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The Art of Expectation
By: Ahmad Hussain
A wide shot exposes an umbrella clad Keanu Reeves and Willem DeFoe, the grey world broken only by the contrast of the two men’s black suits and the New York skyline behind them.
Marcus: It’s been a while. My condolences. How you holdin’ up?
John: I keep asking “why her?”
Marcus: There’s no rhyme or reason to this life. It’s days like today, scattered among the rest.
John: Are you sure?
Marcus: Don’t blame yourself.
John: What are you doing here Marcus?
This is the opening dialogue to 2014’s John Wick, a film I recently viewed for the very first time. For a moment, I was almost convinced the filmmakers were intentionally being humorous, but the ninety minutes that followed proved otherwise. Despite this movie’s high Rotten Tomatoes scores and its cult status on the internet, I can’t help but interpret this dialogue as sounding like a first draft. It’s easy to wonder if it was written by a couple of fifteen-year-olds taking a crack at movie-making over their summer vacation. Why does this dialogue sound so lazy? When we ask ourselves how two suave assassins would talk to each other at a funeral after one’s wife was just buried, our first attempt would probably sound similar to this. It isn’t indicative of nuance or thoughtfulness. The dialogue doesn’t expose anything about these characters. It doesn’t go beyond what one might expect from a short emotionless exchange after a tragic life event. In short, this dialogue doesn’t serve a purpose other than providing an interaction between two characters to establish they know each other. It’s one dimensional and even odder still is hearing it come out of the mouth of such an esteemed actor as Willem DeFoe.
Upon expressing these details and other gripes about this movie to some friends, I was met with pushback.
“Stop trying to be over critical. You sound pretentious.”
“This movie is a feat in stunt coordination and action sequencing and you’re an idiot.”
“This is cinema at its finest, and you wouldn’t know good art if it ran past you in a dark, disgusting club, covered in nothing but a towel.”
“You’re expecting too much: it’s an action movie.”
Although the other accusations against me might be justified, that last one is what I would like to discuss a little more.
You see, I can’t objectively call John Wick, or any other movie for that matter, good or bad (subjectively though, don’t watch John Wick). However, I do want to talk about qualities, one in particular, that are objectively good when it comes to filmmaking. We all know a beautiful shot when we see one, we recognize a score that emotionally has an impact on us, and these days it’s pretty easy to distinguish good CGI from the bad. What gets far less attention is the art of expectation.
Some movies disappoint, others meet our expectations and on the rare occasion, you have a film that exceeds expectations. But what does that mean really? What expectations are these films failing at, succeeding in, or surpassing?
Every film sets their own expectations in the first act by asking the question most integral to its story: will the one ring to rule them all ever see its destruction at Mount Doom? Will Henry Hill succeed in his lifelong desire to become a gangster? Will Simba return to the pride lands to avenge his father? This is why the first moments of any story are integral in setting the precedent of what’s to come. Some films even create expectations before you sit down to watch them, through their trailer or even simply their title: like what really happens when Harry meets Sally? Or how DO you lose a guy in ten days? However, some expectations we have long before we sit down to a film, before we enter a movie theatre, or watch a trailer on YouTube. Some expectations we have decided on as a society are integral to our viewing experience.
We expect that a film follows the logic and rules of the world that it establishes. We expect the film to respect its audience enough to explain its plot completely on screen. We expect that conflict isn’t resolved through convenience. These are relatively simple, and in my opinion, not too much to ask for. So why do films like John Wick so often fall short of these expectations? Where do filmmakers go wrong in completing a story? Over the years of diluted stories and easy choices made by filmmakers and studios, as an audience we react to any given story as, “well that was pretty good… for an action movie.” Or “As far as superhero movies go, that wasn’t half bad.” Expectations based on genre, the actors and filmmakers involved, the Rotten Tomatoes scores and internet reviews cloud our desire for fresh and thoughtful storytelling. Further, movie studios are fully aware of how to play into these expectations, and take advantage of them to make a quick buck (or a billion).
We allow sloppy storytelling because the action is well coordinated or the effects are breaking technological boundaries or the protagonist has a six pack. Each time we buy into it studios take the opportunity to make an easy and half-baked story. Personally speaking, if I wanted sheer violence, and otherworldly action, I’d rather play a video game that allows for a far more immersive experience.
I think this idea of storytellers using audience’s expectations against them is best punctuated when the opposite happens: when a story exceeds our expectations. Take for example a film like Tropic Thunder, a movie that presents as a goofy ensemble comedy, complete with a cast of slapstick comedians. Upon rewatching this, one realizes that the film went beyond the initial comedic value of putting Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Danny McBride together to riff off each other’s comedic styles. In my opinion this film very succinctly and cunningly critiques the film industry and Hollywood culture, when all it really needed to do to succeed, was make me laugh a couple dozen times.
Another great example is that of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. This movie offered so many conflicting expectations at the time of its release. “That guy from Key and Peele is directing a horror movie?! Why?”
Peele is a master of expectation. He uses the audiences’ expectations of himself, of the genre and most importantly of race relations to weave a plot that exceeds what audiences would expect.
I think that artists like Peele and Stiller are able to do this because of their mastery of the basic art of expectation. They understand storytelling, however they also understand the audience. At the basis of their filmmaking, I’m sure you would find a disciplined respect for detail and a keen understanding of what the audience is expecting. In contrast to the opening scene of John Wick, in which we learn to take each scene strictly at face value, Get Out opts for a disturbing and unexplained kidnapping followed by a voiceless montage, using the audience’s expectation of what a happy couple looks like to ensnare them into a trap of their own expectations of what’s to follow. As the story progresses, and Peele continues to subvert our expectations at every turn, we learn that we can not trust this film to play out as we expect it to. The result? A thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience in which certain elements stick with us, days, weeks and even years after viewing.
All this to say, if you liked John Wick for its action and world building, I don’t blame you! I’m a firm believer in letting people like what they like, and I do think that the film does some things objectively well. My hope is that we as an audience can be more cognizant of how our expectations shape the opinions we have of stories, and how filmmakers can use their audience’s point of view as an opportunity to create more impactful and richer stories. In part, our expectations are subconscious. When we see Keeanu Reeves is headlining an action film, we automatically picture action sequences from the likes of Speed or The Matrix. When we hear that a sketch comedian is at the helm of a horror film that tackles the complex relationship between white and black America, we can’t help but expect something absurd to unfold. I believe that this understanding can only create more conscious audiences and more dynamic storytellers.
If you’re a filmmaker, or any type of storyteller for that matter, I urge you to consider your audience and their expectations at the core of your decision-making process. At this point, I’m sure I’ve spent more time trying to dissect the art of expectation than the makers of John Wick spent writing the script. However, for those similarly cursed with the inability to enjoy anything, I am sure you can, on some level, identify with my dissection.