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Binary Plot Twists / A Brief Review of "Before I Go To Sleep"

Last week I watched Before I Go To Sleep on Netflix.  It's okay.  Kind of an average thriller, but if you're into this genre (I am), it's well made enough to be worth your time.

The plot concerns a middle-aged amnesiac played by Nicole Kidman who loses her memory every night when she goes to sleep.  When she wakes up, she gets a call from a neurologist played by Mark Strong who reminds her to watch self-recorded videos on a camera she's hidden in her bedroom, and through these videos, she hopes to regain some semblance of control over her life.  Unfortunately, she's plagued by suspicions that her husband (Colin Firth) is keeping some terrible secrets from her.

By the way... when did this plot device become a thing?  Losing your memory when you go to sleep?  That's never been an actual condition in the real world, right?  It's useful as a literary tool since it gives you room for suspense while still letting you build a narrative, but... I don't know, guys.  It's starting to feel silly.  It's like somebody came up with it once a long time ago and thought it was brilliant, and then everybody just assumed it was a legitimate condition and kept copying it.

Can you imagine what it would be like if you made up arbitrary rules for some other plot device?  Like if there were a dozen movies out there about psychics who can read minds, but only from 2:00 to 4:00 each day, and only while having sex?  Surely somebody would eventually say, "Y'know what?  I think my psychic can read minds from 2:00 to 7:00.  Whaddya think?  Is your mind blown?"

Anyway, this movie has too many problems for me to call it "good."  Some dialogue is pretty dumb, some moments are a little too slow, Kidman's character makes some stupid choices, and there's at least one romance subplot that just feels contrived.  All in all I'd give it 3 / 5.

But really the reason I wanted to write about it today is the plot twist.

BIGTS is one of those movies that initially sets up a binary premise.  What I mean is that there's only two possible paths it can go down, so if you consider both of those at the outset, you've pretty much ruined any chance at the twist being a surprise.  It's not even the kind of thing where you feel special guessing it - not that you should feel special for guessing twists, anyway, because guessing twists is a pointless game in the first place.  But when you only have two ways to go, there's more of a chance that a movie might bore you.

In this particular case, the plot twist is going to be that either Colin Firth is hiding something, or Mark Strong is hiding something.  The exact ramifications of each are more open-ended, but in the big picture, these are the only two ways the movie can go.

Another good example of a binary plot would be Impostor, with Gary Sinise.  (Although I guess the documentary The Imposter could also fall into this category.)  The whole point of Impostor is that Gary Sinise is suspected of being a robot built by terrorists with a bomb in his chest.  So right from the get-go, there's only two ways the story can go: he's a robot, or he isn't.

I don't think a binary plot is necessarily a bad thing, but it's interesting to see how different storytellers handle it.  If you're good at suspense, you'll acknowledge both options up front and then try to build suspense off of each.  Gone Girl is a good example of this, at least for the first half: either Nick is guilty, or he isn't.  Gillian Flynn does a great job of building a case in both directions and teasing out the horror of each until she finally tells you what happened.

If you're a bad storyteller, though, you'll try to pretend that one of the possibilities is a total secret, which is quite probably the dumbest thing you can do.  As an example of this, I submit Taking Lives, a shitty movie that most people have forgotten.  In that one, some detectives are hunting a serial killer and they briefly suspect it's Ethan Hawke.  But they never introduce any other characters, so it ends up boiling down to two paths: Ethan Hawke's the bad guy, or he isn't.  Taking Lives then decides to pretend that you, as a viewer, would never suspect Ethan Hawke (again, despite the fact that he's the only other character in the movie), so they treat it like some amazing, horrifying reveal later on.  So much is invested in you being shocked by this revelation that the movie doesn't even have any other suspense to draw from.

The bottom line is: if you're building a binary plot, you can't put all your faith in the reveal.  This is one of those few cases where I would actually agree with the "it's about the journey, not the destination" sentiment.  Your movie's only going to be fun if you give the viewer the chance to weigh both options and constantly re-evaluate until you finally flip a coin and say, "Okay, here's the direction we'll go."

And, bringing this back around, this is why I think Before I Go To Sleep is worth your time despite its flaws.  It's an example of the right way to play out a binary plot.  It starts by giving you reason to suspect Firth is up to no good, but then it gives you reason to suspect Strong, and then it goes back and forth a bit.  It's a movie that's less concerned with the truth and more concerned with making you feel uneasy, and that's why I generally liked it.

Tellingly, they reveal the bad guy with 30 minutes to go.  The final act is suspenseful not because of the reveal, but because they set up a really creepy and tense situation and now you want to see how Kidman can get out of it.

Sometimes I like mediocre movies only because they do one specific thing well.  This is definitely one of those cases.

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