Three recent movies are case studies of different methods in building narrative tension. They are stunningly different from each other,
and they also vary in the amount of suspense they are able to generate.
The most famous and the most slam-bang of the three is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. Wright, whose Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are
virtually the last word in tongue-in-cheek mayhem, creates a story that is 100-percent preposterous but smashingly entertaining for viewers in the right mood.
Set in present-day Atlanta, the story centers on a young man known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), the preternaturally gifted getaway driver for a
gang of bank robbers masterminded by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Bearing names such as Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), the
vicious members of Doc’s crew take turns baiting the impassive Baby, who hides behind his sunglasses and ubiquitous, retro Walkman.
The Walkman, according to Baby, is a necessity for drowning out the tinnitus he developed as a child. (In flashbacks, we see the tragic
events that caused the tinnitus.) The iPod is also an excuse to turn Baby Driver into a juke-box movie, flooding the soundtrack with oldies ranging from “Harlem
Shuffle” to “Unsquare Dance” (and, of course, the Paul Simon song that gives the movie its title).
In the gang but not of it, Baby has sworn he will stay in it only long enough to pay off a debt to Doc. His resolve to leave the criminal
life becomes stronger when he meets Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress whom he falls for at first sight. (T-Rex’s “Debora” and Beck’s
“Debra” are his cues for passion.)
However, Doc has other plans for Baby, and those plans go awry, sparking the car chases, shootouts and general mood of
vengefulness that engulf the movie’s last third. Even more dangerous for Baby, the gang discovers his habit of recording
conversations—including incriminating ones—and turning them into mix tapes. Baby makes the tapes only for his own entertainment, but try explaining that to a group of crazed
Unfortunately, Baby Driver has a weak link--Elgort. His passivity is nothing more than that, though in fairness he is
deprived of the use of his eyes for much of the film, thanks to the sunglasses. Baby Driver can fairly be described (and has been) as a cross between Drive and La-La Land, which perhaps
unfairly sets up a comparison between Elgort and the star of those two films. No, Elgort is not ready to challenge Ryan Gosling, at least not yet.
Nevertheless, Wright creates a great deal of sympathy for Elgort as Baby Driver careens to its end. We really root for Baby and
Debora as both the cops and the remnants of Baby’s gang come gunning for them. Wright is one of the great living masters of
choreographing action scenes involving cars, and to say he uses such scenes to build tension here is an understatement. He gets
a lot of help from cinematographer Bill Pope, production designer Marcus Rowland, editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, a battalion of some of the best stunt drivers in the
business, and of course the soundtrack. It also doesn’t hurt the movie that Wright has great actors such as Spacey, Foxx and
Hamm trying to out-badass each other. (It gives away nothing to say Hamm wins this particular bout.)
A more fragile and intimate kind of tension is attempted by director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White in Beatriz at Dinner. Unfortunately, what promised to be a political My
Dinner with Andre turns out to be disappointingly less.
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic therapist and masseuse living in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. A quick
scan of her house at the film’s beginning shows her to be both a Buddhist and an environmentalist. When we meet her, Beatriz
is having a bad day: her ancient VW Rabbit is starting to give out on her, and a hostile neighbor has killed one of her pet goats.
Things are even worse at the wellness center where she works; one of her cancer patients, a teenage boy, continues to decline despite her best efforts.
Beatriz also makes house calls, and her call this day is to her wealthy patient Cathy (Connie Britton), who lives in a seaside
mansion in a gated community. Cathy regards Beatriz as a friend, and is grateful for the help she gave her daughter during
her leukemia treatment. Beatriz performs her usual massage for Cathy, but when it is time for her to leave, her car won’t start.
Beatriz offers to call a tow truck, but Cathy insists that she stay for dinner and spend the night.
This turns out to be a terrible choice, for this is the night Cathy and her developer husband Grant (David Warshofsky) have
invited several of their friends over for an intimate dinner party. The guest of honor is the too-patly-named Doug Strutt (John
Lithgow), an arrogant real estate tycoon who is the absolute antithesis of everything Beatriz stands for.
Beatriz at Dinner was completed before the 2016 election, but the issues and the characters in the film are scaldingly pertinent
to the current administration, right down to Strutt’s selfies with the rhino he killed in Africa. Beatriz thinks Strutt may have been
the developer who despoiled her home town in Mexico with a failed resort project, but some surreptitious web surfing shows he is something far worse.
The trailer to Beatriz at Dinner promised a more interesting film than Arteta and White actually provide us. Their previous work
together also did. At the dawn of the millennium, they made two odd but intriguing films: Chuck and Buck,about an infantile
gay man still obsessed with the love of his early adolescence, and The Good Girl, about a severely depressed woman working in a
Texas discount store. These films are distinguished by their unexpected, disturbing plot twists and their meticulous, even
loving, attention to character. Neither of these is apparent in Beatriz at Dinner. Beatriz and to a lesser extent Strutt are the
only distinct characters; the others, though played by such indie-film royalty as Chloe Sevigny and Jay Duplass, are just a blob of
self-satisfied plutocrats who exist to praise Strutt and crush the idealistic, vulnerable Beatriz. Once you realize that, you also realize that the last half of Beatriz at Dinner runs on autopilot,
including its abrupt and overly schematic ending.
Still, there are three good reasons to see Beatriz at Dinner: Wyatt Garfield’s breathtaking photography and the
performances of Hayek and Lithgow. Hayek—for whom White specifically wrote the part of Beatriz—reveals successive layers
of strength, rage, and pain, presenting a woman whose kindness is an act of defiance against the world’s cruelty. Lithgow, one of
the slyest old pros in the business, plays Strutt as a sated lion who has conquered the jungle and launched an invincible
campaign to keep it. A brief scene between Hayek and Lithgow near the end gives us a small, tantalizing taste of what Beatriz at Dinner might have been.
In contrast, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night is everything
it can and should be. It is by far the starkest of the three films considered here, and its very starkness seems to have cost it an
audience, judging from its box office figures. This is a shame, because It Comes at Night is one of those films that creates a
maximum of suspense from a minimum of gore or trickery.
“Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something worse,”
the film’s publicity states. Unlike much movie publicity, these two short sentences describe It Comes at Night masterfully. The
film begins inside the remote farmhouse of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo). Sarah’s father is dying; he is covered
in black welts, his eyes have turned jet black, and he is vomiting black bile. Paul and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison) take
Sarah’s father outside, shoot him in the head as a coup de grace, and bury him.
It is apparent the plague that killed Sarah’s father is an incurable, world-destroying pandemic. Society has broken down;
electricity and running water are nonexistent, never mind information technology or mass communication. The only food
Paul, Sarah and Travis have is what they can raise or hunt, with their precious, closely guarded seed and ammunition. Paul has
sealed off all entrances into the house except for one red door, which must be kept locked at all times.
One night the door is accidentally left unlocked, and Paul catches a man scrounging around the house. Paul beats him up,
ties him to a tree, and interrogates him in the morning. The man (Christopher Abbott) says his name is Will, he thought the
house was deserted, and he was only searching for food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their small son. If Paul will allow
Will and his family to move in with him, Will says, he can provide chickens, goats and other sources of food. Although Paul’s
instinct is to shoot Will, he agrees, and Will turns out to be telling the truth. The two families get along reasonably well at first, but inevitably paranoia sets in.
The limits of human empathy have been a durable theme of fiction for as long as the form has existed. It has been a
particularly fertile subject for science fiction and supernatural stories;The Twilight Zone is virtually unimaginable without it. It Comes at Night reminds me a good deal of The Witch, Robert
Eggers’ film from last year about an isolated 17th-century Puritan family beset by demonic forces. The poverty, the
isolation, and the paranoia are very similar between the two films. But there is nothing supernatural about It Comes at Night. There is only the mysterious, highly contagious plague,
and the few people left on earth. Other people can only be threats, either as murderers (Paul and Will are attacked by
marauders at one point) or as carriers of contagion. It comes down to you and yours, kill or be killed.
Shults builds the suspense in increments, the red door a constant and chilling motif. There is very little gore in It Comes
at Night, and indeed very little incident. All of the tension comes from the characters, so that when the final confrontations
occur, they are totally believable—and totally explosive.
The acting is praiseworthy throughout. Edgerton gives another masterfully minimalist performance; like his countryman
Russell Crowe, he can tell more in one glint of his eyes than most actors can in three pages of dialogue. But although Edgerton is
the top-billed actor, Kelvin Harrison turns out to have the most important character. Most of the story is told through Travis’
eyes, as someone still young enough to be idealistic yet old enough to be fully aware of the dangers surrounding him. Much
of the film’s horror is relayed through Travis’ ever more disturbing dreams; I will leave you to discover them for yourself.
It Comes at Night has an ending even more abrupt than that of Beatriz at Dinner, but in this case the bluntness is appropriate.
When life has boiled down to either bare existence or constant peril, at some point the survivors will be left to consider what
they have become, what they fought for, and how little time they have left.