Top 5 Genre-Defying Films

Marketing plays an enormous part in our preconceptions of a film. Posters, trailers, merchandise and most of all, word-of-mouth, can create a distorted idea in our minds about a production we’ve never even seen, and in some cases alter our decisions regarding whether to watch it or not. We rely on the actors we see on bus stop advertisements, or the tone that the trailer adapts. Often, these things are reliable (although many modern comedy films are infamous for cramming all of their best jokes into the trailers) however, some films - Audition (1999) and Funny People (2009) to name two of recent years – are practically immune to these marketing strategies. This is because, in films like these, the premise and the plot are two very different things. That said, they aren’t like Fight Club (1999) or The Others (2001): they are tonal shifts rather than plot twists, though the two often go hand in hand. Unlike the short-lived shock of a twist, a ‘shift’ is characterised by an abrupt and complete change in the story and often even the genre, which is then carried through till the very end. Sometimes they fall flat on their faces, a case most clear in Knowing (2009) which begins as a disaster movie with a vaguely intriguing difference, before sinking into an laughably absurd alien flick without any explanation as to why. It is very much a make-or-break approach to take to filmmaking and even when it works, it can often seem a waste of the film’s initial potential. Nevertheless, here are my top 5 of these genre-shifters:

5. From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996). The most disappointing of the five and, by no coincidence, the one with the most drastic change. George Clooney is a bank robber on the run with his psychologically unstable brother – Quentin Tarantino co-stars in what is by far his most convincing acting role. When the Gecko brothers stumble upon a touring family of three following their latest job and take them hostage by means of getting over the Mexican border, nothing can prepare them for the chaos that will ensue. By far one of the most bizarre and unpredictable outcomes of what begins as no more than a slightly dysfunctional road movie, From Dusk Till Dawn has impressive shock value, but is ultimately insubstantial. As cynical as it may sound; it’s difficult to imagine that the change in the film was provoked by anything other than Tarantino (who also wrote the script) simply running out of ideas. For those that haven’t seen the film, would you have predicted that the aforementioned premise would go on to descend into a survival movie involving a sleazy bar full of vampire poledancers? Of course not. There are no surprises after this preposterous plot development, and the bloodbath fizzles out with the same tiredness as any other mindless B-grade horror movie – a great shame, considering this genre-crushing horror crime action thriller had so much potential. It’s a film I struggle to pass judgement on simply because of how much I enjoyed the first act and how underwhelmed I was by its outcome.

4. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987). This suffers in a similar way that Saving Private Ryan would go on to suffer 11 years later – the beginning is so exhilarating, so ground-breaking, so utterly prodigious, that the main bulk of the film feels feeble in comparison. On their own, both films are terrific. But there is an unusual sense of something resembling disappointment at the end of them. The first act of Full Metal Jacket is centred solely on a team of Marine recruits at a training camp on an isolated island during the Vietnam War. It begins as a study of the character of ‘Pyle’, a very ordinary man who struggles to adapt to the merciless world he’s been thrust into and his loneliness and inner torment gradually unfolds as he realises he might not be cut out for such gruelling preparation. Bullied relentlessly by his commanding officer Hartman and his colleagues, Pyle eventually concludes the opening section of the film by shooting the Gunnery Sergeant dead with his rifle before turning it on himself. It seems that, as the film moves on to January the following year, the thought-provoking and uniquely Kubrick approach to the conventional war film formula is left behind, shot dead with the very same bullet that killed Pyle. In its place comes a very different film, incorporating the sort of traditions it had previously avoided in what is an admittedly gripping final turn, but fails to evoke the same awe that it began with. This problem applies to many of these ‘genre-changing’ films – it’s hard to know what to take it as: the straight-up war movie that it becomes, or the intriguing psychological study that it starts out as? I know which I prefer, but it’s hard to judge a film that only lasts for 45 minutes.

3. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011). Though very much a marmite movie, Ben Wheatley’s debut is undoubtedly hard-hitting. The camerawork is suffocating, the performances outstanding and the imagery as black as the comedy. All the way through, it drops subtle hints at what it might turn into, but to the untrained eye never seems to be anything more than a realistic portrayal of a troubled ex-soldier who unleashes his inner feelings of solitude through vehemence. In fact, it isn’t until the last act that everything unravels, when Kill List - indebted greatly to The Wicker Man (1973) and yet very much a work of art in its own right – turns from a tight hitman thriller to an all-out horror involving a strange cult who have chosen him as their new leader. But even the attack of the cult cannot match the final revelation, where Jay, the central character, unwittingly kills his own wife and child. A remarkably difficult film to shake from your mind, whether you like it or not, this film’s transformation is utterly unprecedented, despite the pointers that seem so obvious during repeat watches. I find it to be completely genre-less; a combination of a kitchen-sink style drama, a gruesome, gritty thriller and a stomach-turning horror. Despite this, it melds almost seamlessly into one very impressive and unrelenting piece of cinema.

2. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). The shift in The Crying Game does not come at the famous -ahem- reveal. When we’re introduced to Forrest Whittaker’s character, Jody, at the start and we see the obvious connection between him and Fergus (Stephen Rea) it appears to be a modern take on the classic notion of (not literally) sleeping with the enemy. However, as one of the supposed antagonists quickly becomes the main protagonist and is drawn into the world of his abductee, the film becomes something quite radically different. It goes from a psychological thriller to a romance and stays that yet somehow never drops the gripping tone it opened with, which is no mean feat for what appears to be a conventional love story up until the jaw-dropping twist. The genre shift is a brave and interesting one, assisting the film in its obvious plight to tackle themes of race, nationality and sexuality whilst maintaining a comprehensible story. It is well-handled and delicately acted, and the tonal fluctuations only serve to enrich the experience of the film.

1. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). “I was cured, all right.” This masterpiece of 20th century cinema is an iconic tour-de-force and one of several seminal works from a director with consummate filmmaking vision. Kubrick’s power to depict a dystopia with minimal emphasis on effects and a stronger focus on the psyche is still unmatched, regardless of the CGI-heavy attempts at the creation of alternate worlds (Yes, James Cameron, we’re looking at you) that have plagued modern film. What starts as a brutal and frequently wince-inducing social commentary on gang violence morphs into something altogether more shocking. Rather than being split into clear halves like the other films in the list (with the exception of Kill List), A Clockwork Orange has blurred boundaries, following sadistic youth Alex Delarge in his perpetration of ‘ultra-violence’ at the start, through his aversion therapy and finishing with his struggle to find acceptance in society after rehabilitation. Just as with many of Kubrick’s most famous pieces, the film tackles the same story throughout, but at numerous different angles in a surrealist vignette, with less attention given to structure and more to the study of specific characters in order to fully encompass the themes of social dissatisfaction that it set out to challenge. Fortunately, the fact that it’s so difficult to categorise and pigeonhole is what makes the film so special – it manages what From Dusk Till Dawn fails to, and with flying colours too.

- Jack Haworth

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By Jack Haworth

I believe we truly love a film when we can assess its flaws - of which there may be few or many - and accept them not as mistakes, but as idiosyncrasies. Cinephile and budding journalist, 16, writing for Sound on Sight for the experience and sheer fun of discussing film with others. I haven't quite found a film I can call my favourite with absolute certainty; but that's part of the fun, is it not? Memento, A Clockwork Orange and Sleuth (1972) are up there, though.

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One Response to Top 5 Genre-Defying Films

  1. John Morrison March 4, 2013 at 2:00 am

    Hello Jack, I enjoyed your comments on A Clockwork Orange. I am 57 years of age. I saw Clockwork at the theater my junior year in highschool not knowing what to expect. It had a dramatic impact on me and stayed with me for years. I still have a deep fondness for the film. It did not inspire violence in me but gave me much to think about. I was reading your remarks about the film, agreeing with much you had to say. Then I was surprised to discover that you are 16. Bravo. Now about Citizen Kane. I have heard all the praise for the film. I liked it and I like Orson Wells in film and real life. I believe that the impact of the film at the time was based in part on the cinematic style which at the time had a slightly new approach. However, unless you can go back in time and erase every film you’ve seen after Citizen, it’s difficult to appreciate the film the way it was when it came out. But still a film to watch and file away. Just in case you haven’t seen it, I would like to recommend an old Jimmy Stewart film called The Shop Around the Corner. I forget the year (B&W). It’s a little square but much more impactfull than the Tom Hank’s remake which was fine, however I loved the characters in the original so much more. Well, I look forward to seeing what you have to write in the future. Cheers

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