative comes across as weirdly distant. The story doesn’t judge the characters. Kit and Holly’s relationship is doomed from the outset, which makes their deluded hope of a new life completely futile. Their makeshift forest camp in the woods, echoing Huckleberry Finn, provides a transient retreat from society.
Badlands is a story about a dysfunctional American dream. When a white working-class delinquent has nothing in his life worth living for except his love of a schoolgirl, someone he can never be with. There are parallels here with The Last Picture Show (1971) with the depiction of dead-end small-town America. The film is immersed in Americana, a lost golden age, a nostalgia for American greatness perhaps, a time when Cadillac’s had tail fins. The cinematography has a poetic quality to it. The viewpoint is objective and the camera work unassuming. It avoids gimmick. In the moments where the characters are surrounded by nature, the landscape seems heavy with resonance and implication.
Holly’s narrative, even with its apparent young adult naivety, feels vaguely literary. Although she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s the one making sense of all this for the audience. Her summary of events at the end of the film, as if she’s reading out from her diary, is heard alongside the image of a beautiful sunset, which suggests the metaphysical.
This story is a tragedy and a warning. Kit is a monster, but not one from a horror story, he is an ordinary monster from our everyday reality, a handsome monster with a convincing chat-up line.
Mad Men vs Breaking Bad
Mad Men (2007 – 2015) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) feature invisible, ‘ordinary guys’ who reinvent themselves in a hostile world, and go on define their success. Don Draper in Mad Men steals the identity of a fellow soldier killed during the Korean War and, using his newfound persona, escapes his troubled working-class background by becoming a feted advertising creative. Walter White in Breaking Bad is able to provide for his family’s future by giving up his job as a high school Chemistry teacher and becoming a drug dealer.
Don Draper and Walter White have similarities beyond their unassuming, alliterative first and last names. They have a disturbing dark side, and are capable of doing things that people around them (including their families) would never suspect. To survive in a difficult world, they are prepared to do what they deem necessary to bolster their chances of getting on and ensuring a decent future for their families. But the self-advantage they are fighting for comes at a price, leaving them guild ridden and conflicted, and eventually driving them away from their families.
Don Draper attempts to escape from his guilt and fear of being discovered through alcohol abuse and casual sex. Walter White becomes addicted to the business and camaraderie of organised crime. Both Don Draper and Walter White do unpleasant things, and yet they remain watchable and likeable characters, because the audience empathises with their love of their family, especially their children, and their morally conflicted nature. Looked at objectively, these are both morally and ethically ‘bad men’ and yet their charm, charisma, and dry humour wins us over.
They have dramatic and close relationships with another male character: Roger Stirling in Mad Men comes across as an older version of Don Draper, a mentor of sorts; and Water White is a mentor or buddy to Jesse Pinkman, a disaster-prone loser-criminal type who becomes White’s sidekick.
Both these stories celebrate the resilience and audacity of two troubled men, both fathers, both living a lie, both forced to endure dark secrets, and both forced to do unpleasant things in order to become the person they dream of being – a slick ad man, a feared criminal. Neither of them are innocent, because of what they have done. They provide a stark warning that everything comes with a cost.
- Family is our home, it’s where we come from, and where we return to. Characters without a family, will go in search of one, or create a new one. The need to belong satisfies a deep psychological desire. It forms the basis of how we see ourselves and the world around us. Who we are. Identity. In The Godfather, family is more than belonging; it denotes who a character should and should not trust. Who they fight for and against to protect the ‘honour’ of the family in their violent quest for money and power. An insult to the family cannot be tolerated, nor can an act of disloyalty go unpunished. Family members are expected to give absolute obedience to the Godfather, the criminal overlord. The mafia family in The Godfather is partly a traditional expanded family unit, and partly a violent, illegal business that trades on fear, theft, and contraband. Family is the ‘blood’ that forms the bonds of trust between its members. In American Beauty Lester Burnham attempts to keep his family together, to survive in a corporate world, and rediscover a sense of who he is. To achieve this, he must break with convention and free himself from the prison of his own making – his life – and reconnect with the real Lester Burnham. Whether it’s the traditional family structure of The Swiss Family Robinson, the absolute power of the mafia family in The Godfather, the struggling modern family of American Beauty, the single parent family of I, Daniel Blake, a friendship-based substitute family (a band of heroes) of Star Wars, The Hobbit, or Toy Story, or the darkly dysfunctional family of Festen, the family – of one sort or another – remains a critical theme in storytelling, and a cornerstone of identity.
- The enemy impostor, and the enemy within, live inside our world, passing off as one of us. They have covertly infiltrated the safe zone of ‘home ground’; doing their bidding almost as they please, stealing commercial and military secrets, spying on our activities, and working steadily towards their deadly master plan: social control – our annihilation. The enemy imposter is the perpetual ‘other’ hiding under the assumed cloak of ‘us’; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may originate from another part of the world – most likely a competing nation, or rivals – they know how to play the political game: feigning friendship while, all the time, undermining our system from within. They may come from a more distant place, somewhere deep in space, another planet, and resemble hideous monsters – but, by using a devious technology they’re able to look like humans. Or, they may have been one of ‘us’, but through torture and brainwashing they have become one of ‘them’, and now they’re loyal to the enemy from outside.
- An explosion of violence is unleashed on the audience in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) when a violent gang attacks a police station. The story combines Rio Bravo with Night of the Living Dead. Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, takes command of a dilapidated police station on its last operational night before being decommissioned. The station is in a rough, gang-ridden neighbourhood – to defend it, Ethan Bishop must work with two dangerous prisoners, earning their mutual trust. To give the story a contemporary twist the conventional hero, Ethan Bishop, a black policeman, is forced to work with a white criminal, Napoleon Wilson. Unlike many 1970s action films, Assault of Precinct 13 manages to be both shockingly violent and yet retain a moral core. It celebrates the teamwork and trust required to defeat a ruthless enemy, and warns about a dystopian world overtaken by a dehumanising gang culture.
- Virtual worlds are computer generated environments where characters have defining experiences that either mirror or subvert expectations of reality. They’re a contemporary development of the play within a play; a story within a story. The virtual world provides an opportunity for an allegorical parallel to the real one. It may be uncannily super-real, dream-like, surreal, or nightmarish in quality. Unlike literary worlds, such as the parallel story in Nocturnal Animals, or a dreamscape like Inception, virtual worlds are technological – machine generated experiences. Virtual worlds must be experienced through some form of human-machine interface. This is usually a sensor array attached to the head or body, a port of some type connecting to the back of the head or the spinal column. The interface may have symbolic references to drugs, such as ‘jacking in’, sexual references, or connotations of slavery and imprisonment. The Matrix is one of the best known ‘uncanny’ reality scenarios, where a hacker called Neo notices a black cat, apparently on a recorded loop. This ‘glitch’ leads him to question the nature of his reality. There’s often a surreal influence to these stories: a version of Surrealism where the ordinary appears oddly unreal. This can be a metaphor for the strangeness of ordinary experience: hidden emotional references, possibly trauma. Other films like: The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and Vanilla Sky explore the paradoxical unreality of reality – the things around us are not what they appear to be. In Tron, Kevin Flynn, enters a computer generated world, where computer programs are living entities. In this digital land he is able to overcome injustice, and eventually return to his rightful place in the real world.
- The psychopathic character is relentless, always in pursuit, ruthlessly able to manipulate and deceive. When the charm fails he or she is willing to use intimidation and violence. These characters are callous and unable to feel empathy; they use the force of their will to enforce a selfish world view on others. They’re willing to unleash pain and destruction without remorse. It’s common for villains, ‘baddies’ and antagonists in fiction to display psychopathic traits. These behaviours make them menacing and difficult to defeat. The classic ‘madman’ psychopath such as Max Cady in Cape Fear and Carter Hayes (AKA James Danforth) in Pacific Heights manipulates an innocent family into taking them into their confidence, abusing their generosity and kindness and turning their humanity into a vulnerability that can be exploited. Once they are on the inside they become the ‘enemy within’. They manipulate people’s relationships to turn one person against another until they are unmasked for what they are. The ‘human monster’ is terrifying because he or she can hide in plain sight. And whereas non-humans may be beastly (a monster) or unthinkingly mechanical (a robot) an audience expects at least a modicum of humanity from other people. Whatever the type, or permutation, the psychotic character (even before modern psychology existed) is at the epicentre of storytelling. His or her extreme force of will and deranged obsessiveness makes them dramatic and formidable antagonists.
- Illusion and reality, the story within the story, truth and lies – these are the basic challenges that a contemporary hero must face. The protagonist (man, woman, young adult, alien, and robot, whatever…) comes up against a deception that needs to be unmasked – a distortion of reality that has to be rectified. This deception about the true nature of reality could involve the discovery of secret information, a revelation of some form, or witnessing an event. The protagonist acts out of social consciousness or a belief in doing the right thing. This belief takes them into conflict with a repressive force, a corrupt organisation, or a criminal overlord. The battle may turn out to be a physical fight, but it also about persuasion, getting other people to change their perception of reality. A change in perception can also come about through teaching and nurture: inspiring hope in a forgotten community, for example, or debunking a harmful myth with scientific fact. As a fighter or as a teacher, the protagonist challenges the status quo and champions change. In storytelling, this can be approached directly or through some metaphoric device. The synthetically generated reality of Vanilla sky, the enclosed reality-TV island of The Truman Show, and computer-generated-dream of The Matrix are all metaphors for protagonists struggling to find out what is real and what is fake. The lie of the fake world must be exposed and transcended in order for the hero to become themselves. Alternatively, the heroes in I, Daniel Blake, Moonlight, and Serpico all challenge the prevailing power (a callous bureaucratic system; school bullies; endemic Police corruption). They’re attempting to get people to see the lie or injustice that exists around them. Failure to notice this is tantamount to living a false life.
- The mask is a storytelling device that obscures a wearer’s identity, while highlighting his or her psychological predicament – masks have a rich history of symbolic meaning in fiction. Masks are often incorporated into stories as a visual metaphor, or a literary device, giving physical form to the invisible: mental imprisonment, dehumanisation, trauma, psychological anguish, shame, spiritual emptiness, social alienation, and disconnection. The mask is a retreat from the social space, allowing a character to hide in plain sight, and to believe they can function within society, either by repressing their feelings of loss or by creating a consciously constructed persona. There is a difference between voluntarily donning a mask, and being forced to wear one. A hero might choose to wear one to hide his or her identity, thus empowering them to dispense justice anonymously, which means they can live an otherwise ordinary life without unnecessary attention. character such as the imprisoned man in the iron mask (from one of the many versions of The Man in the Iron Mask), is forced to wear a mask to obliterate his identity and remove his existence from the world. His incarceration is a living punishment, forcing him to endure permanent injustice. Sometimes a mask is used to cover up facial disfigurement; the physical injury acting as a metaphor for an inner or spiritual damage. Darth Vader’s mask in Star Wars gives his character menace and mystery. In the Phantom of the Opera (1909 – 1910), a man is reduced to the spectre of a ghost-like presence, hiding behind a mask to conceal his disfigurement – and a truth that he is unable to endure. Masks are usually a ‘red flag’, a danger sign, but they also allow characters to operate anonymously, or to take on a persona. Wearing one can be a symptom of a previous trauma, or the catalyst for a new event (plot line) – either pushing the character into darkness, and spiritual oblivion, or to self-discovery and empowerment.