Gun to My Head: On Tension Through Empowerment

[Originally published September 14, 2016]

A gun, held even, raises. Its sleek barrel points with quiet menace. It is poised, ready to kill with the careless effort of pulling a trigger. Crack! Dead.

And yet it yields no threat. Holds no power.

This is because the gun – or knife, or fist, etc. – points at the protagonist, and takes place far from the end of the narrative. We see this all the time in movies. At some point, our squirrely hero has a run in with their enemy, and stares down death. The music swells – meant to pull us to the edge of our seats. But we know how stories work. We look down at our watches and think, well there’s another half an hour in this movie, so I think we’re good here.

These life-or-death moments aren’t actually life or death. That threat – the threat of a swift, wordless end – doesn’t ‘fit’ with traditional dramatic desires. Some films – e.g. The Departed, La Mala Educación – intentionally subvert the desire for a hero/heroine’s satisfying demise. They rob us of monologues, tearful goodbyes, and sentimental violence to leave the viewer disappointed. Crack! Dead.

But most modern cinema remains married to the drawn out goodbyes, the heroic sacrifices, etc. That’s not an indictment of traditional cinema – these implied narrative rules exist because they work, for the most part. Our brains process narrative catharsis in certain ways, and so we live and view and write by this implied narrative ruleset. The existence of rules – as much as the darker, anarchic parts of my soul would disagree – is not to blame for the ineffective ‘held-at-gunpoint’ moment. Filmmakers who fail to make these moments engaging fail because they fundamentally misunderstand what these moments are about. They’re not about threat, or weakness, or even capture; they’re about empowerment.

The audience knows that there exists no real threat, so the cup of tension runneth dry. That’s just a fact.  You cannot – no way, no how – trick someone like me into feeling tense during one of these moments. You could play the most frightening music ever produced. You could distort the screen into yet-unseen, maddening shapes. You could catapult the protagonist at the literal fucking sun. And I would feel nothing.

So that avenue of approach seems a bit misguided, yes?

But – since I know that the protagonist is destined for success – I’m invested in the way that they achieve it. I understand that they willsurmount this obstacle, but I’m deeply interested in the ‘how’s. That’s a fundamental building block of story-based media. The focus is not on the threat, but the response to it.

An example: Season One, Episode Six of Mr. Robot. Elliott stands on an abandoned wharf with a gun to his head. He thinks. He speaks. The gun lowers.

That is the totality of this scene’s action. Yet it’s incredibly engaging. Almost nothing ‘happens,’ but it still possesses the narrative ability to draw the viewer into the fervor of the moment. We understand the threat – Gun/Head/Crack/Dead – and then the show immerses us in Elliott’s reaction. His inner monologue details his (literal, verbal) response to the situation. All we see is a close up of Rami Malek’s (perfect) face (Rami can I please have your chin/cheekbones). His eyes flit back and forth. The music pulses, pounds – not with anxiety, but excitement. It’s a rush. We hear his thoughts. He reaches a conclusion. He speaks it. And the gun lowers. We hang onto every second out of a sense of elation. What we’re experiencing is strength. Intelligence. Superiority.

No fear. Just empowerment. Threat introduced. Threat overcome. Our protagonist just beat a bullet with his words. Crack, dead?



When he’s not binge-watching Mr. Robot, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about games, produces analytical gaming videos, LPs, and podcasts. Follow him on twitter @loughnessmonstr


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