The Art Of Turning Places Into Characters
Settings are often so integral to a film that they can become as important as characters themselves; here are five prominent examples.
We’ve all left the cinema reeling from a sense of place, whether it’s a vow to never set foot in the woods again, the urge to jump on a plane and go there right now, or the relief of fresh air on your face after a particularly claustrophobic 127 minutes.
It’s also one of the things that’s drummed into new filmmakers – the importance of not just choosing the setting you need to tell your story, but crafting that setting as carefully as you would any of your other characters. Whether it’s a landscape, a building, a real place or a fictional one, the perfect location can become a character in its own right, or a way into the inner psyche of your flesh and blood characters, revealing what makes them tick beyond their words and actions.
A deeply-crafted sense of place can also lure the audience into a certain state of mind, sometimes in contradiction to what’s happening on-screen; or introduce ideas in a far more evocative way than plot or dialogue.
Over the years, cinema has introduced a whole range of setting-related tropes guaranteed to push our buttons, like the isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere, or the paper-thin façade of the genteel country house. But they’re more than just stereotypes. Being susceptible to environmental suggestion is just one of the ways our unconscious minds keep us safe, so it’s a rich seam for filmmakers to mine.
There are so many great examples of place as character, it’s hard to pick out a definitive list, but here are five of my favourites.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
New York, perhaps more than any other city, is an iconic movie setting – from King Kong to Taxi Driver. We all feel as if we know it, even if we’ve never been. In one way, that makes it easier to cast New York as a character, tapping into a wealth of celluloid memories and triggers, but on the other, it makes it hard to show the city in a new light, free of well-trod stereotypes.
A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, does both. It’s set in the New York of 1981, well-known for a spike in violent crime and extreme weather, and tells the story of Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), a moral yet ambitious heating-oil entrepreneur trying to capitalise on the lure of the American Dream, surrounded by violence and corruption.
The crumbling shores of Brooklyn’s waterfront and industrial wastelands characterise Abel’s battle, including the many toxic forces threatening his sense of what’s right and his own inner turmoil, as he fights to walk the blurred line between capitalism and conscience and regenerate the decay. With a shiny Manhattan far off in the distance, it’s clear that despite his smooth, camel-coated appearance, Abel is still an immigrant on the edge of a world represented by the iconic financial district skyline.
Many details help to characterise the murkiness inherent in both the time and capitalism itself, from the pervading grey snow to the cityscapes captured by cinematographer Bradford Young, who “opts for yellow-tinged “scope digital” to capture the chilly vistas of New York’s underworld (with added Detroit grime), the brisk exteriors arrestingly counterposed with brooding interiors”.
The film also features Jessica Chastain in brilliant form, as Morales’s steely and ambitious wife Anna, in a role often compared to Lady Macbeth.
Interestingly, J.C. Chandor was inspired by his time living in Brookyn’s Williamsburg district, pre-gentrification, including its neglected industrial buildings and brownfield sites. As you’d expect, the film has echoes of “Coppola, De Palma and Scorsese” as The Guardian puts it, “with their immigrants upwardly mobile within a gangland version of the American Dream”, but it treads its own path, and feels more contemporary than nostalgic, evoking the age-old questions around morality and success under capitalism. The New Yorker described it brilliantly as “an anti Godfather”.
When a film only has one character on screen for most of the time, the setting is bound to leap to the fore. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, is a great example of that. It tells the story of NASA engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who has to survive in space after a disastrous accident leaves her stranded and alone.
In one sense, space plays opposite Sandra Bullock, as both a nemesis and a dysfunctional friend. In another, it’s an intimate extension of Stone, allowing us to see the depth of aloneness she’s feeling as a grieving mother. At first, space is a cocooning retreat, an escape from the feelings Stone is battling with on earth. But, following the accident, space threatens her very existence, threatening to engulf her in its terrifying vastness.
By characterising space in this way, the film enables us to share Stone’s journey (both literal and emotional) in a powerful and visceral way, while beautifully crystallising the importance of human connection (however painful or far away it may seem).
Just like Stone, we’re lured into the weightless beauty and openness of space by the film’s eerie opening sequences, created by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with long, sweeping shots of space, earth far below, and the slow, graceful movements of Stone and her fellow astronaut, Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney). (The film opens with an unbroken 17-minute take).
Following the accident, Lubezki uses close-ups and point of view shots to show space through Stone’s eyes, drawing us deeper into her inner world, while she battles the hostile outer world around her.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Back on earth, human connection is also the theme of Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and while it may be a gentler ride, it’s no less compelling.
It’s set in Tokyo, with the city characterising the inner confusion and complexity of two very different characters – recently married graduate Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, and ageing former movie star Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray.
Tokyo also stands out as a character in its own right, the protagonist that brings Charlotte and Bob together, shining a light on the unsettling oddness of their own lives through its strangeness. Tokyo may be a million miles away from Charlotte and Bob’s America, but it’s the seemingly-familiar that perplexes them most, and leaves them feeling like strangers in their own lives. (Bob is estranged from his family and Charlotte is having a quarter life crisis, feeling alienated from her successful photographer husband John, played by Giovanni Ribisi).
With its very different perspective on life, from its language to its culture, Tokyo gives Charlotte and Bob the chance to find a different kind of connection, outside of conventional relationships. Their ages, situations or labels don’t matter, they’re simply connected as human beings sharing an experience – of loneliness, confusion, and a lost sense of self.
The city is strange, yes, but it’s also a friend, allowing Charlotte and Bob to be both profoundly deep and joyfully fun-loving. It’s hard to see Lost in Translation being set in any other city, and interestingly, it’s the only place in my list that feels like an ally.
Certain Women (2016)
Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women tells three very loosely interlocking stories about four women, based on stories by Maile Meloy. Set in the small prairie towns of Montana in northwest America, the small-town setting is strangely claustrophobic, despite the physical sense of space.
There are many great examples of small-town films, of course, but I’ve picked Certain Women for the way it uses places and the spaces between them to characterise the sense of disconnectedness felt by its characters.
Similarly, many of the film’s best moments happen in the spaces between the places we feel most familiar and comfortable with in film, action and dialogue. The drama may be low-key but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch.
Each of the women evoke a subtle sense of the pioneer spirit; Laura, a lawyer (played by Laura Dern) managing a difficult and unpredictable client, both professionally and emotionally; Gina, a discontented wife and mother (played by Michelle Williams) creating a weekend retreat with her family despite the growing space between them; and The Rancher living in a man’s world (played by Lily Gladstone), confused by her feelings for her beaten-down night school teacher Elizabeth (played by Kristen Stewart).
Elizabeth has to drive four hours each way to teach the night school class, as well as hold down a job, and it’s this humdrum and exhausting journey between places that so brilliantly captures Reichardt’s use of the space between – as a metaphor for the exhausting disconnection between people.
Another great example is in Michelle Williams’ story, where her character Gina is conflicted between using her elderly neighbour’s sandstone for her retreat, because it’s a local material, versus her guilt at taking something from him, when she senses he doesn’t really want to give it away.
The setting also helps to characterise the rare moments of connection, like when Lily Gladstone’s rancher gives her teacher Elizabeth a ride on her horse. The scene, with the horse appearing in a car park, also characterises the incongruity between the natural world and the man-made one, helping to underline the distance between the rancher’s and teacher’s worlds.
When it comes to places that characterise the human condition, heaven and hell have to be right up there, giving form to our conflicted desires and fears, both cultural and existential.
One of my favourite depictions of hell is from Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comic book, directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello.
The film tells the story of world-weary John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), who exorcises demons as a way of trying to avoid going to hell, his punishment for almost committing the mortal sin of suicide when he was younger.
The hell of Constantine steers clear of traditional symbols such as bonfires and horns, inspired instead by footage of nuclear blasts, as this article from Animation World Network explains: “Right before the shockwave, there is a heat wave that melts everything away. You can actually see surfaces being superheated before the whole thing is blown away. Francis wanted this moment to form the basis for the look of hell in the movie.”
Hell is also a replica of real-world Los Angeles, where the story is set, a parallel world that Constantine can visit, memorably described as a universe that “keeps decaying forever”. The film’s real world scenes are pretty bleak too, described by Empire as “imbued with a sense of stylish, Fincher-esque dankness”. In this way, Constantine works as a modern noir, with Constantine at the mercy of rules he can’t win by, made by the powerful elite, in this case heaven and hell.
By characterising hell as a terrifying vision of a familiar place, the film is able to explore a much deeper (and more disturbing) version of our modern world, where the demons we face are always just beneath the surface, ready to break through. Whatever your views on Keanu Reeves‘ acting, Constantine deserves a re-watch.
What films do you think are the best characterised places?
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