Some shots call attention to their greatness. They’re incredibly long, or feature onscreen choreography that is impossibly complex, or the camera makes a movement that should be physically impossible. But a shot needn’t be showy to be great. All it needs to do is show us something beyond the simple facts of the scene. For a perfect example, examine one seemingly simple-looking shot in the middle of a series of equally simple-looking shots during a dialogue exchange between two characters in the 2003 Clint Eastwood film “Mystic River.”
The characters are Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, and Dave, played by Tim Robbins. This scene occurs about 45 minutes into the film. Jimmy is grieving over the shocking murder of his daughter. Dave and his wife, who is Jimmy’s wife’s cousin, have come to lend their support. As the scene begins, Dave sneaks away from the crowd to smoke a cigarette outside.
Dave’s just about to light up when he’s surprised and scared by Jimmy. He thought he was alone.
Dave is deeply uncomfortable, but Jimmy asks him to keep him company for a minute. Reluctantly, Dave agrees. As he sits and the men begin to talk, the frame is essentially the same one as the one that earlier revealed Penn in the scene.
Jimmy notices Dave’s hand is bruised and asks what happened to it. He claims that he hurt it helping a buddy move some furniture. Eastwood cuts to a shot of Robbins as he explains the injury.
Next comes the Great Shot. When Eastwood cuts back to Jimmy after Dave’s explanation, cinematographer Tom Stern has moved the camera down to reframe the two characters. Now Dave’s in the extreme left foreground, and only his midsection is visible. His injured hand rests on his right leg, and his lit cigarette hangs hidden between his legs. Though it’s tough to see in a still screengrab, cigarette smoke wafts up and away from the unseen cigarette.
So why is this shot so good? Because it speaks, quietly but powerfully, to the subtext of this scene. Throughout his conversation with Jimmy, Dave is uncomfortable. Why? When he tells Jimmy that he hurt his hand moving furniture, Jimmy seems to accept it at face value. But the audience knows Dave is lying. In reality, he came home on the night Jimmy’s daughter was murdered covered in blood. He’d claimed at the time that he’d been mugged and fought back, injuring or maybe even killing the man in self-defense. But the next day, there’s no mention of the man who attacked Dave in the paper. Dave’s wife (along with the audience) suspects he’s lying. Could he have killed Jimmy’s daughter?
After Eastwood cuts to the Great Shot, Dave and Jimmy talk about their wives and the simple pleasure of sitting on the porch and all the food in the house that’s going to spoil. But the framing tells us to focus our attention not on their conversation but on that injured hand. The smoke also presents two different visual metaphor. It turns that hand into a potential smoking gun in the mystery of Jimmy’s daughter’s murder. And it’s sitting right under his nose! As the scene continues we fixate on it: will Jimmy ask more or will he buy Dave’s story?
Meanwhile, Dave is thinking the exact same thing. Plus, the way that Robbins holds the cigarette between his legs makes the smoke appear like it’s coming from the seat underneath him, evoking the idea that Dave feels like he’s on the hot seat, worried about people discovering what he’d done on the night of his daughter’s murder. All at once we’re the detective, eager to learn the truth, and the suspect, worried about covering it up.
The camera cuts closer to Penn for an tearful monologue about his relationship with his daughter. His performance is remarkable. But I must admit, when I think about his speech, I can’t remember any of its specifics. I always think of that hand, smoldering away. A secret, burning out in the open and deep inside, hidden from view.