Saturday, May 25, 2013

How I Would Have Done It: The Final

(What I'd like to do in my How I Would Have Done It posts is examine a movie that I think didn't live up to its potential and, well, talk about how I would have done it if I'd been the writer or director. Mostly because just leaving it at "that was dumb" or "that sucked" is kind of unsatisfying, especially when there was something really good buried in there somewhere. I'll be discussing story elements in detail, so all kinds of spoilers await.)

The Final was the first movie I ever considered as the subject of a How I Would Have Done It post, way back almost 3 years ago when I first started writing this little thing of mine. The experience I had watching it could be summed up as "So…this kind of sucks. It kind of sucks, and it doesn't have to." It was the first time I found myself watching a film and thinking of specific ways it could have been improved. There's a good idea for an intense psychological thriller here, but it's buried under some sub-Saw bullshit and baffling pacing choices. The Final is a movie about the fucked-up things that teenagers do to each other, and there's a lot of potential there that the filmmakers eschew for a bunch of torture set pieces.   The real scary thing in this movie isn't all of the gory atrocities visited upon the popular kids, it's the ease with which teenagers are capable of doing terrible things, and how quickly events spiral out of control.

In The Final, a small group of eternally-bullied unpopular kids decide that they're going to get revenge for all of the daily slights and indignities visited upon them by the beautiful, popular kids of their high school. To the film's credit, the establishing sequences in which we see these kids being bullied feel plausible - more vicious and crude than the typical teen drama fare. Likewise, their revenge plot isn't as ridiculous as it could be - it's at least a little ridiculous, but simple enough that I could actually see some variant on it working under the right conditions. The weird kids are going to anonymously circulate invitations to an exclusive secret-location Halloween party to get all the kids in one place, then spike their drinks, tie them up while they're unconscious, and then torture the shit out of them. 

Now, obviously, this wouldn't work on a large scale, but it's nicely psychological. If you're one of the popular kids, status is important. If you're invited to an exclusive party, it's an affirmation of your status, and the privilege that comes with popularity means you're not likely to be too critical about where the invitation is coming from. All you need to know is that it's by invitation only and that you are - as it should be, given that you are popular - invited. Why would you for a second think that it's a trap or ruse? Who would (or could) dare to mess with you? After that, well, in the age of the Internet, it's not that hard to get access to sketchy shit, be it drugs, guns, or information. So this movie's premise occurs just on the edge of "yeah, that could happen." I like that.

What it does have going for it is adolescence. 

Being a teenager is fucking scary. It's the most dramatic period of physical, cognitive, and social development we experience after the age of three. Bodies all jacked up on hormones, brains struggling with the concept of abstract thought, and increasing emphasis on peer relations and deemphasis of family relationships. All the shit we took for granted for most of our childhood is up for grabs, and it's really hard not to feel everything intensely. Adolescence is its own little world, with its own rules, its own hierarchies, and its own morals. The killers aren't the interesting part - they're posturing douchebags. What's interesting is what happens when their little plan is made real and now they're faced with the reality that they can hurt these people who have hurt them all along. Who crosses the line first? What happens once the line has been crossed? Now they're all implicated and there's a shitload of witnesses - do you keep going? Put all of that pressure into one room, sharpen the distinctions between the haves and have-nots to a razor edge, and suspend conventional definitions of right and wrong in favor of ones borne out of the situation, and you have yourself a horror movie. The Final ostensibly does that, but then focuses on the torture instead of focusing on the dynamic between all of these teenagers, which is where I'd argue the real horror is. 

Set It In One Room

The majority of the film as shot is set in one or two rooms, with the exception of some establishing high school scenes, exteriors in the forest surrounding the farmhouse where the teenagers are held, and at an entirely separate location after one of the kids escapes. The beginning is fine, but every movement away from the one or two rooms once the action starts is a distraction. Get rid of the exteriors (until the very end, perhaps), and get rid of the escaping kid and that entire storyline completely - as it is, it kills the momentum, sets the story adrift. Compress everything into a single space, emphasize the claustrophobia and inescapability of the situation in which these people find themselves. There's no escape for the popular kids, drugged and tied up, but there's no escape for their captors either. They've committed themselves to this course of action and are as trapped in the circumstances they've created as the kids they've captured. One room means there's nowhere to hide, and the wreckage of the decisions made remains visible all around the victims and victimizers alike. It matters less what happens - you don't need spectacular gore or anything - and more how everyone responds to it and to each other. In one room, there's no way to get away from that.

Haves And Have-Nots

Distinguishing between "us" and "them" is a fundamental part of human nature. It's not just political or economic or social, it's also existential - part of how we know who we are is to know who we are not. Our very notion of self rests in part on being able to distinguish ourselves from others - the idea of "me" requires "you." Even though these distinctions get made pretty early in development, adolescence is a time when we all struggle to establish our identity - to understand what it means to be the person we recognize as ourself. Needless to say, categorical distinctions play a huge role in this search for identity. High school is its own closed society, with its own rules and routines and norms, and the salient social categories are a part of that. It's not playing for real-world stakes, but it's just as important to the people who live it. As silly and arbitrary as the difference between popular and unpopular kids seems to people just one or two years after high school is over, when you're in it, it's as important as any distinction in the adult world. Make that distinction as sharp as possible, because that's how it feels to the kids living it and makes the unpopular kids' rage palpable enough that their willingness to entertain the idea of committing atrocities seems plausible. 

Conversely, making the stakes higher - putting actual lives on the line - can be used as an opportunity to reveal how arbitrary and ultimately meaningless those distinctions are, which makes what's been done in the name of those distinctions all the more horrifying. The popular kids can be just as cruel and nasty as they seem, it's not a matter of making them misunderstood or anything, but once people get hurt or die, it's a moment for both groups to say, essentially, "oh shit, what just happened?" and for the weight of it to sink in. And that's when the movie really starts. It's not a revenge fantasy for the have-nots, and it's not an opportunity for the haves to be affirmed, it's about the moment when a dead body gets everyone to realize that none of that shit matters anymore.

Suspend Right And Wrong

This follows from the previous two - isolation means outside concerns (and thus, outside rules and norms) don't apply, and a really visible, really salient distinction between us and them means that any rules and norms that do apply are going to be organized around that distinction to the exclusion of others. If the haves are bad, and there's nobody around to tell you otherwise, then they are bad, and so doing bad things to them is okay. It's the logic of the Stanford Prison Study and Abu Ghraib, and applies just as readily to teenagers as volunteer subjects and soldiers. The unpopular kids have created a collective revenge fantasy, invested time and energy into planning it, and made it happen. Insofar as high school is their world, and the rules and norms of high school are their rules and norms, they have the perfect rationalization for doing whatever they want to the popular kids, and in the isolation of the farmhouse, very little reminder of the rules and norms of the outside world. This should be most apparent in the early stages of the movie, as the unpopular kids work up to actually hurting the popular kids, and then once blood has been spilled, be the reason for everything that follows. Do the popular kids try to get away? Do they try to reassert their dominance? Do the unpopular kids continue to escalate the torture and murder, or do they reconsider once the gravity of the situation becomes apparent? 

At this point, you don't need elaborate torture scenarios, just people with flaws and agendas and feelings, all stewing in an environment where right and wrong are continually up for grabs, far from anywhere, with the clock ticking until someone starts to notice these kids are missing. The isolation and claustrophobia, two groups of people who have so many reasons to connect and are so unlikely to do so, and everyone's moral compass sent out of whack, in this sort of movie, even the smallest word or action could be terrifying, no needles, acid, or silly costumes needed.

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