A couple of weeks ago, my friend and colleague Noel Murray wrote a piece titled “Are trailers spoilers? (And should movie-lovers avoid them?).” I wasn’t specifically named, but he was responding in part to my own predilection for trying to see most movies with as little foreknowledge as possible (which led me to scoff aloud at folks on Twitter who were salivating at the release of the Django Unchained trailer). Noel makes a solid case for the value of the sneak peek, but his use of the somewhat loaded word “spoiler” provoked a knee-jerk reaction from many readers, who are justifiably annoyed by how it’s been devalued in recent years. I don’t think trailers are spoilers, but I do believe there’s an art to knowing when to withhold information in a narrative work and when to reveal it. In many cases (though certainly not all), my enjoyment of a film is almost directly proportional to how much of it I spend unsure of exactly what I’m watching. It’s that sense of productive bewilderment that I’m trying to preserve by remaining clueless.
Ten years ago, for example, I saw an advance press screening of a Spanish thriller called Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who would go on to make 28 Weeks Later and this year’s little-seen Intruders. I knew nothing whatsoever about it. I went because it was screening at the Cannes Film Festival, which I was about to attend for the first time, so I figured I might as well catch it early and free up a slot. Lions Gate wound up (barely) releasing the film in the U.S., and cut a trailer that’s deliberately vague about its bizarre premise, but I’m still grateful that I hadn’t seen the glimpses of free-floating oddity it contains, as those images are all the more potent for arriving out of nowhere. This particular scene takes place early on, and all viewers know at this point is that the younger guy, Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), was the sole survivor of a plane crash, and that the older guy, Federico (Eusebio Poncela), sprung him from police custody in exchange for participating in a series of wagers. Here’s the first of them, arranged in a casino basement.
As Roger Ebert has noted, what’s important isn’t what a movie is about, but how it’s about it. The basic idea here is simple: a game of chance, predicated on the idea that some people are naturally luckier than others. (There are other wrinkles, one of which relates to the strange moment in which Tomás threatens to touch Federico if he doesn’t let him pass, but I’ll let you discover those on your own if you’ve never seen the film.) All of the individual elements are familiar. There’s hardly a casino to be found in the movies that doesn’t host a private high-stakes game in a back room somewhere. There’s the novice who’s in over his head and reluctant to continue, and the handler who insists that this will work, that the kid has what it takes—he’d stake his life (or at least a finger) on it. Given the opportunity to walk away clean, the novice finds himself compelled to return by the handler’s faith in him. And then the showdown, with our hero emerging triumphant, ready for the next challenge. Beat for beat, the scene couldn’t be more pedestrian. It’s only the unusual details that intrigue.
But what details! Led into a room painted the exact shade of blood-red that screams “torture chamber,” Tomás sits patiently in a chair while some dude uses a paintbrush to coat his hair with molasses. There’s no particular reason why this preparation should take place before the wagering, except that Fresnadillo wants us to be staring at Tomás’ shiny head during his entire argument with Federico, wondering what the hell the latter is trying to persuade the former to do. In essence, care has been taken here not to “spoil” the nature of the contest, and the reason has almost nothing to do with mundane surprise, or any twist. It’s just good storytelling technique: The more curious we are about exactly what’s going on, the more intently we examine each image, the more closely we hang on every word. If Federico pulls Tomás aside before they enter the casino and says, “Okay, here’s the deal,” most of the tension evaporates. Presumably that conversation happened, at least to some degree, but Fresnadillo and co-writer Andrés M. Koppel deliberately chose not to include it, so that we wouldn’t spend the whole scene thinking, “Get to the bug!”
Speaking of which, that bug is one of the most awesomely inessential arbiters of fate imaginable. There’s absolutely no need for it. We’re in a casino, albeit the scary dungeon area of the casino: If rich people want to make extravagant bets based on pure chance, I’m pretty sure someone could scrape up a sealed deck of cards. (Sure, it could theoretically have been marked and resealed, but then theoretically that bug could be trained.) Or flipping coins has traditionally worked quite well. If you really want to make it dramatic, there’s always Russian Roulette. What we’re seeing here is a method of randomness selected—by the filmmakers, not the players—expressly for its surreal nature, which is why there’s a pointless (as far as the wager is concerned) flicker-strobe effect highlighting the actors’ faces, and why the buzzing noise of the insect’s wings has been amplified to the point where it sounds like a construction tool. I vividly remember gaping at the screen, delighted and amazed… and I highly doubt that I’d have experienced the same sense of happy disorientation had I seen the trailer, which ends on a teasing image from this scene.
Again, this isn’t about “spoilers.” The scene takes place relatively early in the film, and nothing crucial hinges on it; knowing about it in advance won’t detract from your enjoyment of the movie as a whole. But the scene itself, even viewed in isolation, has been carefully constructed to achieve a certain effect, one that depends upon our ignorance of certain details. When Tomás asks about the molasses and the dude who’s coating him says, “It’s his favorite” (which is shoddy translation, right? I don’t actually speak Spanish but it sounds to me like the line is, “There’s nothing he likes more”), a specific mental string is being plucked. It’s whose favorite? Unanswered questions are meant to interfere with our processing of the mundane, and if possible answers to those questions have been suggested by a trailer or an online clip or even a detailed description in a review (or, okay, yeah, by an article like this one, sorry; I did wait 10 years though), the experience just won’t be the same. Intacto made an impression on me because it respected me enough to make me play catch-up, creating a distinctive world and revealing its nature one odd bit at a time. It deals in mystery, and I continue to believe that mystery is a too-rare commodity that’s worth preserving.