A Moving Picture, in More Ways than One: Camerawork and Emotion in A BETTER LIFE
19 February 2012
One of the most striking qualities about Chris Weitz’s A Better Life is the emotional punch the film packs. From start to finish, the film explores the emotional struggles between father and son, as well as subtly engrossing the audience with understated yet honest poignancy. In addition to powerful performances by the film’s acting ensemble, one of the ways the film cinematically achieves its high emotional value is through refined camerawork and clever cinematic technique. More pointedly, there are two scenes, which nearly bookend the film, that, when looked at closely, highlight the director’s perceptive technique and how it contributes to the high emotional quality of A Better Life.
To begin, A Better Life follows Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), an illegal Mexican immigrant living in America. Because Carlos has no papers, he works as a gardener “under the table” to make ends meet. Moreover, Carlos has a teenage son, Luis (Jose Julian), whose mother left when he was young. Luis runs with a rough, gang-connected crowd, which gets him suspended from school and in trouble with the law, much to his father’s chagrin. Nevertheless, although tension exists between father and son, there is also a great deal of love between the two. Seizing a business proposition, Carlos buys a truck and new gardening tools to start his own gardening business. However, one afternoon a man Carlos hired to work with him double-crosses Carlos and steals the truck, the tools, and several of Carlos’ personal belongings. Facing complete financial devastation, Carlos and Luis do the only thing they can do and begin a journey to recover their stolen items. Along the way, Carlos and Luis’ bond grows stronger, but also gets subjected to the ultimate test.
Interestingly, the film has an extended exposition, with the actual plotline beginning nearly 40 minutes into the 98 minute film; however, this elongated exposition allows time for the film to explore characterization, as well as build an emotional connection between characters and between the characters and the audience. Within this exposition there is a scene in which Carlos opens Luis’ bedroom door before waking him up for school one morning. Carlos opens the door and lovingly gazes in on his sleeping son, establishing, for the audience, the love this father feels. Yet, as a man trying to provide for his son (a son he knows is making poor choices and exhibiting reckless and disrespectful behavior), Carlos tries to take on the persona of a strict father, one who conceals his emotions. Thus, not wanting to take the risk that Luis would recognize his father’s gaze as loving and mistakenly think Carlos could be taken advantage of, Carlos closes the door, knocks, and yells to his son, waking the sleeping Luis. Then, Carlos reopens the door, as though for the first time. As Luis awakes and the two begin a brief early-morning conversation, the camera cuts between respective medium shots of each character and slowly zooms in during each one. The zoom is so slow, in fact, that unless one is looking for it, the movement could be missed altogether.
The slow zoom is the cinematic reaffirmation of the bond between father and son. While the characters actions, such as Carlos lovingly gazing at the sleeping Luis, establishes the bond between the two, the camera’s slow zoom during their conversation symbolizes, visually, the two continue to grow closer. Furthermore, the subtle, tender camera zoom helps build the audience’s bond with the film because as the camera zooms in on the characters the audience is also getting closer to them, spatially speaking, heightening the film’s emotional value. Moreover, the fact that the zoom is so slow makes that intimacy it builds trustworthy; the audience is not being forced at the characters, instead the leisurely speed feels safe and comfortable.
This early scene in the film echoes again in the film’s climax, when Luis finally visits Carlos in jail. Just like the opening scene, the camera originally captures the characters in respective medium shots. As their conversation becomes more emotional, and Carlos ultimately breaks down in tears, the camera begins the same subtle zoom. Like the previous scene, the zoom symbolizes the two are growing closer, and also that the audience gets closer to the characters. Yet, unlike the previous scene, this segment takes the emotional level further; after some zooming, the camera cuts to respective close-ups of the two, instead of medium shots. Close-ups are the shots typically conveying passion and feelings, which work best in this particular scene. Thus, after the zoom builds the emotional impact of the scene, the close-up shots become even more potent, as the already invested audience gets the closest they have ever been to these characters during their most unfiltered, honest, heart-wrenching conversation. Weitz’s decision to start with medium shots, then begin the slow zoom technique, and finally conclude with close-ups successfully builds the emotion of the scene up to a poignant climax, for both characters and audience.
Figuratively speaking, emotion is the language A Better Life speaks, and camera technique is the instrument by which that language is expressed. Not only do the characters ride an emotional rollercoaster throughout this film, but the audience, too, experiences the highs and lows of Carlos and Luis’ journey in large part due to exceptional and understated camerawork. And, as stated in past entries and will continue to be stated when appropriate, it is always refreshing to see a film communicate to an audience primarily through cinematic devices, such as camerawork and technique, as opposed to relying on the narrative. Cinema is a powerful medium of communication, and it is always a treat to watch films by a director who recognizes that power and uses it wisely.