Well, it’s once again time to post a shameless attempt to get more views. 🙂
I want to talk about the interrogation scene. I touched on it in my first Reylo post, but I want to break it down, and talk about why, if your goal is to set up a protagonist and antagonist, it is the worst of all possible scenes.
But before I do, I want to talk about The Dark Knight.
Now, I want to talk about The Dark Knight because it is one of the greatest films ever made and because it is one of my favorite movies.
I also want to talk about this film because I saw a video that perfectly breaks down why The Joker in this film is such a perfect antagonist for Batman.
But most importantly, this film also has an interrogation scene.
Oh, and it goes without saying.
Now, the Dark Knight’s interrogation scene is not the first time that Batman and The Joker. Batman has been fighting The Joker for half of the movie up to this point, and he has briefly interacted with him twice. However, this is the first scene of any duration between these two characters. You must watch this scene, or what follows will make no sense.
That scene still gives me the chills.
So, I want to use Lessons of the Screenplay’s characteristics of a great antagonist to analyze this interrogation scene.
1 A Powerful Antagonist Attacks the Protagonist’s Greatest Weakness and/or Nullifies His Strengths
In this scene, we see The Joker do this perfectly. First of all, Batman uses his scary persona and physical prowess to intimidate criminals. But The Joker isn’t intimidated by Batman, even cracking jokes when Batman attacks him. The jokes may seem slightly out of place, but they actually serve an important function. At the very moment that the audience thinks that Batman is in control, The Joker challenges his control right away, and shows he will not be intimidated or beaten into submission.
Second of all, The Joker actually enjoys Batman beating him. I pulled up the screenplay for The Dark Knight and as Batman is beating him and shouting “Where Are They?!” the screenplay gives this direction.
“The Joker feeds off Batman’s anger. Loving it.”
Batman’s physical attacks may work on ordinary mob bosses and low level mob soldiers, but they do not work on The Joker. As the Joker says, Batman has nothing to threaten him with.
The Joker also attacks Batman’s love for Rachael Dawes by kidnapping her and forcing Batman to choose who he will rescue.
2 The Antagonist Forces The Protagonist To Make Difficult Choices
This scene literally ends with that. The Joker reveals to Batman that he has kidnapped Rachael Dawes, in addition to Harvey Dent, and that Batman will have to choose which one he will save. I actually like the film better than the screenplay. In the screenplay, when Gordan asks him who Batman will save, Batman answers,
“Dent knew the risks.”
In the movie, he simply says, “Rachael.” That implies that he is not making a rational decision at all, but is simply going to rescue the woman he loves.
The scene also gives Batman another difficult choice.
When The Joker says, “You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength,” I always feel as though The Joker is tempting Batman to kill him. When Batman grabs him again, for a moment you believe that he might just succumb to temptation and kill The Joker.
3 The Protagonist and the Antagonist are competing for the same goal.
This is why the Love Triangle is such a classic plot. Two men are quite literally competing for the same goal: the love of the same woman.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker and Batman are competing for the Soul of Gotham, and this becomes clear in this scene. Batman is attempting to restore order, civility, and goodness to Gotham, fighting crime and assuring that the mob is defeated. The Joker, on the other hand, has the opposite goal. He wants to show that when the chips are down, civilized people will eat each other. The Joker makes that clear to Batman in this scene. Batman believes that The Joker kills for money. The Joker reveals that he kills because he is a nihilist and he wants everyone in Gotham to become nihilists as well. This sets up the last act of the film, where The Joker attempts to break down all morality in Gotham and to get Gotham’s citizens to kill innocent people to preserve their lives and the lives of those they love.
4 The Joker scores a victory. (This one is mine.)
The Joker has clearly won in this scene. By the end of the scene, Batman is on the defensive, back to playing a part in The Joker’s plan. This continues when we learn that Batman switched the addresses, so when Batman arrives at the warehouse, he has actually rescued Harvey Dent. Harvey Dent survives but is badly scarred. Rachael Dawes dies in an explosion. That shocked me when I saw it in the theaters; it took me a couple of minutes to accept that she was really dead. Batman faces a dreadful failure. Harvey Dent has been hideously scarred and Batman has lost the woman he loved. This makes Batman’s final triumph over The Joker even more effective.
I also want to address how the scene creates a sense of menace.
First of all, when the scene begins, it begins in almost total darkness. There is a bright spotlight over The Joker, but it the rest of the room is dark. Humans naturally associate darkness with fear, because humans have terrible night vision. A very simple way to give a sense of threat in a scene is to turn off the lights.
When the light comes up, we see Batman, and Batman immediately slams The Joker’s head into the table. We hear the Batman’s music, or at least, music that is associated with Batman’s arrival. Batman sits down at the table and his theme continues to play. Nolan uses shot-reverse shot with closeups. This forces the audience to focus on what they are saying and at the same time mimics the battle between them.
All of a sudden, as The Joker begins to talk, the music changes. We get echoes of the Joker’s theme. The musical themes battle each other as well, going back and forth between them, as each character gains the upper hand.
Suddenly, we see Batman grab The Joker and slam him into the window. Nolan cuts to the cops watching behind one way glass and Commissioner Gordan says, “He’s in control.” This line signals to the audience that Batman will likely lose control in this scene, and places them on edge. Then, as The Joker reveals that he has kidnapped Rachel, The Joker’s disturbing theme begins to play. The music is dissonant, like a saw buzzing, and it immediately causes stress. The camera immediately cuts to the cops rushing to the door, but Batman jars the door with a chair. The editing is quick, which adds to the tension. Batman begins slamming The Joker into the glass and beating him mercilessly, shouting fiercely with the dissonant music in the background, all the while The Joker taunts him. It is a fiercely menacing, frightening, intense scene.
Here’s a breakdown of the camera angles and how they add to the scene. Watch it (!)
Now that we have dissected a true masterpiece of cinema, let’s move onto the interrogation scene in The Force Awakens.
Now, considering that Rey is the protagonist and Kylo Ren is the antagonist, how well does Kylo Ren meet the qualifications of an effective protagonist?
1 A Powerful Antagonist Attacks the Protagonist’s Greatest Weakness and/or Nullifies His Strengths
Kylo Ren does somewhat nullify Rey’s physical strength and fighting abilities by restraining her. He also reads her mind and discovers her loneliness and pain. That’s it. Now, a part of it is that Rey is a Mary Sue and doesn’t have any significant weaknesses. But it is also a lack of any attempt on Kylo Ren’s part. As soon as Rey demands that he get out of her head, he stops prying into her mind. He does not attack her attachment to Han Solo or her friends. Quite the contrary. He attempts to put her at ease(!) by assuring her that her friends are still alive and he is not hunting them.
Quite the contrary, Rey nullifies Kylo Ren’s greatest strength: his use of the Force, when she successfully repels him out of her mind and peers into his mind. She then attacks his greatest weakness by revealing that she knows that his greatest fear is that he will never be as strong as Darth Vader.
2 The Antagonist Forces the Protagonist to make Difficult Choices
Rey does not make any choices in this scene. Kylo does not give her any choice in this scene, and it is not clear that she enters Kylo Ren’s head by choice. The only choice that Rey has is not to cooperate, and this is not a difficult choice. There is no sense of threat against Rey if she does not cooperate.
3 Protagonist and Antagonist competing for the same goal
Kylo Ren and Rey are competing for opposite, conflicting goals, which can work. Kylo Ren wants to take the map from Rey’s head (which he will then be able to write down or something, it makes no sense) and Rey is trying to protect the map from Kylo Ren. However, Rey is not as invested in the Resistance as Poe or Leia. She sides with the resistance but she is not a member of the resistance. However, beyond that, Rey does not know Luke the way that Kylo Ren does, and it is not clear how a scavenger on a desert planet will benefit from the Resistance winning.
4 The antagonist scores a victory
In this scene, the antagonist scores no substantial victory. He does read her mind which does make her upset, but he is unable to take the map. Rather, she scores a victory over Kylo Ren. He does not get the map, and she also discovers and reveals to him his greatest fear. He is terrified at the end of the scene, and runs away to Snoke.
Now, let’s talk about the sense of menace for the scene or rather the lack of menace.
Now, when we first start the scene, the camera raises from the ground level, allowing us to see Rey’s body. We can see that their is no blood, no bruises, not a a hair perished. On her sustaining garments, not a blemish, but fresher than before. Rey has not been harmed in any way. This immediately reduce the stakes within the scene.
Plus, the scene is very, very well lit. (The Dark Knight interrogation scene begins in the dark for this reason.)
Anyway, Rey wakes up. She sees Kylo Ren (though we do not) and she asks him, “Where Am I?’
For the first time in the film, the protagonist is talking to the antagonist. This is a key moment! It establishes the relationship between the two. Plus, it also gives the filmmakers a chance to raise the stakes of the scenes, increasing the sense of menace.
And Kylo Ren says, “You’re my guest.”
Thank you Amy.
You’re my guest? You’re my guest? You are writing the first moment of dialogue between the protagonist and the antagonist and you decide to go with this?
It gets worse.
Kylo Ren then lets her know that he doesn’t have any idea where her friends are. He reduces her stress, and our stress as the audience, because God forbid the protagonist or the audience should feel stress. God forbid the antagonist should tell the protagonist that he has captured his friends and will torture them or kill them one by one unless she cooperates. God forbid that the protagonist should have to make a terrible choice and God forbid that the audience should feel dramatic irony because we know her friends are safe and we are powerless to communicate that to the protagonist. Because, you know, that would make the scene far more intense and we can’t have that!
Then, there is this shot.
Now, if you watched the video above about camera work, you learned about how camera angles and the position of characters in the frame can tell us who is the protagonist and who is in control. Rey is on the left side of the frame looking to the right, which indicates that she is the protagonist and she is in the moral right. Kylo Ren is on the right side looking to the left, which indicates that he is the antagonist and he is in the moral wrong. So far, so good. But now let’s look at the height. Rey is high in the frame looking down at Kylo Ren, a clear indication of dominance. J.J Abrams is letting the audience know that Rey has the upper hand at the very beginning of the scene. Once again, J.J. Abrams is given a chance to increase the tension of the scene, and he instead does everything he can to mitigate it.
Then Kylo Ren takes off his mask.
Let’s go to the screenplay.
Rey reacts, stunned. It takes a moment
before she regains her own mask of defiance.
For a moment, according to the screenplay, Rey is weakened in her resolve, but why? The scene implies that once she realizes that Kylo Ren is not a monster, her resolve weakens. Her resolve is weakened because Kylo Ren is less scary than he appears. This introduces a sense of ambiguity about Kylo Ren. Ambiguity is great, but it also detracts from his ability to be a threatening antagonist.
I’ve written a lot about the unmasking scene in the first part of this series, so I won’t restate it but you can read it here. But let me just state that humans frequently find masked creatures unsettling because we cannot read the face of the person and we cannot determine whether or not they are a threat.
The scene continues and Rey is unnerved by the fact that Kylo Ren is just an ordinary person. She had been looking directly at Kylo Ren before when he was masked, but now she does not meet his eye. He is less threatening, but more confusing.
J.J. Abrams also fixes his mistake in the previous shot, by placing Kylo Ren above Rey in this shot, implying that he is dominant, so good for J.J.
Then comes the line, “You know I can take whatever I want.” Many people have pointed out that the subtext of that line is rape, which would be a good thing to introduce into this scene, since that would raise the stakes incredibly for the protagonist and the audience. But in the very next shot, when Kylo Ren begins to read Rey’s mind, he is careful not to touch her. So that threat evaporates. Because God forbid we should believe that our protagonist is in some kind of danger!
Worse, the screenplay says this.
Kylo Ren nearly TOUCHES HER FACE…
THEY’RE BOTH SURPRISED: they react to a feeling that passes
between them — AN ENERGY THEY RECOGNIZE IN EACH OTHER.
And then it’s gone. Adversaries again.
The screenplay implies that for a moment they are not adversaries because of the energy they recognize in each other. Once again, if the goal is to establish the protagonist and antagonist, why give them this moment? Imagine if J.K. Rowling had written this.
Voldemort raised one of his long white fingers and put it very close to Harry’s cheek. “His mother left upon him the traces of her sacrifice…This is old magic. I should have remembered it, I was foolish to overlook it…but no matter. I can touch him now.” Harry felt the cold tip of the long white finger touch him, and he and Voldemort were both surprised. They reacted a feeling that past between them, an energy they recognized in each other. And then it was gone; they were adversaries again.
So, Kylo Ren begins to read her mind. He is not interested in the map, but rather interested in her pain and loneliness. It does not appear to the audience that he is taunting her with this information, but he appears fascinated by it, as though he recognizes the energy within her. Worse, Kylo Ren crouches down so that he is on the same level of Rey, implying that as he peers into Rey’s mind, he no longer has power over him. Rey is crying but she does not appear to be in any pain. Plus, when she demands that he get out of her head, he immediately obeys.
Now, Kylo Ren finally(!) gets down to the business of extracting the map from her head. But don’t worry, he tells her not to be afraid.
Don’t be afraid. I feel it too.
Because God forbid the protagonist or the audience should feel fear!
Now as Kylo Ren attempts to extract the map from her mind, the camera goes back and forth between the two. Kylo Ren is slightly higher than her in the frame, showing some power, but the camera does not film him from below, so his power is slight. The music hints at the battle, with his theme playing in the background, but the intensity of this moment is pretty low. This isn’t surprising. The scene has done everything it could possibly do to mitigate the menace that Kylo Ren poses to Rey.
So, when we see Rey enter Kylo Ren’s mind, we do not feel a sense of relief and/or triumph. We expected her to beat Kylo Ren; J.J. Abrams telegraphed to us that she would win, and that did everything we could to erase any fear we would have in this scene. Instead, we feel a sense of confusion that Rey could suddenly use the Force and a frustration that the antagonist could be so easily defeated. (OK, I am sure some fanboys were really psyched because she said Darth Vader’s name, but I need a lot more than that again.)
What makes this scene even more frustrating is that J.J. Abrams clearly knew what this scene should be. I know this because he actually put that scene at the beginning of the movie.
That’s how you film this scene.
It begins in a dark room with a close up on Poe’s face, showing blood and clear signs of violence. Then we see Kylo Ren. He is on the right again but this time he is high on the frame, a clear indication of power. It almost looks like forced perspective because he is almost twice the size of Poe. With his hood up, he is also reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. His voice is also more threatening here as well.
We also keep that angle when J.J. shoots from behind Poe. Poe is in the lower left corner of the film (protagonist but powerless) but Kylo Ren takes up almost the entire right half of the film, towering over Poe (antagonist and powerful.)
When Kylo Ren begins to read Poe’s mind, the camera focused on Kylo Ren begins to tilt to the right, which further creates a sense of distortion. The sound design also adds to the threat. The scene also ends with Poe screaming in pain. Basically, it is as if J.J. Abrams wanted to show us that he knew how to film this scene correctly, and then deliberately decided to do the opposite for the scene with Rey.
What does this mean for Reylo?
Well, Reylo does two things with this scene. Reylo acknowledges that J.J. Abrams’ interrogation scene in no way establishes Rey and Kylo Ren as protagonist and antagonist for all of the reason I established above. However, Reylo also gives J.J. Abrams the benefit of the doubt. Reylo says that the interrogation scene between Rey and Kylo Ren fails to establish the protagonist and antagonist relationship because J.J Abrams was not ultimately trying to establish a protagonist and antagonist relationship. Reylo argues that the contrast between the Poe scene and Rey scene is intentional, designed to make you see their relationship differently. Now, this interpretation of Reylo would imply that they are attempting to soft pedal the antagonist relationship in order to give them space to establish another kind of relationship in the future (allies? friends? lovers?). This is almost certainly dependent upon Kylo Ren returning to the light side.
To me, when I look at this scene, I end up rooting for Kylo Ren returning to the light side and being (allies? friends? lovers?) with Rey. If that happens, this scene suddenly begins to work, in a rather unexpected way. Otherwise, this scene is awful, and worse. The most important relationship in a film is the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. This must be established right away. If filmmakers mess that up, they make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to make their film great. This is why people who complain that Kylo Ren is a bad villain are right. It’s not just that he is Darth Vader lite. It’s that he fails to challenge the protagonist in a real way!
I remember the day my brother stopped caring about Power Rangers. He told us, “If the Power Rangers win in every episode, what’s the point?” He was right.
Reylo would be a risk, but when I watch the interrogation scene, I feel that the filmmakers have no choice but to take a risk.