Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cinema's New Favorite Plot Twist

SPOILERS ahead for the movie Fish Tank, as well as two other movies that I probably shouldn't even name in this paragraph, because just reading their titles might alert you to the spoiler/plot twist that I am alluding to, and then if you haven't seen Fish Tank, its plot will be ruined for you. Suffice it to say that the other two movies got some of the best reviews of 2009 and will probably both be nominated for Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars...


Are you still with me, after that convoluted spoiler warning?

OK, here's what I want to talk about. In the last three months, I have seen three new movies that all employ the same plot twist: An Education, Up in the Air, and Fish Tank.

To spell it out: the twist is that the protagonist's lover turns out to be leading a double life--he or she is secretly married, and a parent. Furthermore, each of the movies reveals this twist at about the same time (approx. 3/4 of the way through) and includes a powerful scene where the protagonist visits his/her lover's home and meets his/her secret family.

An Education: 17-year-old Jenny is engaged to the much older David, when she discovers some incriminating letters that reveal that he is married. A heartbroken Jenny later visits his house (which is not too far from her own), trying to get a glimpse of his wife and child.

Up in the Air: Frequent-flyers Ryan and Alex have been hooking up whenever they manage to be in the same city. Ryan finally realizes that he loves Alex and pays a surprise visit to her brownstone in Chicago, only to see her children running around and hear her husband's voice.

Fish Tank:
15-year-old Mia has really ill-advised drunken sex with her mom's boyfriend Connor one night; the next morning, he has fled. Mia tracks Connor down at his house in the suburbs, discovers that he has a wife and daughter, and tries to get revenge.

Because of their similar plots and their teenage British heroines, some reviews of Fish Tank have called it the lower-class, social-realist version of An Education. But I'm surprised that nobody is talking about how An Education and Up in the Air share the same plot twist--even though they are both fairly prominent contenders for awards this season! And, though Up in the Air is a polished Hollywood dramedy and Fish Tank is a gritty British indie film, they reveal the plot twist in the same way. Both have a moment where the audience goes "oh no!" as we see Alex's or Connor's dwelling for the first time, and realize it's much bigger/nicer/more expensive than we expected. We know that single businesswomen don't tend to own big townhouses and single blue-collar guys don't tend to live on suburban cul-de-sacs... so this can only mean that these people aren't single!

I'd like to believe that when three movies that share the same plot twist come out within three months of each other, it says something about the culture at large--our collective fears or anxieties. So, does it mean anything special that 2009 brought three movies where the protagonist's lover is secretly married? Are we all suddenly worried that our loved ones are duplicitous?

I'm also trying to recall older movies that employ this same twist, but off the top of my head, I can't think of any.* If you've thought of some, please post them in the comments!

Maybe it's hard to think of similar movies, though, because there is something very "un-Hollywood" about this plot twist. For 100 years, mainstream cinema has beguiled us with stories of ideal romances between lovers who are just too good to be true. But the moral of the "my lover is secretly married" plot is that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. Jenny, Ryan, and Mia lose their illusions by the end of their respective movies. And that's more realistic, but also more downbeat, than the message that movies usually deliver.

*Well, there's a secretly married character in Casablanca: when I watched it last month with a friend who had never seen it, she gasped when Ilsa told Rick, "Victor is my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris"! Still, Ilsa's marriage is different; unlike David, Alex, or Connor, Ilsa does not come across as scheming and deceitful.

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