Storytelling: the importance of truth and a good ending

Last night I watched a film called The Factory, which was released on DVD in 2013, fully five years after the completion of filming and following a very limited theatrical release in late 2012. The film fits squarely into the crime-thriller genre and supposedly is “based on actual events.” Without giving too much away, it involves a cop (played by the highly watchable John Cusack) who, together with his sidekick, is trying to track down a serial kidnapper and killer of prostitutes. Dallas Roberts provides a suitably unsettling portrayal of the killer who, it turns out, is intent on making babies with his victims.

Despite the grim nature of its subject, the film is cinematically gorgeous, thanks to the cinematography of Kramer Morgenthau and Morgan O’Neill’s confident hand as Director. The pacing and editing of the film by Tod Feuerman also seem just right, with the tension stepping up a notch after John Cusack’s on-screen daughter (played convincingly by Mae Whitman) is taken by the killer. At the end, there is an unexpected twist.

All in all, “a great watch,” you might suppose? However, I was surprised to find afterwards that a film that so impressed me could be slated so mercilessly by the critics. One called it, “a dog;” another, “embarrassing crap;” and yet another, “kind of boring.” Even the review site Rotten Tomatoes had only 41% of their audience liking it, from over 1500 user ratings.

There seem to be two main beefs that critics share: the cursory – perhaps illusory – attachment to “actual events,” and the ending, which many saw as too contrived.

Let’s deal with the first of these. Whenever we are dealing with nonfiction, the truth and facts are paramount. If a filmmaker or writer purports that their story is based on true events, then it will be judged on how true it is to those events. In the case of The Factory, as one critic put it: “there is no proof or even suggested evidence of that. So get that out of the way!” – a view echoed by many others.

There is perhaps one well known crime that conceivably could have provided the basis for the plot. In this case, a Cleveland man, Ariel Castro, kidnapped and held three young women captive for years in his house. They were repeatedly raped, one had a child and another became pregnant five times but was induced to miscarry in awful circumstances. There are sufficient parallels to the plot of The Factory that one might be prepared to grant the claim of “based on actual events.” The problem is that the Castro kidnappings only came to light in 2013 when one of the women escaped with her then six year-old daughter: the same year that the film was released on DVD and fully five years after the filming was completed.

There is a lesson in this for any kind of communication that makes claims about truth, such as science communication: when those claims are disingenuous, they will be revealed as such, and they will harm you more than help you. My father used to always tell me, “honesty is the best policy” and, when it comes to communication, it should be your only policy if you want to preserve your reputation.

That aside, what about the ending of The Factory: was it really so egregious too?

There is a rule in storytelling that one should avoid resolutions that rely on unlikely circumstances or coincidences. And that seems to be the main criticism levelled at the twist in The Factory’s tail. As one critic so eloquently put it: “the movie just sort of pulls this out of its ass at the last minute.”

Here I beg to differ: through various cinematic devices, including flashbacks and telltale pieces of evidence sprinkled throughout the movie, Morgan O’Neill (who also co-wrote the script) cleverly sets up the surprising twist. In other words, from a storytelling perspective, he “earned” the ending.

That is not to say that there is not an issue with the film’s ending, because for such a finely-crafted and well-acted film to receive basically a failing score from 1502 users indicates that they were left feeling largely unsatisfied by the film.

Most storytelling consists of a beginning, middle and end. It is the job of the ending to provide the resolution for the complications and conflicts that are at the heart of all stories. O’Neill did that, but he failed to appreciate the other job of an ending: to leave us feeling satisfied, moved, even a little changed. In the case of The Factory, the empathy and emotional connection of the audience throughout the developing story is, by design, with the John Cusack character. Yet – and here I really don’t want to give away too much – it is not the John Cusack character that triumphs. Remarkably, there is a scene where the surprise twist could have been revealed and then our man John could still have won the day, but O’Neill seems relentlessly committed to providing a sort of double twist that at first hurts, then kills, all the hope the audience has in Cusack, as surely as the film’s first victim is dispatched in the opening scenes.

Hence, the other lesson in all this for those of us who try to engage audiences with storytelling: endings, to be successful, must not only provide resolution, they must also provide satisfaction!

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