Pacing in overdrive

Good pacing is important in movies.

An obvious statement, I know. A sentiment most cinema-lovers would agree with, no doubt. But is it still true to the general movie audience? Because I’m wondering if directors still use pacing as a tool to the extent that they once did.

A few days ago I saw “The American” at the cinema. Yet another great movie by Focus Features. The picture was well shot, directed and acted (George Clooney doing a good job as usual). The storytelling was subtle, the kind of narration where much is told through a simple glance or the length of a shot, rather than by a bombardment of music or obvious dialog. The pacing was deliberate, because the atmosphere and story required it.

It was simply a well-made thriller.

Afterwards, checking out reviews through Metacritic, I was surprised by its reception. A lot of critics didn’t like it. It hardly had a plot, some felt. The main character’s feelings or motivations weren’t communicated, according to others. Most thought it was way too slow.

This brings me back to thoughts I had a few weeks ago when I finally saw Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Unlike pretty much all other recent thrillers, it was filled with the sharp tension of old Hollywood, reminding me of Hitchcock’s best work. It accomplished this by allowing the well-crafted storytelling to take its time, slowly building up tension scene by scene, shot by shot. The end result was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve seen in years.

The American was even slower. And apparently it was too slow for the critics. Yet I never felt bored or frustrated by it. It was properly paced for the feelings it attempted to evoke.

But looking at most other contemporary thrillers, I think I know where the critics are coming from. They’re simply no longer used to anything but movies rushing to the end like it was a 100 meter sprint. Movies that don’t have the confidence to use scenes for building tension, with plot points telegraphed in the most obvious of ways. Modern thrillers have the pacing of action flicks, with the gas left in full throttle. Obviously they don’t work well as thrillers, but the audience is so used to quick pacing and snappy editing that anything else leaves them feeling bored and confused.

It is pacing in overdrive, and I wish this trend would end. It has gutted a genre, and I want it back.