It may be easy to think of movies with great suspense. A favorite horror movie or mystery might immediately pop into your mind. Now think of a movie with great tension. Your mind might immediately be blank, but then, the more you think about it, more will come to you. That’s because, while not every movie has suspense, every movie should have at least a little tension. Tension can be found in conflict, in desire, in longing, in grief, in heartache, even in joy. It’s just a matter of the degree and how the tension is communicated to the audience through the story.
I recently watched two very different movies that use tension as the key method of pushing forward the narrative, each with a certain level of success.
The first film is 7500, an Amazon original film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an airline pilot whose plane gets hijacked while traveling from Berlin to Paris. You would, at first glance, imagine this to be an action movie, sort of a cross between Die Hard and Panic Room, and you would be right, to a certain degree. However, in truth, the action is kept to a surprising minimum and the major thrust of the film’s emotional impact is translated through anticipation of violence instead of violence itself. Director and co-writer Patrick Vollrath, making his feature film debut with this film, does manage to use tension as the main player in a film that has to keep the audience engaged through two hours where nothing much more happens once the initial act has occurred. It’s how the characters react to that one act, and the ramifications, both physical and emotional, to that action.
There is significant buildup to the hijacking itself, and the first quarter of the film is extremely effective in establishing the place, time and characters. Vollrath is all about the tension in these opening minutes, as he cross-cuts our introduction to the pilots and flight attendants as they settle into their pre-flight activities, prepping for just another flight, with security camera footage of men going through security checks and walking through the airport to their gate. The ominous silence while the security cam footage shows these men and their semi-suspicious activities is incredibly effective in ratcheting up our sense of dread. Once the flight is up in the air, the tension of watching the normal in-flight activities makes our stomachs churn even harder, as we are just waiting for the hijacking to happen.
Once it happens, we begin an entirely new level of tension, as the rest of the film deals with not necessarily our tension and dread, but that of Gordon-Levitt’s, as the pilot who has to keep his calm and figure out how to keep himself and a plane full of passengers (and possibly even hundreds on the ground) from dying. While the film does drag a bit in the middle and Gordon-Levitt’s performance could have used a little more energy (I know what he was going for, it just didn’t work for me), the overall effectiveness of Vollrath’s direction is exceedingly impressive, as you truly feel you are as trapped in that plane as our characters are. Even the violence is mostly done in a Hitchcockian way, most of it left to the imagination, which is always more disturbing.
Speaking of things being left to the imagination, it’s all about the images your mind can concoct in our second film, another Amazon original, The Vast of Night. The debut for writer/director Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night is an imaginative and seductively eerie movie reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks. Indeed, the movie makes no bones about being a straight-out homage to The Twilight Zone right from the beginning, but it easily morphs into its own being as we are sucked into Patterson’s world and characters.
The Vast of Night is set in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s on the night of the first high school basketball game of the year. The whole town is gathering in and around the school gymnasium and we are introduced to a variety of people, in a rapid-fire opening scene that follows Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz) through the gym, interacting with dozens of different people, engaging in Aaron Sorkin-type dialogue. If you ever needed to look up the term “narrative exposition” in the dictionary, this opening sequence would be there. All at once you wonder why you are listening in on such seemingly inane conversations about squirrels and tape recorders and trombones, but the more you listen, the more you realize that a story is being told, a picture is being painted.
Then, as Everett leaves the gym, accompanied by Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a teenage girl who wants Everett to show her how to use her new tape recorder, the film quiets down as the camera settles in to follow Everett and Fay as they walk through the town’s empty streets, listening to their conversation, wondering where we—and they—are going. We learn that Everett is the town’s resident DJ and Fay is the telephone switchboard operator, and as they both settle into their places behind their respective sound boards, something strange happens that engages both of them in a search for a cause.
The tension in The Vast of Night is built in a far different manner than it is in 7500. In 7500, the tension comes from knowing what’s going to happen and then, when it finally does, trying to figure out which of the known actions to take. In The Vast of Night, the tension comes from everything that’s not known, from the darkness of the night and the quiet of the town. Two characters walking through darkened and deserted streets. A stranger’s voice on the other end of the line telling a story. An old lady in an old house telling a spine-tingling tale. It all is pieced together like a puzzle, and the common thread is the darkness and the tension.
The Vast of Night is a gorgeous and evocative film with standout performances all around, especially from Horowitz, who deserves to get a career boost from this film. But it’s the mood, the cinematography, the music and the writing in this film that grabs hold of you and takes your mind and imagination to places you might have never expected.
If you are a Twilight Zone junkie or love small films with big ideas and want to feel like you have discovered an incredibly talented director before the rest of the world does, treat yourself to The Vast of Night. It’s a throwback to so many things, including the art of building tension in a subtle and evocative way.