Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

The Salesman (2016) | Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Definition: A story’s genres merge when each genre supplies the other’s motivation.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s genre of choice is Domestic Drama. The positive/negative charge of the core value in family stories veers between Unity and Disunity and back again, raising the question: Will this family stay together or split apart? Farhadi’s films—ABOUT ELLY (2009), A SEPARATION (2011), THE PAST (2013)—all feature fragile families conflicted on two levels: inwardly into themselves and outwardly into their cultures.

His most recent work, THE SALESMAN (2016), merges its Domestic Drama with a second genre, the Crime Story. In this case, rape. As the film begins, a stranger enters the protagonist’s apartment and violates his wife. The neighbors, however, doubt her story. Their wordless suspicions inflict a bitter humiliation, so she decides to drop the matter and not call the police.

Her husband chooses instead to pursue revenge. He secretly hunts for the rapist, planning to punish him, not with the law, but with exposure to his own family. In Iranian culture, a dirtied reputation in the eyes of your family is crucifixion worse than prison.

Just as the protagonist is about to exact revenge, his wife intervenes and threatens to leave him. She fears that if her husband punishes her attacker, his actions will expose her to even more disgrace. Like the rapist, the victim’s greatest fear is shame. To prevent that, she puts her marriage in jeopardy.


Iranian culture is not only high context* (see below), and therefore dialogue-lite, but governed by behavioral restraints and moral adhesions absent in western culture. As a result, the actions of the wife and husband trigger reactions from their society and within their marriage that deliver surprise after surprise, followed by insight after insight. The storytelling might not amaze a Persian audience, but for this American, every turning point came with a jolt. The Crime Story climaxes in a state of chaotic Justice I did not see coming.


The conflict-filled path through this story exposes and changes the humanity of both husband and wife. What they lose in innocence, they gain in self-awareness. And since the couple works in a theatre troupe, the change may make them more mature actors. But given the guilt that will now haunt their lives, this is an arc they could have done without.

*High-context cultures have a strong sense of history and tradition. They change very slowly over time, and so from generation to generation their members hold many beliefs and experiences in common. A high-context culture will be relational, collectivistic, intuitive, and contemplative. It places high value on interpersonal relationships within a close-knit community.

As a result, within these in-groups many things can be left unsaid because their members easily draw inferences from their shared culture and experiences. The Italian mafia is such an in-group. In THE GODFATHER, when Michael Corleone says “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” an entire episode of extortion becomes violently clear. Michael then goes on to make the event explicit to Kay Adams because she’s not in the in-group.

High-context cultures, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, have low racial and social diversity. They value community over the individual. In-group members rely on their common background, rather than words, to explain situations. Consequently, dialogue within high-context cultures calls for extreme economy and precise word choices because within such settings a few subtle words can implicitly express a complex message.

Conversely, characters in low-context cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to explain things at greater length because the people around them come from a wide variety of racial, religious, class, and nationalistic backgrounds. Even within the same general cultures these differences appear. Compare, for example, two American stereotypes: a Louisianan (a high-context culture) and a New Yorker (a low-context culture). The former uses a few tacit words and prolonged silences, while the latter talks frankly and at length.

Excerpt from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen (P. 187)

LOVING (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Loving (2016) | Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Character-driven stories fall into six grand categories, each keyed to a distinctive change within the protagonist’s nature (his morality, mentality, or humanity) and the direction that change takes him (positive or negative). A change in morality, for instance, creates two often-used genres: the Redemption Plot (bad guy turns good, e.g., THE VERDICT) and the Degeneration Plot (good guy turns bad, e.g., THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).

Amongst the various genres that change a character’s underlying humanity, the Testing Plot may be the most rare and most difficult. Its suspense hinges on this question: Will he persist or surrender? In other words, what Testing Plots test is willpower. Generally, these stories risk the character’s physical survival by pitting his strength of spirit against either the blind violence of Mother Nature or torture in captivity: e.g., ALL IS LOST and 127 HOURS versus UNBROKEN and THE PRISONER (1955).

LOVING risks its characters’ inner survival. It tests their strength to maintain a true, undamaged sense of self. The film asks, “Does this couple have the willpower to persist in the face of vicious social antagonisms and ten long years of legal battles? Will they lose their will to love? Will they give up and divorce? Or will they persevere?”


Legal dramas like LOVING conventionally tell their tale from the POV of attorneys fighting for justice. Instead, writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps the courtroom battles off-screen and takes the plaintiffs’ POV as they wait on the sidelines.

This choice anchors the drama in the subtext of the characters’ inner lives, as events hammer at their will to endure. Needless to say, stories told in the subtext of ordinary people demand extraordinary acting. The performances by Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga as Americans from Appalachia were nothing short of brilliant.


Even when Testing Plot protagonists battle Mother Nature, the storytelling runs the risk of redundant scenes—struggle, struggle, and more struggle of the same kind. But at least they’re visual, cinematic scenes. Thought, on the other hand, cannot be photographed. Repetitiousness becomes an acute danger when willpower combats inner forces of self-doubt, anxiety, frustration, and fear. That LOVING expressed variety, tension, and progression in its quiet faces and places is yet another measure of filmmaking excellence.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Moonlight (2016) | Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


One of the most startling breakthroughs a writer ever makes is her discovery of a story’s true subject matter. She sets out to create one kind of telling, only to hear the voice of a very different tale pleading to be told. MOONLIGHT is a perfect example. It seems to weave a Social Drama around an Education Plot, but, in fact, a third storyline drives the film.

The genre of traditional Black Cinema is Social Drama—dramatizations of poverty, broken homes, drugs, racism—those persistent cruelties that never find a cure. MOONLIGHT ingeniously shifts these injustices from foreground to background. The film implies social crises but only uses them to tone the atmosphere and set the story’s world.

At first glance, MOONLIGHT seems to tell the coming-out story of Chiron (played by three different actors). The character evolves along an Education Plot that arcs him from confusion about his sexual identity (negative) to understanding his true self (positive). This indeed happens somewhere off-screen, but it is not, it seems to me, what MOONLIGHT is about.


The discovery of your story’s core genre often comes down to a question of cause and effect. In MOONLIGHT, which came first: Did Chiron’s coming-of-age give him the strength to come out? Or did his coming-out suddenly make him come of age? Immaturity stifles perception; maturity is the ground that grows self-awareness. So in my analysis, if he hadn’t grown up, he couldn’t have come out.

The most difficult creative task in writing a Maturation Plot is conceiving its act of maturity. Exactly what action, under what circumstances, will announce to the reader/audience that the protagonist is no longer a child? In STAND BY ME (1986), Gordie (Wil Wheaton) finds the guts to make the local bully, Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), back down, knowing Ace will take painful revenge the next day. In BIG (1988), Josh (Tom Hanks) chooses to abandon his adult self and return to his adolescent self. Why? Because he’s grown up and that (with wonderful irony) is what a mature person would do.

MOONLIGHT shapes a graceful arc that takes Chiron from boy to man, climaxing with an act of maturity in Act Three’s coffee shop scene. First, he sheds his drug dealer persona by removing that staple of hip-hop fashion, gold Grillz, aka frontsnot just so he can eat, but to face the man he loves as his true self. He then confesses quietly, but with aching poignancy, of his fidelity throughout years of estrangement. His confession of love is not his coming-out; I think he did that within himself long ago. It’s not an act of social or familial defiance, not an act of self-discovery, but the action of an adult.


The most important events in MOONLIGHT take place wordlessly in the subtext. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ extreme economy of dialogue opens up a silent pathway to the inner life of an utterly original, multi-dimensional character whose intimidating physique masks gentility, whose stoicism hides life-long suffering, whose loneliness hints at an observant, high intelligence.

I’ve always hoped that truth of this quality would someday reach the screen; it’s gratifying to see it expressed in my lifetime.

Black Mirror

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Review:

Black Mirror (2011 - ) | Created by Charlie Brooker

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Long-form series, like BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES, unfold their stories, season after season, from a foundation of perpetual characters and settings. But an anthology series works from scratch to invent a new cast, a new world, and, most importantly, a new story, episode after episode. Some anthologies, such as LAW & ORDER and THE X-FILES, lighten the load with continuing characters, but not BLACK MIRROR. Like its famous predecessor, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, not all BLACK MIRROR episodes are equally excellent, but then that’s true of any series. Overall, the uniqueness of this tour de force’s episodes rocks the mind.


Unlike the last century’s uncanny monsters (ALIEN) and gothic supernaturals (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), the genius of BLACK MIRROR seeps unseen horrors out of the kitchen sink realities of our techno-world, which then slowly infiltrate our everyday life, until the world spins like a tornado. From NATIONAL ANTHEM (S.1 - E.1) to PLAYTEST (S. 3 - E. 2), with each episode, BLACK MIRROR unleashes a chilling, too-real fear of what hides inside the gismos we hold in our hand.


Suspense merges curiosity with emotion. The question “What’s going to happen next?” fills with the dread of “Please don’t let it happen to me.” The tensions in BLACK MIRROR rack our nerves because, although we hope for a happy ending, we know it’s not gonna happen. Early episodes established the series’ storytelling style and warned us that all tales will end in a monsoon of irony: If it’s a downer, the protagonist’s fate will spread a dark smile across his face. If it’s an upper, the protagonist may get what she wants, but she’ll pay a hell of a price for it—probably her soul.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

20th Century Women (2016) | Written and Directed by MiKe Mills

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


Mike Mills wrote and directed this finely crafted minimalist film that unfolds with the depth and complexity of a novel. His portrayal of the inner lives of his characters, their struggles to make meaning, and their unsaid thoughts and feelings draws us into the story like an engrossing work of prose. His camera seems to photograph thoughts.


Maturation Plot, Education Plot and Love Stories with subtle but true character arcs deliver honest portraits of empathetic protagonists.


Again, as in a novel, Mr. Mills moves fluidly through time. His flashbacks and narration parse the exposition seamlessly into the on-going storytelling. He hooks, he holds, he makes us wait until we absolutely need and want to know the storied facts.


Insightful observation and potent comment on the interconnectedness of music and its influence on the characters’ lives.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Manchester by the Sea (2016) | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Inciting Incident via Flashback:

Most stories unfold chronologically and so cause and effect happen in that order. The first scenes set up the protagonist’s life and arouse curiosity about the future: “What will happen to this character?” These set-up scenes build to the story’s first major event, the Inciting Incident, this powerful cause triggers the effects that play out in the scenes that follow.

The genius of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA reverses cause and effect, putting the effect before the cause, the cause after the effect.

When the film opens, we meet the protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), living a deeply troubled, virtually masochistic life. But we don’t know why, and so we naturally wonder, “What happened to this guy?” When our curiosity reaches the boiling point, the film flashes back to the Inciting Incident. This stunning turning point reveals the cause for Chandler’s silent torment and raises the major dramatic question: “Will he survive this tragic trauma or be destroyed by it?”

Superb Execution of the Evolution Plot:

The film dramatizes a rich, complex tale of the soul-destroying power of guilt. The event revealed in the flashback hollows out the protagonist’s humanity and launches a character arc that evolves from the negative (an unlivable inner life) to the positive (a livable inner life).

Memorable Character:

As in other wonderful films like 45 YEARS and the more recent 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Kenneth Lonergan’s work unfolds like a novel by compelling us into the abyss of the protagonist’s unspoken turmoil, but does so by implication, not explanation. In other words, the story’s spine of action runs through the subtext, not the text, and therefore calls for an actor who can bring the unsaid and the unsayable to life without the aid of on-the-nose dialogue. Casey Affleck’s brilliant portrayal of the war within earned his Oscar nomination and my applause.

And finally for you writers:

I’m frequently asked questions about the placement of a story’s first major event: “Can the inciting incident happen in the backstory? If so, could I flashback to it? Or, could I just leave it there and only imply it?” All such questions get the same answer: “Of course.” A writer can tell her story any way she likes, so long as she knows why she’s telling the story her way and how her choices make her story all the better.

The first half of the following Storylogue Q&A addresses this exact question: Flashbacks: The Question is “Why?”

LA LA LAND (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

La La Land (2016) | Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

The Musical:

Comparisons (if they’re apples to apples) are always fair. We do it instinctively. When a new Love Story, Comedy, Thriller, or Sci-Fi film premieres, we immediately compare it to the finest of its kind. The benchmark we apply is not “Did they do their best?”, but “Does it measure up to the best?” That’s what people with standards do.

In the greatest American musicals, performers act, sing, and dance with equally brilliant talents in all three dimensions. If they don’t have the voice or the legs—Marlon Brando in GUYS AND DOLLS, Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY—they have the good taste to stand still and turn a lyric into a soliloquy. In the best of the best, stellar choreographers and choruses pull off feats that make you jump for joy; sublime composers and lyricists write tunes you’ll warble in the shower for the rest of your life. So when I compare this film to the likes of TOP HAT, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, MUSIC MAN, WEST SIDE STORY, or CHICAGO, it doesn’t.


What makes characters burst into song? The conceit of the Musical is that emotional peaks are beyond words. Dialogue can’t contain them, words can’t express them, so characters, by convention, pour their energies vocally into song and physically into all four limbs. But for me (and I’m sure many will disagree) LA LA LAND’s turning points wouldn’t get anyone out of a chair, let alone launch a song and dance number. The love story’s desires and motivations are so weak, the screenplay simply avoids a last act crisis/climax. Because there’s nowhere to go with these characters, the film finishes on a resolution scene, glazed with sentimentality.


And yet, here’s why I didn’t walk out: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling exude such empathy, charisma, and good old-fashioned charm, that I’ll stay through anything they’re in, even this.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Hidden Figures (2016) | Direct by Theodore Melfi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Protagonists are Brilliantly Conceived Underdogs:

Black women of mathematical genius up against antipathetic, envious white men and women of lesser talent in the American South in the time of Jim Crow. The least wrong look or word could get them killed. Our empathy is instantaneous.

Wonderful Acting:

Acted with dignity and without sentimentality.

Pleasure of Learning:

Humbling to know this hidden part of our history. High time it came out.