'Striking Distance' and the Subtle Art of Setup and Payoff
The Bruce Willis/Sarah Jessica Parker thriller was initially released thirty years ago this week.
No medium has the ability to tell a story as efficiently as cinema. That’s because the movies are a medium that’s an amalgamation of other mediums, including drama, photography, and the aural arts (I’m hesitant to limit them to “music”). As such, movies are uniquely suited to convey a narrative by engaging multiple senses simultaneously. You don’t need a page of breathtaking prose to describe a character, their surroundings, or their emotional state; all that information is going to be conveyed by the way the actor performs, the colors and styles of the sets and the costumes, the way the director and cinematographer choose to shoot that performance and those sets and those costumes, the rhythms with which the editor ultimately connects those shots, and the sound. (Please bear in mind that I’m not belittling other mediums, which have their own distinct strengths that movies lack. I’m just pointing out what makes movies different from literature, theater, visual art, etc.)
Is it necessary for films to convey their tales as economically as possible in order to be good? There are exceptions to any rule, but broadly speaking, I believe that audiences tend to respond the most positively to films that do have a sort of narrative neatness in their construction (even if their meaning is complicated). We may not be conscious of it, but there’s something about that sort of lean storytelling that our brains find satisfying. “Lean,” by the way, is not a synonym for “short” in this case - The Godfather is three hours and doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. I suppose I really mean elegant and multi-tasking. In any case, although I’m not 100% sure, I think part of the reason our unconscious responds so strongly to this mode of narrative is because it’s actually much closer to how we absorb information in life - we have multiple senses to tell us what we need to know.
Regardless of why this method of storytelling works so effectively, it does work very effectively. But it also poses a unique challenge to the storytellers.
Stories live and die by their setups and payoffs - or, more accurately, their setups and surprises. (And I don’t just mean plot twists. You have never cried more than you have at an emotional development you never saw coming, and you have never laughed harder than you have at a punchline that you failed to anticipate. If you’re constantly five steps ahead of the story, you’ll probably get bored, regardless of the medium or genre.) These two things are symbiotic. You cannot have a good surprise without a proper setup; if you were watching The Maltese Falcon, and the movie existed exactly as it does now except at the end you learned that Marlowe has actually been a Martian this whole time, you’d be like, “Wait, what? Where did that come from???”. If that’s your angle, you need to plant the seed that he could be a Martian much earlier.
But you also can’t announce your setup, because to do so would give away the surprise (as Pixar’s Andrew Stanton explained, you have to give the audience 2 + 2 and let them figure out that the sum is 4). You can’t have a moment where Sydney Greenstreet mentions the concept of Martians posing as private detectives apropos of nothing. You have to figure out a way to nest it in other details. Otherwise, you get this:
Herein lies the rub: Because of cinematic narrative’s efficiency, there are just not a ton of places to do that nesting. If you want to be able to foresee 99% of all story surprises or so-called “plot twists” coming, you really just need to pay attention to details that seem, at a glance, extraneous… because even movies that are only semi-competent don’t have extraneous details.
So, for example, watch this scene from The Dark Knight Rises, in which Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) first shows Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) the Batwing:
Because filmic storytelling does not allow for unimportant information, the moment Lucius starts talking about the autopilot, you know it’s going to come into play at some point. And because Lucius suggests that Bruce is better suited to fixing the autopilot than he is, you know that’s going to come into play at some point. So at the end of the movie, when Batman dies because his autopilot didn’t work? You know he actually fixed the autopilot and made it out long before the movie tells you as much.
I would call that bad setup, because the autopilot stuff really jumps out at you as an important detail, but not terrible setup, because it is, at least, organic to the conversation in which the characters are already engaged.
Great setup, though, hides in plain sight without calling attention to itself. That way, the surprise is surprising, but it also feels natural - the viewer didn’t see it coming, but feels that it ultimately could have gone no other way.
Although M. Night Shyamalan has run amok in the decades since, his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, remains an illustration of EXCELLENT setup.
Because the whole movie is about a child psychologist trying to help out this kid who seems to have severe emotional issues, the characters have an organic reason to discuss the concept of dead people not knowing they’re dead. At the same time, you have no real reason to assume Bruce Willis is dead; yeah, you saw him get shot at the start of the movie, but that’s not necessarily a death sentence (and the casting of Bruce Willis was very effective here - because Willis is traditionally an action star, we’ve seen him get shot and survive about a billion times in the past… so we truly have no reason to question it when the movie tells us he recovered). You don’t connect all these dots until the movie wants you to, but you also don’t feel cheated, because it was right under your nose the whole time.
Which brings us to a different Bruce Willis thriller, Striking Distance. Directed and co-written by Rowdy Herrington (the same guy who made made Road House, a.k.a. the movie where Patrick Swayze literally rips his enemy’s throat out), Striking Distance was released on September 17, 1993, and wound up being the second-highest grossing movie of that month, after The Fugitive. It was ultimately a minor hit, grossing $77 million worldwide on a $30 million budget. I hadn’t seen it in twenty-something of those thirty years until earlier this week, and while I was expecting it to be bad, I wasn’t expecting it to be so bad. It’s really quite embarrassing just how shoddy it is. It has all the hallmarks of dreck: Ludicrous story details, an uneasy marriage of tones that don’t mesh, lousy acting, horrible music, a dead body comedically flopping out of a car trunk in the background of an emotional moment, blah blah blah blah blah. Y’know, regular shitty movie stuff.
But its overarching problem is that it handles its setups with all the subtlety of John McClane leaping from the roof of an exploding skyscraper. Whether it’s setting up a payoff that comes ninety seconds or ninety minutes later, it telegraphs its next move at every possible opportunity - if it were a poker player, it would be playing with its hand facing out. It doesn’t have just a few instances of the kind hokey setup satirized by Wayne’s World - it is almost nothing BUT the kind of hokey setup satirized by Wayne’s World. In that sense, at least, it may very well be an achievement.
I’m also reasonably certain it was cursed.
Striking Distance follows a cop, Bruce Willis (his character’s name is Tom Hardy, LOL), who helps to capture a serial killer, the Polish Hill Strangler. Two years later, someone starts targeting Bruce Willis’ ex-girlfriends, murdering them in a manner which very much resembles the M.O. of the Polish Hill Strangler. Is it a copycat, or did they jail the wrong the man?
The movie begins with a series of four prologues - four! - which take up nearly a fifth of the movie’s 101 minutes. In the second prologue, we meet Bruce Willis and the other cops on the Polish Hill Strangler’s trail, including his father, John Mahoney (R.I.P.); his uncle, Dennis Farina (R.I.P.); his cousin, Tom Sizemore (R.I.P.); and his rival, Brion James (R.I.P.). We also learn that Bruce Willis is sad, not because there’s someone going around murdering young women, but because he recently chose to testify against his other cousin and partner, Robert Pastorelli (R.I.P.), for using excessive force (to its credit, there’s a way to read the movie as a commentary on the blue wall of silence… but that may be the only thing to the movie’s credit).
So after we first meet Bruce Willis, he and John Mahoney get into the car to go drive to a policeman’s ball, where Bruce Willis will see Dennis Farina and Tom Sizemore for the first time since he helped ruin the life of their son/brother. Here we get our first example of absolutely horrendous setup. I’ve kinda given it away already, but just for kicks, watch the scene and see if you can spot the overshare:
Did you catch it? No? Here, I’ll give you a hint:
There’s just no reason for them to discuss the boat. It’s a blatant attempt to make John Mahoney’s death a few minutes later seem both more surprising and emotional. But because it’s so ham-handed, it actually has the opposite effect - we now know Mahoney is about to die, and we know not to get too attached.
In the movie’s fourth and final prologue, Robert Pastorelli’s character decides he’d rather jump off a bridge than go to prison, and his whole family shows up to try and talk him out of it. Again, see if you hear the setup in this moment:
In case you missed it, Tom Sizemore conveniently reiterates the setup later in the movie. At this point in the story, his character has been MIA following his brother’s suicide, and is now coming to see Bruce Willis for the first time since that fateful night:
Why does everyone keep mentioning that the corpses of people who leap into the Ohio River are sometimes never found? Why, specifically, is Tom Sizemore telling us they never located Robert Pastorelli’s remains? Why are these details relevant?
If you somehow failed to guess that Robert Pastorelli is still alive and has been the Polish Hill Strangler all along, congratulations, you are Striking Distance’s target audience.
As I said earlier, Striking Distance doesn’t just blow the setups for it big plot twists - it also blows the setups for payoffs that happen within the same scene.
So, once again… watch this moment and see if you can predict where it’s going:
So why is this scene here? “Because Bruce Willis’ character would have to walk past the chalkboard in real life” is not an answer. In nine out of ten movies, when a law enforcement character gets a new partner, they walk into the chief’s office and the chief is like, “Here’s your new partner.” But in Striking Distance, Bruce Willis finds out from this other lady, who tells him that the new partner has a unisex name, and then goes out of her way to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun after Bruce refers to the new partner as “he.” So either this woman is way out ahead of the rest of the world in terms of not trying to gender anyone, or Bruce Willis’ new partner is a female.
Sure enough, five seconds later, Bruce Willis meets his new partner, Sarah Jessica Parker. And now, on top of serial killers and dead cousins, Bruce Willis has to worry about COOTIES! EWWWWWWWW!!!
(Incidentally, the “I never had a woman partner before” moment in the trailer is different from the one in the finished film. I guess they re-shot it for some reason.)
When you continuously fumble the setups and payoffs as badly as Striking Distance does, the audience cannot help but wonder if the filmmakers are stupid, or if the filmmakers assume the viewer is stupid. Calling this skill “crucial” is an understatement on par with saying it’s “crucial” for a car to have brakes. Failing to master this art will kill your story faster than you can say “The guy from Murphy Brown did it.”
Oh, right. I said this movie was cursed.
As you may have noticed, every single lead actor in the movie, save for Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker, is now dead… and Bruce Willis, now 67, has been forced to retire due to frontotemporal dementia. And while thirty years is a long time, given their ages at the time Striking Distance was produced, most of these performers could have reasonably assumed they’d still be alive and kicking in 2023 - in 1993, the average life expectancy for an American male was age 72. But only John Mahoney, who died at age 77, exceeded that expectation. Dennis Farina didn’t make it to 70; Brion James didn’t make it 60, and Tom Sizemore only barely crossed that landmark; and poor Robert Pastorelli didn’t even live to see 50.
I don’t actually think the movie was cursed, of course. But of all the things about Striking Distance that made me sad - and there were a LOT - the thing that made me saddest was seeing all these great actors who we lost too soon. If there’s any afterlife, hopefully they’re all together, making something better than this dog with fleas.
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