Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Unknown and the problem of fridge logic

with 4 comments

Last night, as part of Redbox’s free movie promotion, my wife and I rented Unknown, a Liam Neeson thriller that is slightly more polished than Taken, but features significantly less throat-punching. If there was ever a movie meant to be rented for free on a random Thursday night, it’s this one: director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice, slick visual style that keeps the story clocking along, and there’s one short scene between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella that is a quiet masterpiece of suspense, but in the end, the movie founders on a script that squanders a clever premise for a series of generic action beats. As the implausibilities mount, it becomes impossible to take any of it seriously: it’s the kind of film where you walk out of the theater humming the plot holes.

Of course, nobody expects thrillers to be airtight. For a movie to mislead audiences, it’s usually obliged to reach some kind of accommodation with plausibility, working in the moment without necessarily standing up to extended scrutiny. Hence the phenomenon of fridge logic: a detail in a movie that seems fine at the time, but later strikes the viewer as ridiculous. Ted Tally, the screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, instructively quotes Jonathan Demme on this point:

“That’s a refrigerator question.” A refrigerator question? “You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…'”

Tally concludes by saying that Demme doesn’t worry much about refrigerator questions. And for good reason. Because even the best thrillers tend to fall apart on closer examination, but if we’re emotionally engaged, we don’t care.

Take Vertigo, for instance. This is easily the greatest of all thrillers, and one without which a movie like Unknown might not even exist, but it contains so many implausibilities—among other things, how Madeline managed to disappear from her hotel room, and how anyone could be sure that Scotty wouldn’t make it to the top of the bell tower—that we can thank it for the term “fridge logic” itself: Hitchcock referred to such moments as “icebox” scenes, since they start to bother you “after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” And the greater the thriller, the more likely we are to discover such problems, if only because we’re drawn to revisit it more than once. If there are numerous elements of The Usual Suspects that I no longer believe, it’s only because I’ve seen it over thirty times. By any measure, then, the movie succeeded.

So why can’t I forgive the plot problems in Unknown? The issue is one of delay: if Unknown had managed to postpone my objections until even five minutes after the closing credits, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I found myself annoyed by its implausibilities long before the end of the movie, at which point fridge logic becomes a simple plot hole. That delay of five minutes may seem like a small thing, but it’s no different than any act of sleight of hand, in which a few seconds of misdirection can make all the difference. A movie like Unknown is a reminder that ordinary professionalism can take a movie ninety percent of the way, but the last ten percent requires something more. And that last bit of effort, as Hitchcock and Demme know, is what pushes a plot hole out of the movie and safely into the fridge.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

4 Responses

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  1. Wow. Great post. I feel enlightened now.
    I actually haven’t seen these movies yet, but I can completely understand what you’re talking about all the same.
    And I’m relieved to discover that the state of confusion I sometimes experience after a movie like this has a name.

    Tatiana

    August 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm

  2. Thanks! And if you liked fridge logic, you’ll love fridge brilliance.

    nevalalee

    August 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  3. wait a minute, how did danny ocean get back up the elevator shaft and into the room where he was supposedly being beat in?

    Wakes

    August 30, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  4. And where did the fake money come from?

    nevalalee

    August 31, 2011 at 7:25 am


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