Sorry, no dueling banjos in today’s shot, but it’s no less creepy. Here’s an example of a oner that builds incredible, terrifying tension in no small part because it’s unbroken. Now, I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I’ll explain in a bit, but when it does work, it’s awesome. Whenever I watch this and think of the terrible situation Ned Beatty and Jon Voight’s characters have fallen into, I get really tense. My brain keeps yelling at them “Run!” or “Grab the gun!” as if I could change the terrible outcome.
The spot-on casting of the hill folk is half the reason this scene is so effective. I mean, I’d shit myself if I ran into these two in the city, let alone the back woods. Add to that skillful writing, the pitch-perfect set-up in the preceding minute, and this wonderful, lingering, relentless shot and we’re really cooking. (Possum, I assume.) Joking aside, this is a truly horrible predicament and I think the shot choice maximizes its tension.
Boorman builds a (tense) shot
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the blocking works 100% of the time. To me, it sometimes feels a little inorganic, which takes its toll on the actors here and there. (Not to say there aren’t some awesome performances and directing here.) I’m not sure what circumstances Boorman was battling when he shot this. Maybe he only had a half day to get the whole scene. Maybe there was a guy with a chainsaw making noise across the river who’d only give them an hour of silence. Maybe he was so excited about the tension he was building that he didn’t care about the believability of all the blocking. Who can say?
Reminds me of a story Lumet relates in his book Making Movies:
“I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he’d panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport – neither of which belonged in a period movie.”
So who knows what was going on behind the scenes, but one thing Boorman accomplishes for sure, the tension really builds, and how.
A fave bit: Ned Beatty’s reaction when he first realizes the guys are assholes. Priceless.