Thriller films continue to captivate audiences, making them one of the most popular genres of 21st-century film.
I will investigate how thriller films such as ‘The Revenant’ and ‘Dunkirk’ manage to grip the audience and leave them in suspense by the use of narrative techniques.’The Revenant’ is an intense thriller directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which uses various techniques to grip the audience in suspense. As technology has improved, audiences expect to be instantly gratified and constantly stimulated. Subsequently, today’s thriller films should be able to capture an audience to keep up with their expectations. As Charles Derry explains, “Suspense relates not to the vague question of what will happen next, but to the expectation that a certain specific action might take place.”(Derry 2002). The famous ‘bear attack’ scene featured in ‘The Revenant’ creates ultimate suspense. Alejandro creates an intense action-packed shot that the audience’s Uses and Gratifications focus on diversion and entertainment (Bulmer and Katz).
The scene begins as the camera pans below the main protagonist Hugh, to reveal a low angle shot making the audience feel inferior as the protagonist stands high before the camera. As it continues to pan out, the diegetic sound of the crunching of leaves, gun being cocked and the heavy panting of the character is predominant. These sound effects are effective in gripping the audience in suspense as there is no non-diegetic sound in the background, the suspense lies within the surrounding noises of the forest making the audience feel as though they are immersed in the film. As the camera pans 360 degrees around the protagonist in one swift movement, more of the mise en scène is revealed giving a realistic scope of the set along with diegetic sounds of a bear, until it reveals a close up of the protagonist holding a gun, the camera then pans slightly until in the left-hand corner of the screen the quick movement of the bear running towards the camera grips the audience.
The constant one-shot pan creates a sense of realism and heightens tension, capturing the surroundings and action creating this ‘Escape hatch’ (Andre Bazin) that grips the audience who cannot predict what will happen next. The handheld camera keeps a jittered and fast moving pace which leaves the audience intrigued and on edge, giving a sense of uncertainty as the camera follows the actions of the protagonist. This scene could connote the disequilibrium of the narrative using Todorov’s narrative structure, as the main protagonist is under threat starting the disturbance to the narrative.Sound effects are an important technique used to create suspense in thriller films; the non-diegetic and diegetic sound throughout creates suspense, excitement, fear and happiness in a variety of ways. As Glorioso states, “Primarily, the sound adds more tension.
When the sound is good, it helps in building up surprise.” (Glorioso, 2017). Sound effects come in many different forms such as non-diegetic, epic and suspenseful composed pieces placed in post-production which can build up tension. Sound effects include for example the rustling of leaves, lights flickering on and off, footsteps and gunshots, these simple sound effects can have a huge impact on a scene within a thriller. Sound can build suspense, for example, a scene with little action and the simplicity of the sound of footsteps in the distance can create the utmost anxiety as the audience suspect something is about to happen. As Barbara Flueckiger argues “The ambiguous sound object poses a question, which the viewer will attempt to solve through interpretation. The longer the ambiguity – and the information deficit that accompanies it – persists, the stronger the emotions that are triggered… uncertainty has an emotional component because it is experienced as a loss of control.
” In Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film ‘Dunkirk’, Hans Zimmer composed the score for the film using Christopher’s ticking watch as the main component. This created a sense of time or lack of, nearing audiences to the edge of their seats. A ticking watch sound effect is used in thriller films as a designation of time, however, the signifier is that time is running out which ultimately leads the audience to ask questions such as ‘Will they make it in time?’. In BBC Arts article, Bette Davis reveals, “Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead”. Silence is a sound that is commonly used in thrillers to create an unnerving experience, waiting for something to happen that audiences don’t expect. This method is used in ‘The Revenant’ during the ‘bear attack’ scene, the only sound is of the leaves crunching beneath the protagonist’s feet and the sound of his heavy breathing, giving the audience a sense of realism as sounds from within the forest make the audience feel immersed within the film.A realistic location and set are vital for a thriller movie to grip the audience, making the mise en scène of the film completely realistic creates a much more plausible and believable performance.
Iconography is an important aspect of genre, it describes how audiences view stereotypical conventional objects for example, in thrillers the use of dark or cool tone lighting, guns, weapons, strong male protagonists, quiet scenes and enigmas. All of these objects are a part of ‘genre indicators’ called the iconography of the genre and mise en scène of the film. In ‘Dunkirk’, Nolan filmed on the beach of Dunkirk, using real Spitfires, genuine civilian boats used in the evacuation of Dunkirk and without special effects in post-production, making the most realistic setting for the audience. Nolan’s camera work along with filming on the beaches where the evacuation actually took place added to the suspense.
Real spitfires were also used in the war film ‘Battle of Britain’ which also creates realism to the audience as the scenes are believable. Not only do these props create realism but also connotes iconography. For example, spitfires as an icon connote Britishness as both ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Battle of Britain’ are British movies including props that are well known to the wars in Britain.
Indeed, the scene that captures all 400,000 soldiers on the beach was specifically gripping and suspenseful. A wide medium shot is used to show one of the protagonists facing the camera looking into the distance, the cameras wide shot shows the soldiers lined up waiting to be evacuated. The diegetic sound of the Spitfires in the sky coming closer to the soldiers is built up in this scene as the sound seemingly gets louder as the scene progresses. The use of quick cut edits between shots creates suspense as the shots differentiate from the spitfires nearing closer to the beach, increasing noise of the spitfires nearing and also the close-up shots of the protagonist’s code of facial expression connoting the fear of the situation. The high angle shot of the character pointing a gun to the sky makes the character look inferior to the fast-paced spitfires nearing the beach and Nolan’s use of the jittered shaking effect of the camera creates a fast-moving suspenseful shot that is truly gripping.
The quick cut to an over the shoulder POV shot of the character pointing his gun into the sky from the bottom of the screen, as Spitfires rain down on him from the top right hand corner of the screen further shows both fantastic camerawork and brilliant use of sound to grip an audience and make them feel like they are truly on Dunkirk beach with the soldiers. This creates a sense of realism for the audience and their Uses and Gratifications (Bulmer and Katz) are diverted from everyday life as the actors and the mise en scène create a reactive and believable performance. The colour and saturation of the mise en scène are also important to make thrillers believable, especially in ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Revenant’ the colours are low-key and have a dominant cool tone creating a dull, depressing, eerie feel. As Paige Driscoll argues “Attributes like low-key and edge lighting create mood. Odd angles and voyeuristic perspectives and themes place the audience members in a place they don’t normally find themselves and alert them of what they may not have noticed otherwise.” This aspect is vital for thrillers to make the audience unsure of the situation. Prop’s and costume are also important aspects of the mise en scène that signify the differences between characters and storylines during a narrative.
When the props and costumes are also as realistic as possible it creates a sense of realism and excites audiences into believing the narrative on the screen. Audiences have high expectations in the mass media generation, consequently films should be as authentic and believable as possible otherwise audiences are turned off. This may be symptomatic of a technology-saturated era where we can visually examine films anywhere we are. With reference to our ‘prosumer’ society (Gauntlett), as our generation are becoming producers of our own products, audiences are becoming more demanding as entertainment can come from their own devices (Web 2.0). With the idea of audiences viewing habits changing to watching films on ‘all-in-one entertainment systems’ along with new technology, could mean that audiences viewing these suspenseful films on their devices at home could be distracting and may not manage to feel the intense dominant reading intended by the director.
Enigma (Roland Barthes) is another vital tool created by the narrative of thriller films. This method grips the audience with suspense and a sense mystery is formed whereby the audience’s questions and queries cannot be fully answered, commonly not until the end of the narrative. As Barthes himself argues “This whole “volume” is drawn forward (in the direction of the end of the narrative), thus provoking the reader’s impatience…a) distortion or twisting out of shape:…a sequence seems to be abandoned… but it is taken up again later, often very much later; an expectation is created… but an expectation and its resolution.” The enigma is usually the beginning of the disequilibrium that disrupts the equilibrium or can be the underlying thought in the narrative that does not reveal itself until you least expect it. Ellis reveals “The process itself is a constant teasing: a position of partial mastery is held throughout the film by the viewer, who sees something of truth throughout. But the film refuses to reveal all of its truth until its conclusion, where everything falls into place for the spectator”.
Similar mental effects such as cliff-hangers and Red Herrings confuse, disturb and intrigue the audience. For example with Nolan’s, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ which left audiences wanting more. As Emanuel Levy writes ‘There is, of course, the expected red herring” not knowing why things were happening” but in this picture, most enigmas are resolved and disclosed in truly surprising ways, and the twisty ending is particularly satisfying.’ (Levy, 2006). Enigma is portrayed in many ways within film, for example as editing, shots cutting in the middle of scene and switching to a different perspective, all of which keep the suspense continuous as the audience want to know what will happen next. This is a common technique used by Nolan in Dunkirk’ as the tryptic narrative stops and starts creating this constant theme of enigma.
With the dominance of western media, audiences want and need to know everything subsequently, enigma within films lets audiences escape from this and gives a sense of mystery helping enhance ultimate suspense. Camera work including shots, angles, and movement are key components of a thriller film as they are the platform in which you visually perceive the action on screen. They demonstrate different aspects of a films mise en scène, characters, themes, and action. High angle shots are used to make characters look weak, defenceless and inferior, for example in ‘Dunkirk’ when Alex intimidates Gibson, using a high angle on Gibson to make him look intimidated and scared.
Whereas a low angle shot is used for Alex to represent a powerful and strong character. Tracking shots are used to make audiences feel a part of the film as if following the characters around and makes the audience feel immersed into the world created on the screen, they also could connote that the protagonist is being followed which is a common code and convention within thrillers that grips the target audience. As Jeffery Bays argues “The camera should take on human qualities and roam around playfully looking for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel like they are involved in uncovering the story.” The handheld shot is also a popular camera shot in thrillers, the jittered and almost rushed movement of the camera puts audiences on edge, the handheld shots are usually used when the disequilibrium of the narrative occurs (Todorov’s narrative theory). POV shots place the audience in the character’s shoes whether that be the protagonist or antagonist, and these shots are commonly used in thriller films to engross the audience in the narrative. If the narrative of the film is tense, the audience subsequently feels the tension as if in the same situation as the characters on the screen.
Baudrillard’s Postmodernism theory is used in thriller films to challenge the mainstream conventions of narrative structures. ‘Dunkirk’ switches from three tryptic perspectives, the ships arriving at the mole, the soldiers on the beach, civilians on the sea. Quick shots of the different scenes establishing shots in different time frames gives a postmodern reading as the film does not follow a typical narrative structure thus, plays with the minds of the audience. For example, the last scene being of the men running away from the spitfires on the beach to a quick edit of a medium shot of the men on the boat with the font “The Sea” centred in the middle right of the screen symbolises the change in narrative perspective.
The postmodernism idea of changing the different perspectives and narrative structure of different times throughout, also keeps the desired meaning to maintain conventional elements to orient the audience. This is effective as it goes against the common conventions of a narrative structure, it deludes the audience and creates intrigue and mystery. As Jameson writes “nostalgia films do not attempt to recapture the “real” past but are structured around certain cultural myths and stereotypes about the past, offering an image of “false realism” (Jameson, 2010). Many thrillers have a restricted narrative, questions and or riddles left unanswered until the ending of the film.
Postmodernism is carried out within different narrative techniques, however, the most useful way of presenting postmodernism is within editing techniques. Editing techniques increase the tension and suspense in the film to build up to the main part. A film may be cross-cutting between shots of a character and shots that are impending the danger to come, this effect increases anxiety or tension in anticipation of something about to happen. This element of suspense is highly developed in each shot of the film ready to be revealed.
However, cuts such as ‘jump cuts’ creates a lack of continuity by leaving out parts of the action commonly used in thriller films to create suspense and mystery. As Noam Kroll states “Thrillers are all about the anticipation, and when you take away an audience breathing room to bite their nails or sit on the edge of their sears, you’re left with an action film- not a thriller.” The use of editing and Postmodernism work together to create suspense and uncertainty in thriller films to keep the audience on edge, confusing them and creating this overall sense of enigma needed as a key component within this genre of film. Special/Visual effects make a thriller’s actions believable and give a sense of escape for the audience.
Visual effects used in post-production are computer-generated effects, whereas special effects are practical effects including pros, make-up, animatronics and pyrotechnics made on set during production. As Martin Lister argues “in the context of a discussion of CGI special effects, realism is no longer film theory’s set of ideological and formal conventions of narrative, character, plot and hierarchies, but rather technical and aesthetic qualities of sound and image. Realism now operates between the image and its qualities and the technological apparatus that generates it”. CGI was used within the bear scene in ‘The Revenant’ to create the spectacularly visual scene of the bear attacking the protagonist, this was used in conjunction with the actors and cameras movement. Visual effects can create catastrophic images that would be out of realities reach in some audience’s eyes, but effects can also transport them to a world never seen or imagined before. Such as the practical effects used in Nolan’s ‘Inception’.
Visual and Special effects used in films are an important method, to grip an audience such as today’s modern audience, a film should provide something never seen before – almost impossible, but in keeping with realism so audiences Uses and Gratifications can be entertained. However, it is also important for audiences to escape from realism (Bulmer and Katz). As Nolan explains “this was the most in-camera meaning shot on film, not added as an effect later film we’ve been able to achieve. There’s a very uncomfortable matchup between computer-generated imagery and the World War II period.
It tends to not sit well.”. With the use of special effects within this film, as Nolan explains himself gives the best sense of realism and effectiveness to capture the audience in suspense. Films are extremely accessible in the media world we live in as we are being constantly consumed, but being transported into an unknown world filled with uncertainty and action lets audience’s escape from their worries created by a combination of clever narrative techniques that make thriller films so great. Instant gratification comes easily with access to platforms such as ‘Netflix’ or even pirated films online as audiences can watch whatever they like with the click of a button. Therefore, thriller films should be able, through narrative techniques, to instantly entertain, suspense and captivate audiences anywhere, at any time without distractions.
Overall, thriller films have the ultimate power to make us feel scared, anxious and captivated but they can also transport us to new worlds and create the ultimate power to move us to the ‘edge of our seats.’ Directors, editors, producers and composers work together in pre and post-production of films to co-ordinate entirely different aspects to create a stunning intensely filled film that grips the audience until the finale with all the combined narrative techniques mentioned, are the key to making a successful thriller film to grip audiences in suspense.