We’ve all heard the saying, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. It’s a lesson in good manners, but it’s also a lesson in creating tense, brooding, dark stories. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a writer is that when your characters say something, it should matter, it should help propel the story forward. Most of the time that is in increments, but sometimes, one line of dialogue can change the entire dynamic of a story. Or better yet, one movement does all the work. So, I really appreciate it in film when there is not a lot of chit chat. I can appreciate a stripped-down story, with only a few characters, with the setting and landscape having its own impact, and the quiet, the things that people don’t say, building the tension as we edge along. Here are four movies that I tip my hat to for doing such things. For minding their manners and only speaking when they have something good to say.
This Australian crime thriller focuses on two characters, an undercover cop and his prime suspect. The story follows an investigation of a child abduction case. The cop is played by Joel Edgerton and the suspect is played by Sean Harris, and they move through the night, the underground, forming a fake friendship, as the cop tries to illicit an admission of past deeds from the suspect. There is a brood, a shadow, that covers the story, living in those moments “in between.”
Okay, not the most original plot. An assassin hides out in a foreign country, preparing for one last job. But something feels unique about this, as George Clooney, in his stoic phase, portrays the assassin, who is hiding out in an Italian village. You get the sense that this life of secrecy and murder is not going to sit well in old age, and that sentiment is delivered by Clooney as he watches, walks, listens to the local priest as they sit in the park and discuss salvation. There is little admission of guilt, the strength of this film lies in the acceptance of the road taken.
An art-house action film. Not a phrase you hear often, but here it is. In Los Angeles, Ryan Gosling plays a mysterious driver who works in a garage, is a stuntman in Hollywood, but more importantly, is a hired getaway driver for heists. Anybody who has driven in LA knows what type of skill that takes. Gosling barely speaks, to anyone. Sometimes you find yourself thinking I wish he would say something. But he doesn’t. And that’s what makes it great, and artful.
No Country for Old Men
Not only is the dialogue sparse and well-intended, but there is almost no musical score over the film, which gives this Cormac McCarthy adaptation a well-earned realism in movement and time. An interesting choice by the Coen Brothers, the sibling directors who have made many interesting choices in their career. The landscape is an important figure here, as in all of these films, with its big skies and the hard and dusty terrain of West Texas. The landscape lends itself to bright brights and dark darks, which mimic the rise and fall of those being chased and those doing the chasing. It’s a cat and mouse game that reminds us all that actions speak louder than words.
Discover the Book
In the hurricane-ravaged bottomlands of South Mississippi, where stores are closing and jobs are few, a fierce zealot has gained a foothold, capitalizing on the vulnerability of a dwindling population and a burning need for hope. As she preaches and promises salvation from the light of the pulpit, in the shadows she sows the seeds of violence. Elsewhere, Jessie and her toddler, Jace, are on the run across the Mississippi/Louisiana line, in a resentful return to her childhood home and her desolate father. Holt, Jace's father, is missing and hunted by a brutish crowd, and an old man witnesses the wrong thing in the depths of night. In only a matter of days, all of their lives will collide, and be altered, in the maelstrom of the changing world.