I watched a good film the other day, Michael Clayton with George Clooney. Afterward, I was thinking about why the events of the story were presented in the order that they were. One reason is that it set the stakes of the conflict early. However, the more interesting reason is that it solved a storytelling problem.
When the film opens, we meet the character, Michael Clayton, and learn a few things about him. Then he drives out to meet with someone. The whole time, we are picking up on emotional tension: as we meet him, while he is driving, and during his minor confrontation. As he is driving back, this emotion becomes such a crisis for him, he stops the car, gets out, and wanders into a meadow. There he encounters three horses. They seem out of place, and the character is trying to comprehend the horses, as if they are a sign related to his crisis. And then behind him, his car explodes. After that, the rest of the story is told starting four days earlier.
As I’ve said, this sets the stakes of the story right away. We are smart viewers, and we know a car bomb when we see one. Someone is trying to kill Michael Clayton, and now we want to know why. The four days leading up to this are not action-packed, and it starts up kind of slowly. The filmmakers have gained our interest by showing us this scene, and we are willing to wait through a lot of touchy-feely life issues and boring lawyer stuff to get to the conflict. I suppose this is a fairly elementary filmmaking technique.
However, I have thought of something much more interesting than that. It has to do with the viewer’s calibration of suspended disbelief.
Michael Clayton is set in the present day, and it has to do with lawyers and big corporations, high stakes class-action lawsuits, and conspiracy to commit murder. As the story progresses chronologically, it is a logical progression of events. Nothing is fantastical or difficult to believe. We see this kind of thing in the news all the time. So if we the viewer were told this story chronologically, we would settle into a low level of suspended disbelief. Then we would come to the part about the car explosion, and we would find it too difficult to believe. The character just happens to get out of his car, for no particular reason, for the two minutes that the killer decides to detonate the car bomb? That is so improbable, it is nearly a miracle. Up to this point, we have not been asked to believe in miracles or even coincidences. Being fed this far-fetched notion would not sit well with us. It would distract us from the story, and possibly even make us angry. We certainly would not be satisfied with the story. However, by giving it to us at the beginning, before we have set our threshold of disbelief, we accept it easily. We know almost nothing else, so why not accept that the character was saved from death by such a coincidence?
I will have to keep this in the back of my head for a solution to such a problem. I wonder if it was written into the script that way, or if the choice was made at the time of editing.