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.

Horace and Pete (2016)

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

Horace and Pete (2016) | Written and Directed by Louis C.K.

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HORACE AND PETE has given the writing world an event to celebrate: the birth of Web Series Theatre.

Louis C. K.’s new series not only works, it revolutionizes the present by recycling the past. When I looked around for something to compare it to, I first matched its 60+ minute episodes with multi-camera TV shows, but this is not a sitcom. Like a first-person novel, the language projects rich metaphors and word-pictures on our imagination, but they’re acted, not read. Like a play, the dialogue crackles with repartee, then segues into 20-minute speeches of vivid demi-poetry, all bracketed by poignant, long-held silences. Yet it doesn’t really feel like theatre, because it’s not live. Episode 3 brought memories of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a famous two-man stage play adapted to the big screen, but HORACE AND PETE isn’t cinema by any means. Finally, my friend, Joel Bernstein, offered this idea: Louis C. K. is the Eugene O’Neill of the Internet.

Indeed, when I put these two authors side by side, they matched and contrasted rather easily. Both C. K. and O’Neill labor in the genre known as Domestic Drama, aka family stories. Their dramatizations (often autobiographically inspired) take place in a home; the struggle for family unity versus schism drives events and raises the same suspense-filled questions: “Will this family stay together or split? Support or betray each other? Survive or self-destruct?”

O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, for example, dramatizes the Tyrones, a family slit with self-inflicted wounds. O’Neill creates four distinct, mutually antagonistic characters, and then embeds in each an ancient symbol: Behind the mask of the narcissistic, ham-actor father, James Tyrone, hides a Tyrant; his wife, Mary, a delusion-ridden morphine addict, is at heart an Earth Mother; their alcoholic, self-hating son Jamie plays Cain to his super-sensitive brother Edmund’s Abel. To dimensionalize each of his four characters, O’Neill injected an archetype with a dose of modern day neurosis. The result explodes inner contradictions that fascinate.

The Whittell family of HORACE AND PETE, on the other hand, wore their true selves down to the nub long ago. Instead of tragic arcs, C. K. gives them chronic anxiety. With the possible exception of Uncle Pete’s Jester (Alan Alda), everyone in the cast, including the extended family of barstool regulars, is staring into the back of their head, asking themselves, “What the fuck’s the point?”

Ever since he took stage as a standup, Louis C. K. himself has been a walking, talking existential crisis. His shows have made oldfangled angst fashionable again…but with a difference.

Last century modernist authors like Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Jean Paul Sartre (No Exit), and Eugene Ionesco (The Chairs) placed highly symbolic characters in highly symbolic situations to pronounce highly symbolic ideas. But that was then. Horace and Pete haven’t the energy to symbolize anything. C. K.’s characters don’t represent the existential crisis; they live it.

Specificity unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement.

If Louis C. K. (who produces, acts in, and directs his own writing) has a diagnosable neurosis, it’s perfectionism. HORACE AND PETE conducts a master class in the “telling detail”. It’s as if every character’s life history has been plotted back to childhood and beyond, every trait of characterization puzzle-fit with every other trait, and every word of every line cut and polished like a diamond. As a result, from the first gesture on, each episode’s compelling credibility grabs you and holds you.

In the Poetics, Aristotle says that the theatre gives two kinds of pleasure: emotional and mental. In the first case, drama releases tears, fears, and glees that we normally bottle up and never express in public.

But daily life not only smothers feelings, it also barricades the mind. So the mental pleasures of the theatre don’t release, they penetrate. We sit at a fixed distance to onstage action so we can do in the dark what we can’t do in the light: We pierce the surface of behavior and read the hidden truth of human nature, complete with subconscious motivations, contradictions and complexities. This aesthetic education pays off in life with powerful insights into our own humanity and the humanity of others.

Neither of these pleasures are possible, however, if the audience does not trust in what they see. The last thing an author wants is a reader or audience arguing with the believability of her story. Specificity (the telling detail) unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement. In keeping with this principle, HORACE AND PETE delivers two wonderful pleasures: we learn about people we could never otherwise know, while feeling in ways we’ve never quite felt before. 

Star casting can jeopardize involvement.

The unfortunate HAIL CAESAR!, for example, could not separate its stars from their characters, and rather than finding that ironic, we just disconnected. To be fair, HORACE AND PETE has moments when we suddenly glimpse, “Oh, it’s Edie Falco!” or “Oh, it’s Jessica Lange,” but in the next instant, the stars slip into their roles and we relax into belief.

This may mark the difference between big and small screens. In a movie house, actors are literally bigger than life, so if they don’t keep their performances in check, the star-ness of their massive projections taints the credibility of their characters. But when you hold the cast in your lap, the actors’ personalities recede to let their fictional selves surface quietly and naturally.

Of course, the cast of HORACE AND PETE has acted on screens and stages of all sizes, so the seamless depth of their naturalism may simply be what happens when skilled talent gets a chance to perform inspired writing.

45 Years (2015)

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

45 Years (2015) | Directed by Andrew Haigh

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)


This fine-spun minimalist work draws qualities and intensities of emotion we often experience in life but rarely in the cinema. 45 YEARS hurts the heart. The storytelling, from the inception of characters and events in the original short story on out to the screen adaptation, pulls off three remarkable feats:

Compressed Power in One Act:

The film executes a one-act movement in 90 perfectly paced minutes of compact event design that wastes nothing—every word, gesture and detail tells its truth. The inciting incident occurs within the first minutes when a letter arrives with news that radically upsets an elderly couple’s life. From there, quiet images flow with a tight-fisted grace. Relatively minor turning points in scenes build impactful sequence climaxes until the story’s one and only act climax explodes in the film’s final image.

Mastery of a High-Risk Genre:

45 YEARS tells its tale inside the seldom-used genre of the Disillusionment Plot. Other examples: CAPOTE (2005), INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), THE IMITATION GAME (2014). The Disillusionment Plot is the dark mirror of the Education Plot.

Both genres pivot around the value of meaninglessness / meaningfulness but in opposite directions. The Education Plot moves from negative (meaninglessness) to positive (meaningfulness) as the protagonist begins the telling in a state of emptiness or despair, living a life of lost purpose. From there he undergoes an “education,” experiences that imbue his existence with meaning and lifts his vision of the future to the positive. Three examples: ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002), LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), and BIRDMAN (2014).

The Disillusionment Plot reverses this design. In 45 YEARS, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) lives, she believes, a fully meaningful life, devoted to her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay). His love for her and hers for him gives her life its only purpose.

Then she discovers the truth: Geoff’s first love, Katya, who died 50 years ago, has always been his only true, unchanging, and secret love. Kate, therefore, has always been second best (if that) in Geoff’s life. Her husband (a rather shallow man, truth be told) has faked his feelings over the 45 years of their marriage. Therefore, the one thing that gave her life meaning was never real.

What greater humiliation could a person suffer than to discover that her existence has been rooted in a lie her lover told her on day one and a truth he hid from her for 45 years? None. This explains why the film’s one and only act delivers the emotional power of four Ibsenian acts: It is the final movement of a 45-year set-up.

Skillful Minimalist Technique:

Storytelling minimalism uses minimum text to compress maximum subtext. Subtext, by definition, cannot be written out, and so the bulk of conflict and dramatic action happens unseen, within the characters, below the level of speech. All a minimalist screenwriter can do is leave room under the text and hope the actors bring the unsaid and unsayable to life. And the two stars of 45 YEARS did so with breathtaking force. In scene after scene, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay held the camera while they silently carved tragic poems, line by line, into their souls.

As we sit watching, minimalism severely tests our empathy, concentration, and indeed, our humanity. Stories like this ask us to actively involve ourselves in the inner lives of characters that outwardly say or do very little. We have to imagine their complex and often subconscious struggles beneath images as simple as a woman head down in thought, walking her dog—images often long held on screen to give us time for absorption. No words of dialogue or narration to explain or confirm our feelings and interpretations. Like the characters, we are on our own.

45 YEARS demands all that and more. The audience must not only read inner lives and empathize but follow the tale’s descending emotional arc to its final implosion in angry, bitter disillusionment. Needless to say, most people will not or cannot make the effort. That’s why the audiences for minimalism are usually minimal.


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

Where To Invade Next (2015) | By Michael Moore

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

A Must-See for All Documentary Filmmakers:

Michael Moore uses a rhetorical rather than storified form to structure this documentary and the pay off is very powerful. To build his case, Moore uses examples of the best of European culture - education, nutrition, their penal system, and the quality of their working lives - and compares them to USA’s weakest counterparts. Point by point, country by country, issue by issue, he presents a riveting essay on the sad state of US culture. He slants his argument, no doubt, but that’s the fair game in rhetoric, and by the end of the film, he wins his case.

The Need for Female Leadership:

One theme runs throughout his examples: To create a nurturing rather than combative society, women must take leadership positions alongside men in all sectors of the society. He’s right and we all know it.

One Awkward Stylistic Choice Detracts from the Total Effect:

To unify his essay, Moore uses rather a lame metaphor: In each country he visits he plants an American flag to symbolize his invasion and theft of their ideas. It’s meant to be amusing and ironic, but it distracts from an otherwise elegant documentary.

ROOM (2015)

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

Room (2015) | Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

Genre Switching:

The first half of ROOM gives us a subgenre of the Crime Plot known as the Prison Plot, an action/thriller told from a prisoner’s POV as the protagonist struggles against a villainous warden. Examples: MISERY and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, both created by Stephen King.

The second half of ROOM turns to an Evolution Plot. This genre arcs its protagonist’s humanity or inner self from negative to positive. In this film, Joy (Brie Larson), suffering from PTSD, moves from a damaged self to a healed self. Examples: The TV series IN TREATMENT, the novels of Tim O’Brien such as Northern Lights, and the films ORDINARY PEOPLE, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, and MYSTIC RIVER.

Why has ROOM’s writer strung together two simple, shallow, half-stories, rather than create one profound, complex, complete story? My guess…creative inertia.

If Joy’s escape plan had failed, and Nick (Sean Bridgers) had locked her and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) back inside the shed, then to engineer Joy’s ultimate escape from such cramped sparse space, the storytelling would have demanded ingenious yet credible writing, powered by a gifted imagination. Then the rest of the film would be the author answering the riveting dramatic dilemma: “Will Joy and Jack escape this maniac’s hell-hole? And if so, how in the world will she do it?”

On the other hand, had the film opened with Joy and Jack escaping the shed, then their Evolution Plots would have called for superb creativity of another kind: brilliant psychological insight into the intricacies of PTSD, along with subtle delineations of human nature under mind-breaking pressures. The major dramatic questions now become: “Will Joy and Jack find the inner resources needed to repair their damaged psyches? And if so, how?”

Hows of story can break an author’s back and brain. Some just aren’t up to the heavy lifting. ROOM does not work because neither half of the film comes anywhere near its generic potential. When a writer buys a genre, it comes with a tag that reads, “Use me.”

The Oscar Nomination:

Why, we might ask, does the weak and shoaly ROOM get a Best Picture nomination? I can think of many reasons: In part because the novel on which it’s based won numerous book awards and the academy likes to wrap itself in things literary; in part because the child’s voice-overs coated the film with the ever-sweet optimism and up-lifting sentimentality the academy loves; and in part because it dramatizes violence against women, a social crisis the academy wants to acknowledge. Despite this charitable gesture, however, I can’t help but wonder if the film would have gotten its Oscar nod had Joy been played by an actress of color and Jack by an ugly kid.


The novel won many awards, sold very well, and reads much like a screenplay. It’s told in the first person voice of the five-year-old Jack, written in the present tense, and for the most part, consists of dialogue scenes. These three devices keep the sexual abuse in the nightmarish shed and the PTSD it causes at an emotionally safe distance. The author is Canadian.

The charm, so to speak, of the novel is its point/counterpoint portrayal of an innocent mind enveloped by a depravity it cannot fathom. The irony that enriches the novel evaporates onscreen for the obvious reason: You cannot photograph thought.

In the novel, we inhabit Jack’s mind as we take his first person point of view. In the film, despite the boy’s voice-overs, we take the camera’s third person point of view. Simply put, prose cannot move sideways into film. To capture the spirit of her novel on screen, author and screenwriter Emma Donoghue would have had to reinvent it radically.