As a teacher of screenwriting I’m always amazed that in the scripts of my students, after setting up dramatic conflicts between characters, characters will often suddenly and abruptly reach a “new understanding,” defusing whatever dramatic tension the script has been building up to. This occasionally happens in actual films as well, such as in River’s Edge (1987). Written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim Hunter, the film establishes a dramatic conflict between the protagonist, Matt, and his delinquent younger brother, Tim, who has been stalking Matt and plans to shoot him in revenge. Matt, however, successfully manages to convince Tim to put down the gun near the film’s climax because after all “they’re brothers.” Yet this is not a very satisfying strategy for a number of reasons. When human conflict arises, reconciliation is never that easy despite the best of intentions, but rather involves a very difficult and complex process of human interaction.
David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003) can serve as a model of the inability of its two main characters to reconcile. In the film, Paul and Noel seem meant for each other. As in all romantic plotlines, obstacles prevent the two from getting together. Paul’s friendship with Tip turns out to be the initial one. Paul has a checkered past with women, and, hence, Tip would disapprove of Paul making a move on his inexperienced younger sister. Tip confronts Paul at the end of the first act, and beats up a bystander in a displaced display of anger and violence. Paul and Tip, however, manage to reconcile towards the end of the middle act. When Paul approaches his friend in an attempt to make peace following his own poor showing in the car race, Tip admits to behaving like Paul in terms of women, referring to them as “partners in crime.” Tip also reveals a number of personal secrets: he’s never slept the night with any of the woman with whom he’s had sex, still wets his bed and has to sleep with the lights on, and regrets yelling at his brother, Justin, for messing with his lady bug collection. These revelations come as something of a surprise until Tip confesses to Paul that he’s just gotten someone pregnant. Tip’s own personal crisis has worn down his resistance, which allows him to forgive Paul for dating his sister. Paul asks Tip whether he loves the woman. Although it’s not clear that he does, Tip cries and Paul responds by kissing him affectionately, thus completing their reconciliation.
Paul’s attempts to reconcile with Noel, however, prove far more difficult. For Paul, Noel embodies an important change in his life. Up until now Paul has been an insensitive womanizer, but once he gets together with Noel, he imbues their relationship with much larger hopes and aspirations, namely, a desire to make something of himself and to leave town. This point is underscored by his conflicts with his mother, a literal clown, who sees in her son a reflection of everything that has gone wrong in her own life. As a result of Paul’s determination to change, he and Noel end up being unable to consummate their relationship in the middle act for a variety of reasons. The second turning point occurs when Noel confesses to Paul that she’s had an affair while spending the weekend with her girlfriends at a lakeside cottage. Noel has altered her appearance by cutting her hair short, which serves as a visual sign that something significant has happened.
The ensuing scene becomes interesting for how the two lovers move in opposite directions from each other. Being away from Noel has only made Paul love her even more. He tries to kiss her, but she begs off, indicating that she’s still a bit hung over from the weekend. Noel discusses an incident where someone named Patrick was mooning people at the lake. The mention of another guy and the sexual innuendo of her interest in mooning make Paul uncomfortable. When he insists on taking her someplace special and indicates that he has a surprise for her, Noel tries to talk to him about what has happened at the cottage. In the awkward silence she takes his hand and kisses it, but when he presses her about the guy at the lake and fears she’s been raped, she finally blurts out: “We fucked!” The bluntness of her confession stuns Paul. He warns Noel not to say anything, but she responds: “I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to do here.” Paul shouts back: “Wait a second, what am I going to do, huh?”
The relationship between the two can possibly still be salvaged, but instead of apologizing and begging for forgiveness, Noel tells Paul that she loves him. Sleeping with someone else has made her realize that she actually does love Paul, but the discrepancy or incongruity between what she says (“I love you”) and her actions (sleeping with a total stranger, but not with him) is exactly what so injures Paul. He yells: “Why would you say that?” As Noel in her confusion discovers and recognizes her love for Paul, he is actually in the process of falling out of love with her. He criticizes her for using her declaration of love as a way of covering the fact that she “fucked up.” As she continues to profess her love for him, Paul responds: “I’m looking at you right now and I hear you talking and all the words that are coming out of your mouth are like they are coming out of a stranger.”
In a subsequent scene in the bar, Paul attempts to apologize to one of his old girlfriends, Mary-Margaret, but she answers: “You’re not sorry. You know how I know that . . . because you’re not smart enough to be sorry.” Noel and Paul’s dorky friend, Bust-Ass, turn up together. After Paul stares at the two of them, he tries to talk to Mary-Margaret, even though he’s too drunk to realize that things between them have long ago gone over the line where reconciliation is even possible. Paul tells her a maudlin story about a flock of ducks crashing into a big house. While this “mistake in nature” makes Paul cry, Mary-Margaret can only feel contempt for him. Paul then smashes his mug of beer on the floor and grunts like a wounded animal.On the way home with his Uncle Leyland, Paul’s car stalls. Noel comes by in her pick-up truck and asks Paul to go for a ride. This represents her attempt at reconciliation:
NOEL: What are you thinking about?
PAUL: I’m thinking about how weak I must be for sitting in this car right now.
NOEL: I wish we could talk.
PAUL: Well, it sounds to me like you got Bust-Ass to talk to.
Paul still cannot forgive Noel for her infidelity. He’s jealous of Bust-Ass for one thing. As Paul attempts to discuss his feelings, Noel makes the fatal mistake of bringing up Bust-Ass as a point of reference. He responds: “I don’t care what that fucking dick said.” Paul indicates his regrets about his promiscuous past, but Noel asks him: “Are you saying that we should just forget about each other?” When Paul doesn’t respond, she adds: “That’s the saddest thing in the whole world.” If Paul were to kiss Noel or profess his love for her, the two might be able to reconcile, but jealousy prevents Paul from taking this tack. Instead, Paul chooses to lecture her once again about “fucking up,” and then splits from her truck.
Noel chases after him and implores Paul to come over one last time. She gives a heart-felt apology: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I want to make sure that the words in my head come across to you. I want you to see the feelings I have for you.” He comes over to her house and the two of them end up making love, but because Paul still hasn’t forgiven her, their lovemaking is totally devoid of emotion. The next morning, as Paul puffs on a cigarette, Noel asks him whether he’s okay. She remarks despondently: “I don’t know what to say to you anymore.” He answers: “Well, don’t say anything,” causing her to respond: “Well don’t smoke in my room.” The two of them have reached a stand-off. Their physical intimacy has not resulted in reconciliation, but only left them even more estranged from one another.
In the following scene with his mother, Elvira, we learn the truth about what Paul really feels about Noel – he’s been sitting around and crying over her.
ELVIRA: It isn’t going to do you any good. I got news for you. You got to grow up and balance your personal life with responsibility.
PAUL: What am I supposed to do? Dress up like a clown . . . and change bed pans. I don’t understand why I have to listen to this crap when I’m fucking standing here with a broken heart, about ready to slit my wrists.
Paul may be ready to kill himself over Noel, but he remains incapable of forgiving her. Elvira slaps him in the face and cries, while Paul closes his eyes and tries to transcend the reality of the situation. Elvira is very critical of him for wasting opportunities she hasn’t had. Paul later tells Uncle Leland that he wants to wipe Noel completely out of his mind, but his uncle, who has lost the wife he loved through illness, counsels him: “No you don’t. I can tell you that right now.”
Paul takes his uncle’s advice to heart. We watch as he primps in front of the mirror and then shows up at Noel’s house. After Justin answers the door, Noel steps into view and says: “Well stop the world. You came to the door.” Paul responds, “I did. You know I got some stuff to say if you don’t mind.” Paul is finally taking the initiative at reconciling with Noel, but just at this moment Bust-Ass saunters in from the other room. Noel appears to be embarrassed. She tells Paul: “We’re making macaroni and cheese. Want some?” Paul shakes his head affirmatively, but after a long pause responds: “No.” Jealousy has surfaced once again, causing Paul’s internal conflict to register in his schizoid response. Noel also laughs inappropriately at Bust-Ass’s antics. His pride hurt, Paul turns and walks off with advice to Justin to “be strong,” as Noel stares longingly after him. Paul’s equation of strength (refusal to forgive) in opposition to weakness (forgiveness) is at the core of his problem and what has prevented the couple from reconciling. Had Paul accepted the dinner invitation as awkward as it might have been with Bust-Ass there, reconciliation might have occurred.
Paul walks to his car, and expresses his true feelings of anger and self-hatred when he punches out the side window. This causes Noel to race down the steps to find out whether Paul is hurt. This leads to a moment where the two of them finally talk to each other frankly and openly.
PAUL: I’m not the smartest guy in the world. But I guess what I was trying to do was become a better person. You know what I think? You know my problem is not anything that you did. It’s between me . . . and . . . me.
NOEL: Well I did what I did. It felt . . . so . . . wrong. And that’s when I realized that I love you. (Crying) You can’t understand it, but that’s when I found out. It’s an emotional thing too. Nobody tells you that part.
PAUL: It’s true.
NOEL: I miss your face. You know what? You’re not allowed to hate me . . . because I’m not going to let you.
Paul touches her face.
NOEL (Cont.): Nobody said we had to be perfect.
In response, Paul takes her hand and puts it to her face, a similar gesture to Noel’s before she revealed her infidelity. Noel confesses: ”I wish it didn’t hurt with every thought of you.” As the two of them stare into each other’s eyes, she tells him, “You have my heart.” Having placed herself in a completely vulnerable position, Noel gets up to leave. This now puts the onus on Paul, who should not allow her to slip away. Paul, however, sits in the street and makes no such effort, as we watch Noel, in a wide shot, disappear back into the house. Sadly, Paul has let this critical moment of reconciliation pass, and this indecision on his part will no doubt haunt him for the rest of his life.
The entire third act of All the Real Girls has involved the attempt of these two characters to reconcile following Noel’s infidelity. As we have seen, there have been many opportunities, but the two characters turn out to be out of sync with each other in their various attempts at reconciliation. Noel has told Paul how much she loves him numerous times, but Paul remains too self-absorbed to realize the disconnection between his love for Noel and his actual behavior. Paul thinks he needs to remain strong, while he really needs to cry and admit what he truly feels for Noel if there’s any hope of saving their relationship. Instead of giving her a kiss, he touches her face. As she pours out her heart to him, he remains locked in a state of extreme jealousy and self-loathing. Noel’s single transgression has been something that Paul has done to other woman numerous times. Paul, however, can’t forgive Noel because he can’t forgive himself, and so the film shows how it’s possible for two people who love each other to fail to reconnect through an inability to enact the process of reconciliation and everything that entails.
An example of a scene that involves true reconciliation can be found in Running on Empty (1988), written by Naomi Foner (Gyllenhaal) and directed by Sidney Lumet. In the film, Arthur and Annie Pope are two former ’60s radicals, who have been on the run for blowing up a university building as a protest against the Viet Nam War. Arthur and Annie have two children, but the oldest one, Danny, now a high-school senior, has secretly applied to Julliard to study music. Annie sets up a meeting with her father, Patterson, whom she hasn’t seen in years, at a posh restaurant in order to ask him to take Danny so that he can attend Julliard. The tension between father and daughter is apparent immediately from the start. Annie sits down without Patterson giving her a hug or saying a word. Annie’s greeting is met with silence. She then tells him: “You can call the cops if you want to.” When he still doesn’t respond, Annie apologizes, indicating that this meeting is just as difficult for her. Patterson uses silence as his initial weapon against Annie, but he now switches to employing a guilt trip.
PATTERSON: I wonder if you’ll ever know what it’s like. Not to see your child for fourteen years. Not know whether she’s living or dead. Not knowing whether that child is responsible for the death and mutilation of other human beings. Not knowing whether to hold yourself for that death and mutilation because it’s your child pulling the triggers and setting the bombs.
Annie denies killing anyone and defends herself by claiming that her action was an act of conscience to stop the war, but her father retorts coldly, “The man was blinded and paralyzed.”
Patterson’s anger towards Annie is deep-seated – it has been festering for fourteen years after all – which is why he vents now that she has returned as a supplicant. When Annie defends herself by indicating that the building was supposed to be empty and by expressing her profound personal regrets for what happened, her father belittles her act of conscience by attributing it to Arthur’s influence. Responding to the put-down, Annie insists that it was her idea. Patterson then moves on to push another emotional button: “And your mother and me? Do you ever think of us?” Annie responds tearfully, “Do you really have to ask that?” Patterson does because he has a lot of resentment to get off his chest for her characterization of him as an “Imperialist Pig.” Annie offers as her defense the fact that she was young at the time. Finding a vulnerable opening, Patterson once again attacks: “Yes. You were that. And beautiful. And talented. And so full of love. My God, Annie. Why did you throw it all away?” Annie’s already clearly regretful, but her father can’t help but rub it in her face. When Patterson mentions that his wife misses her and Danny, Annie seizes the opening by asking: “Would you take him, Dad?”
We learn important exposition when Patterson reveals that Annie had also been accepted at Julliard and had the potential to be “a world class pianist.” In response to Annie’s request, however, her father turns her down by replying: “Don’t you think this is too much to ask?” He then offers her various excuses for the impositions this would create in his life. Annie answers: “Yes. I think it’s too much to ask.” The two have now reached a stalemate, but Annie keeps the communication open by mentioning her youngest son, Harry. Patterson verbally slams her again by indicating, “I heard it on the news.” Annie now opens up and reveals that she’s going to turn herself in once Harry is old enough. This confirms her regrets for her past actions. When her father asks about Arthur, Annie indicates that her plans are separate from his. She then asks him once again to take Danny: “Please think about this. I don’t want Danny to have to pay for my mistakes for the rest of his life. He deserves a chance to make his own. Don’t you think so, Dad?”
After making her final plea, Annie gets up to go. The onus for reconciliation has fallen on Patterson, who, after a brief delay, puts his hand on hers and prevents her from leaving. He then solemnly tells her, “He can come to us.” Patterson’s concession now enables Annie to admit the depth of her love and feelings for her parents and the tremendous sense of loss she has felt all these years on the lam. Annie tells him: “Please tell Mom that I love her. That I’ve thought of you both often. Called out for you. I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much pain. I guess I’m about to see what it feels like. I love you, Dad.” As Annie gets up to leave the restaurant, Patterson body quakes from an eruption of feeling that obviously has been repressed for a very long time, indicating that only now is he able to accept her sincere apology.
Earlier Patterson couldn’t respond to his daughter. He first needed to vent his pent-up anger at her for all the pain, suffering, humiliation, and guilt she caused both him and his wife by her radical actions. Patterson needs to become convinced of Annie’s true regret, which becomes confirmed once she announces her plans to turn herself in to the police at a later time, thus separating herself from Arthur. The reconciliation hangs in the balance when Patterson refuses her request initially. If Annie were to leave at this point, it certainly would not occur. Her intuitive decision to try one last time turns out to be the decisive factor. Only when her Patterson acquiesces to her request to take Danny can Annie then express her true feelings for her parents, which causes her father’s rigidity to begin to collapse. Patterson has cut off his emotions as a means of survival, but their reconciliation allows both of them to come to a new understanding only after they have undergone a process of working through the complexity of their feelings, allowing Patterson to prevent another life, that of his grandson, from being squandered through a second bad decision. Their reconciliation comes from an emotional understanding that the situation has become reversed now that Annie is willing to sacrifice herself for Danny. She will soon endure the same fate that he and his wife have experienced only too intimately – what it feels like to be estranged from your child.
Annie’s reconciliation with her father allows the two parties to bridge the gap in their respective feelings, enabling each to understand and empathize with the other’s perspective. Yet, despite numerous opportunities, Paul never manages to forgive Noel. Call it stubbornness or stupidity, Paul’s actions run contrary to his actual feelings, so that his failed attempts at reconciliation result in a tragic outcome. At a crucial moment, Paul allows Noel to walk away without reconciling, whereas Patterson, at least the second time, manages to prevent Annie from leaving. One major difference has to do with the fact that Paterson manages to vent his anger throughout much of the scene at the restaurant, whereas Paul keeps his true feelings bottled up inside. Patterson recognizes an important parallel between himself and Annie, which is why he ultimately accepts her apology. Paul fails to acknowledge the parallel, which is to recognize that Noel has made a terrible mistake that she now regrets, one that he, of all people, should be able and willing to understand.
As the two scenes from All the Real Girls and Running on Empty suggest, reconciliation is not something that can be willed by either party, but rather represents a delicate balance between two people, the outcome of which can often hinge on a single inappropriate response or a misspoken phrase or sentence. Even when characters love each other very deeply, the inability to respond properly in a situation in which one party has hurt the other, thereby causing an emotional rift, can either save or end the relationship. The act of reconciliation cannot be arbitrarily short-circuited, and always involves a heightening rather than defusing of dramatic struggle. Writing a reconciliation scene in a dramatic screenplay involves understanding how much is really at stake by demonstrating the treacherous terrain that estranged characters must navigate if they are to succeed or fail at arriving at a new and empathetic understanding of each other.
Posted 28 August, 2007