Importance of Visuals in Film

When writing a novel, the writers can emphasize character traits by internal dialogue.  But in film, that option doesn’t exist.  Traits that define a character must be established visually.  The visuals should help the audience feel what the character feels, the same way well-chosen words in a novel help the reader experience emotions right with the character.

In an emotionally charged episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (“Magnificat”), Doreen Whitlock is trapped in a post-partum depression of her husband’s design.  The only way out (in her mind) is to kill herself and all of her children.  She fails, leaving her and her oldest alive after a car bomb.

The key to understanding her motive is to feel the same pain that she felt.  Namely, we need to see her isolation and desperation.  How did the audience see this?

The teaser sequence was deliberately constructed to show the audience Doreen’s increasingly claustrophobic life.  In nearly every shot, despite the fact that other people are nearby, the camera stays tight on Doreen.  Whenever she interacts with someone, the shot is wide while the other person speaks or acts, but for Doreen’s actions or reactions the camera zooms in tight on her face.  Whenever Doreen does or says anything, other people are deliberately excluded from the shot.

At one point, she stares into space for a long time.  Then, when the shot switches to her POV, we see a perfectly-kept yard save for an upturned chair.  Doreen’s attention seems to focus on that chair, and she becomes obviously emotional.  The effect is compounded because her son has just handed her a clearly sub-par homework assignment.  A previous scene established that her husband is a no-nonsense perfectionist, so we can deduce that he won’t appreciate either the chair or the failed schoolwork.

In another shot, Doreen walks with a vacant stare into the cul-de-sac in which her house is situated.  We are first shown a long, empty street.  Then, the camera circles Doreen and shows us that every other house on the block is empty.  A screen door, weather-beaten from disuse, clatters against a nearby house.  The background noise from her kids is nearly inaudible, and the only other evident sound is the wind and distant birds.

This teaser is a great example of how film can show us visually what novels explain with emotive words.  In the two scenes I outlined, we are shown that Doreen is under the thumb of an oppressive perfectionist and she feels isolated and lonely.  In the overall sequence, the purpose of excluding others from shots with Doreen is to emphasize the isolation, emotion, and desperation she feels.

If filmmakers explain everything in dialogue, the show gets cheesy quickly.  I think a good rule for film is “Never tell the audience what you can show them.”  Could Dick Wolf and company have told us, through dialogue, that Doreen Whitlock was isolated, lonely, and desperately seeking a way out?  Maybe.  But I doubt it would have been as effective as the close-ups excluding other characters and the empty street visual.  These helped us feel Doreen’s loneliness in a way dialogue never could.