What goes up… you know how it goes. I can’t believe it has taken this long to acknowledge the importance of the almighty reaction shot. Can it even be labelled a device? It surely must be the backbone of every picture ever made. It is the conscience of a film; the moral compass to guide the audience between the shades of good and evil. It lets us know whom we must follow in order to save our souls, or at least comprehend what we are witnessing. It is the emotional dimension that brings the heart out of an otherwise flat screen.
It is tough to define exactly what a reaction shot is because every actor reacts. The reaction shot is the choice of the director to counter a moment with its effect on a character, telling the audience that this person feels a certain way about a situation, or perhaps something even grander, as an ideology. How we see a character handle action unfolding in front of them, layers their very nature and supports later actions to come. Though, the director can in turn choose to withhold a response, or include an enigmatic response, which acts to build suspense and mystery around the intentions of that character. At its core is a look. It can say a million things with a single glance – a wave of joy, a deflated sigh, or an encouraging smile. These simple gestures enable a complexity often found in the thought process of a character in a novel, with just one shot.
The two films that recently made me aware of this powerful dimension are a fitting cross-section of how the device can be used. In Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty we are taken into a pre-Obama interrogation room, where waterboarding, psych-torture, humiliation and every available method of breaking someone is used. We enter this world through Maya, Jessica Chastain, an up and coming CIA operative, as she moves out from behind the desk in Langley and into the gory field. A veneer of amour is projected, which we can only assume has been adorned to make it through the hardened ‘boys club’ of the CIA. Tough and agile, we follow her into the room. She is us; we are with her.
In the room we witness a man stripped of his humanity, knocked down to something lower than an animal. We wince. Maya finds it hard to see this brutality, as her face expresses the reality of the degrading act, but she steels herself and offers no reprieve. It is in these cuts to her reaction, her processing of the situation, that we know the pain, know the conflict of morality. The duality of what it is to be a conscious being in the savage times we live. Maya allows us to enter this world and not completely turn away in disgust – if she can hack it, then so must we.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum is the black comedy, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. This picture does a brilliant job of crafting a catharsis/liminal moment/arc that leaves the realm of ‘reality’, yet stays right on the ground. Its commitment to razzle dazzling the commonplace affords it a balanced dose of the darkest humour – a serious ballroom dance competition overrun by two freewheeling spirits with a penchant for nostalgic music mash-ups and tap dancing. It provides another great example of how an audience learns an entire history of the relationship between two characters from the reaction of one character.
Aside from a truly uplifting scene where Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence neurotically flash their spirit fingers, we also gain an insight into a mother’s struggle to ensure that her son has a good life. As the couple twirl their way across the floor, we cringe, but we also see through Dolores’, Jacki Weaver, face that she has finally attained the reality that she has craved for so many years, her son’s happiness. It is this extra dimension that the scene needs to create meaning because without Weaver’s look, we don’t understand the full weight of her struggle, the context of this moment. All it takes is one expression and we know the story. Now all that is needed is to get that look right, and show it at just the right point in time.