The Beauty of Subtlety

One of my favorite underrated movies is Millions, a little-seen 2004 flick that was directed by Danny Boyle. Apart from being an exceptional film in its own right–its examination of love, loss, and the rebuilding process we all eventually must go through as part of grieving manages to capture the gravitas, doubt, anger, humor, and questioning rather well–it is arguably one of Boyle’s best films, and the fact that it is largely ignored, even within his own body of work, is unfortunate.

“Okay, Brian, good for you,” you might be thinking. “You like the film equivalent of an unsigned indie rock band that hasn’t blown up yet. What does that have to do with writing?” Ignoring everything I’ve said so far about this movie, there is one scene which sticks out most for me, because it contains one of the most stunning, understated, emotionally resonant beats I have seen anywhere. More importantly, it is the perfect example of what writers should aim for in their work.

The film centers around a recent widower and his two young boys. The oldest, Anthony, deals with his grief by using his Mom’s death as a way to score free food, sympathy, etc.; the youngest, Damian, spends the bulk of the film meeting angels, Catholic saints, and a host of deceased individuals in his waking dreams, and tries to see if any of them know his mom. But the dad, that’s a different story. Early on, next to nothing is said about how he’s handling his wife’s death. He’s trying to be positive for the boys, but we don’t get any clues about what he’s thinking until Damian comes in one night, asking to sleep in his dad’s bed. Dad pulls back the cover to admit his son, and in it we see a makeshift body pillow. (The shot in question happens within a second or two of the video starting, so be ready for it!)

This is one of the ultimate examples of “Show, don’t tell,” and it’s exactly what your writing should aspire to. God knows that’s what I aspire to with my work. No tearful lamentations necessary, no angry monologues about how unfair her death is and how much he misses her and how crushed he is, etc., etc. (though these responses are real, fair, and have their place); in one shot, with no words spoken, suddenly an enormous portion of the dad’s narrative is written out, clear as day, all because Boyle knows how to let a character’s actions do the talking.

It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. It’s subtle. It’s all that needs to be “said.” I want to write with this kind of intention and economy. Here’s hoping you do too–your readers will love you for it.

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