Have you ever walked out of a theater before? Odds are you were bored. So bored you'd willingly burn the cash you spent on a ticket to get out of watching the rest of a film. Boredom is also why we flip channels. If a show fails to interest us, we jump on a different highway in hopes of finding something more colorful, more emotional, and simply more exciting. It's no secret that the biggest sin in storytelling is letting the audience lose interest, but in some cases, being boring has the opposite effect.
How could boredom be a good thing? Instead of using mundane, typical scenes as a break from the action, some script writers spin it into a way of turning up the heat. There's something inherently more terrifying about a serial killer taking time to make himself a cup of coffee than a serial killer who devotes every hour to sharpening his special pair of pliers. More often than we realize, #movies and #TV shows use boredom and unremarkable elements to bump up the tension, and these four stories explain how.
1. 'Breaking Bad' — Hungry For Breakfast?
It's been a while since #AMC's hit series, Breaking Bad, wrapped up, but that hasn't stopped it from holding the reputation as one of the most powerful pieces of television ever made. Most people praise the show for its unconventional story. After all, a high school teacher turned drug lord isn't exactly a cliche. Regardless of the unique setup, Breaking Bad succeeds in a more subtle area. It builds tension by letting the characters, well, have breakfast.
Breakfast is a big deal on Breaking Bad. It's such a big deal that there's even a complete list of everything Walter Jr. eats on the show. Why does a story about drugs spend so much down time with the first meal of the day? It's all about uncertainty. The story throws enough wild cards at us that by the time we get to breakfast — an utterly dull block of time filled with Raisin Bran and fruit salad — we start to expect bad things. The stress of Walter White's drug life bleeds into his family life, even though the show gives every appearance of normal people having a normal meal. #BreakingBad raises the tension by letting our minds wander, worry and hope that Walter can at least finish his OJ before he goes knocking on any doors.
2. 'Inglourious Basterds' — Would You Like A Glass Of Milk?
While Breaking Bad draws out the tension of each episodes with mundane breakfast scenes, Quentin Tarantino's historic parody piece, #InglouriousBasterds, employees a kind of stress typicality rooted in the characters themselves. Christoph Waltz plays Colonel Hans Landa in the film, a Nazi bent on finding and killing every last Jew. Instead of carrying the typical gruffness of a villain, he's charming. He's normal.
The first scene of the film shows us precisely how everyday human behavior can become horrifying. Hans Landa enters the home of a dairy farmer suspected of hiding Jews. Hans sits down, smiles, and asks for a glass of milk. He's polite and quite cheerful to the terrified farmer. While smoking his pipe, Hans emphasizes that he wants things to be pleasant and simple. Why is this casual, incredibly typical conversation so intense? Hans weaves his moral filth into a friendly and relatable personality. After watching the opening scene, it's impossible to separate the two sides of the character, leaving us floundering in a sea of thoughts like, "I hope he doesn't kill anyone," and, "A glass of milk sounds pretty good right now!"
3. 'The Impossible' — Vacation Time
Before tackling cancer in A Monster Calls, director J. A. Bayona brought to life a harrowing story of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami with The Impossible. The movie follows a family trying to find each other after being torn apart by the disaster. It's been praised as one of the most emotionally realistic survival stories put to screen, thanks to the "no pulled punches" mentality of the story. Blood flows as much as water, but not before the movie spends a painful amount of time in a beautiful Thai resort.
The boring aspect of The Impossible — the vacation opening — works to create a false sense of security. Most movies have recognizable transitions between down time and scenes of action, so when we're treated to a drawn-out depiction of a loving family enjoying their vacation, we expect a mood shift before the wave hits. That isn't what happens. One moment, young #TomHolland is enjoying a swim, and then he's caught in a swirling brown mess of ocean. Of all the ways script writers use boredom to build tension, this is the most common; they take an everyday situation and stretch it out so long that the audience starts to breathe easy. In the moment of calm, The Impossible releases waves of destruction.
4. 'The Revenant' — Bear Hugs For Everyone
Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio rocked the #Oscars. The Revenant won him a Best Actor award, but the movie doesn't stop there. While most of the films in this list have used the mundane to inspire feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and horror, The Revenant achieves the same emotions by showcasing the brighter parts of the film.
It sounds backwards — how could highlighting the good have such an effect on the bad?
To begin with, The Revenant is a long splash of blood and an endless blast of frosty wind. After Hugh Glass (#LeonardoDiCaprio) is mauled by a bear, his hunting party buries him alive and kills his son. Glass drags himself out of his grave and treks across the wilderness to find justice. The road is gritty — and excruciatingly painful to watch — but not all of Glass's story is interesting. When the intense personal drama subsides and the boring aspects of life in the cold come to light, the cinematography shines. It was always there, but it sits in the background until the writers throw in a couple scenes of snooze-inducing survival details.
The cinematography plays a special role in the movie. Emmanuel Lubezki knocked himself out with the balance of color and light, but the sheer magnitude of each landscape only turns our minds back to the fact that Glass is cold, alone, and hopeless. The beauty of The Revenant makes its dark side a hundred times darker.
The Writing Tricks And Traps
Writers are always told to cut anything from their story that isn't interesting, and why wouldn't they? Boredom is the biggest sin in storytelling. Nobody wins if your audience walks out. But with all those pressures to keep the action nonstop and the tension pulled as tight as a steel cable, some scripts lose the subtle effect of the mundane. Being boring draws out the tension, lulls us into a false sense of security, and helps us see the bigger picture (which is sometimes quite small). Sometimes you don't need loud, strange set pieces to keep us hooked, you just need a dose of something normal.
The next time you find a serial killer in your kitchen with blood on his hands and a body at his feet, just hope — for the sake of interest — that he doesn't come at you with a knife. Hope that he fills your kettle, turns on the stove, and says, "Sit down, please. We'll discuss this over a nice cup of tea."
What's your favorite "boring" movie, and how does it keep you on the edge of your seat?