Over the last decade, very few directors have found the same level of success as consistently as director David O. Russell, yet there is little talk about his style or contributions to film because, most discussion that surrounds his films are about the actors’ performances. In fact, most of Russell’s contributions to his own films are often overlooked as the success of his films is instead attributed to the actors for giving career-defining performances. However, what many fail to realize is that maybe the reason Russell’s actors do so well in his films is because of the way Russell shoots his films. In an effort to understand Russell’s style better, I spent the last few weeks looking over his filmography by watching films such as Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and Joy. Throughout this observation period, I found that the answer as to why Russell’s actors have been nominated for twelve Academy awards for roles they play in his films is because he simply removes big set pieces from his films, and instead makes the entire film dialogue driven. While this is such a simple concept that appears very easy to replicate, as you will see later in the article, it is difficult to do so in a way that keeps the film engaging, yet Russell seems to have found the key.
It appears as if filmmaking today has shifted away from story driven narratives that are meant to make the audience explore certain themes and instead into films that center around one (or several) large set pieces that are able to capture larger than life experiences. This has resulted in the rise of blockbuster action films that constantly bring the audience to the edge of their seat. The negative effect of this movement has been the shortening of audience attention spans, which makes it difficult now for the audience to be entertained through heavy dialogue films. With films now having to battle to maintain audience’s attention, the amount of dialogue within films has dramatically decreased causing a shortage of complicated dynamic characters in cinema. The culmination of all of these factors has lead to characters simply not being the center of film anymore causing the importance of acting in films to drop because films rely on other aspects to be successful. However in this sea of action oriented films, Russell has remained committed to centering his films around characters by devoting his entire films to dialogue based scenes. Although, this commitment to highlighting acting has not always existed in Russell's career. In fact one of his earlier films, Three Kings, was very action oriented and turned out to be a very well put together film, but the actors were not highlighted as they are in his films now and as a result did not receive any nominations for their roles. It was not until 11 years later with the Fighter, that Russell would find out the secret to highlighting his actors’ performances.
As it turns out the method to highlighting acting performances that Russell uses is not all that complicated, as all it really involved was allowing the actors to take up nearly all of the films running time in order to portray and flesh out their characters. While most directors during this period are using long takes to move the camera around a scene to show off different parts of it, Russell uses this same method to bounce from actor to actor to make sure the only thing the film displays to the audience is the performance of the actor. While at face value this concept does not seem that revolutionary, it is difficult to do effectively. The difficulty in it comes from doing it in a way that keeps your audience engaged and not bored with watching talking heads for two hours. Now this is where Russell shines and is elevated to one of the top directors of today. Throughout his career he has experimented and created a style that can cater to audiences with short attention spans while still making dialogue driven films.
All of Russell’s seminal works (with the exception of Silver Lining Playbook) has taken place several years or decades in the past. The result of this decision has allowed Russell to use the settings of his films to use nostalgia to pull the audience into the film in the same fashion an extensive action scene would. In a film filled with action after a steady stream of dialogue based scenes, the audience begins to lose interest until boom, an action scene occurs that presents a larger than life moment and hits the audience with a wave of adrenaline. Now in Russell’s films, we see a steady stream of dialogue based scenes and just as the audience begins to lose interest, boom, they are hit with references to the time period that prey on prior memories to bring adrenaline. For example, in American Hustle after several dialogue sequences, a montage will break out with White Rabbit playing in the background. What this does is makes it look like a lot is happening on screen by using quick cuts to show a bunch of different things going on, like what would happen in an action sequence, but adrenaline is not created for the audience because on screen they are only seeing simple things such as money being exchanged. However by adding White Rabbit, those that were alive when the film was made instantly recall memories they have while listening to the song, which synthetically brings in the adrenaline required to keep the audience engaged. Now, lets say the audience is younger and was not alive during the time in which the film is set, how would that audience get adrenaline from the song? Well, Russell also carefully selects music that has appeared in other films during intense sequences allowing audiences to recall those moments allowing for the same gain of adrenaline. In fact, in some cases Russell is even able to disregard the quick cutting sequences and instead just quietly layer the music in the background of dialogue scenes and gain the same effect of creating adrenaline. By using this method, Russell has found a way to cheat the system and use the cheap gimmicks most action films use to keep an audience engaged while not taking any of the screen time away from his actors. In doing so, this allows the audience to experience the actor’s performances in a greater way.
While most simply attribute the success of Russell’s films to him allowing actors to have free range in his films, many overlook the fact that just allowing characters to talk to each other for the duration of the film does not entertain audiences anymore. Even though the way in which Russell maneuvers the camera around an environment to capture each character throughout a scene is interesting to watch this alone is not enough to maintain the attention of an audience with a historically small attention span. It is only through the method of preying on audiences nostalgia of a time period that Russell is able to make films in this day and age that are still captivating and character based without the use of large action sequences throughout. It is for this reason alone that I think David O. Russell is one of the most over looked directors in Hollywood today, because even though there are many that enjoy his films they do not understand how difficult it is to maintain an audience without the use of action oriented set pieces.
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