I went to see the Jack Reacher movie with my family last week during the holidays. I haven’t read the books, but I really enjoyed it. In contrast to a number of recent action movies I’ve seen (particularly Bond), it didn’t try to throw so much stuff into the plot that things stopped making sense. And, in spite of hitting all the action movie tropes (initial refusal to come out of retirement, car chase, girl getting kidnapped and going to save her even though she’s clearly bait in a trap), it didn’t feel overly predictable. It was just predictable enough that I felt clever for figuring the occasional thing out, but not so predictable that I had it all figured out and got bored.
But what I thought was strange about it is that the writer or director or someone involved in the movie seems to be a huge fan of what I think of as the delayed character reveal. And in a bizarre way where the use of the technique doesn’t serve any purpose that I can determine. Let me try to explain.
Sometimes a character’s face is hidden from the audience. Things about the character are revealed by shots of their hands or other character’s reactions to them or voiceover narration about the character. Then, at an appropriate point, the camera finally moves to show the face of the actor playing the part. This is the delayed character reveal.
As explained on the TV Tropes page for The Faceless, there are several possible reasons for hiding a character’s face. Sometimes, like in Kill Bill 1 or the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, hiding the villain’s face makes them seem more important or threatening. Sometimes it’s done to show a crime but still keep the mystery of which character (who will be seen throughout the story) is the culprit a secret (eg. Murder She Wrote, Law and Order, most CSI episodes). But neither of those are quite what I’m talking about and in fact the sort of hidden face here doesn’t necessarily have to be used for a villain or a twist ending.
Perhaps closer is what sometimes happens on the TV show Criminal Minds, where they show a crime without revealing the perpetrator’s face, but the point isn’t so much to preserve the mystery of the killer’s identity. Often in Criminal Minds, the culprit isn’t otherwise seen as a character in the show: the FBI agents don’t speak to the criminal before they manage to track them down at the end. Instead the point is more to keep the possibilities open for the audience to form ideas about them without an actual image of the face. As the FBI narrows down the profile, the image in your mind gets sharper and it becomes clear to the FBI agents who the killer is at the same time as the camera finally gets a clear view. Often the reveal is of someone we’ve never seen before. Sometimes there’s a twist like they had been looking for an old man all along, but just realized the killer is a young woman, but often it’s just that the connection between the killer and the victims is made. This style of delayed character reveal doesn’t have to come at the end of the story and can be quite brief. It can also be done with heroes, having people describe them while they are still off-screen or in voiceover while headless shots of them go by so you can get a sense of the character before their face is shown.
So anyway, Jack Reacher has three delayed character reveals in just the first 20 minutes and several later in the movie as well. I will discuss just the first three and there aren’t really anything I consider spoilers since the end result is pretty clearly telegraphed ahead of time, which is part of what makes their abundant use so bizarre.
The movie starts out with shots of a man driving a van fairly recklessly into a parking garage interleaved with shots of making bullets, prepping a gun, etc, so it’s clear he’s up to no good. He parks, pays and gets his gun out of the van and starts lining the sites up with people in a park across the river. During this time, we only really see this guy from behind or in shadow and so the idea conveyed is “Who is this guy? Why is he doing this?” He shoots five people in the park and then his face is shown. On its own, this isn’t such a strange reveal, potentially falling into the “faceless people seem more threatening and have an air of mystery category. But in fact it turns out that this is not the Big Bad with all his hidden motives and master schemes. Rather it is some hired gun, who does feature quite prominently in the story as Reacher’s adversary, but for whom mysterious motivations are not required. Neither is it some well-known actor, which is often the case in these sorts of reveals. So it seems a bit strange to hide his face for the first ten minutes of the movie and then reveal it for very little payoff, but it wouldn’t be that remarkable if it weren’t for what happens next.
The police arrive on the scene and start gathering evidence: picking up shell casings, dusting for prints, security footage. This gets them a name and they head to the man’s home. We are less than 15 minutes into the movie at this point, so it could not be clearer that this is not our guy, yet the film-makers still go to the trouble of keeping this man’s face hidden: having the police find him passed out face-down on the bed, keeping shots below the neck and, as he is being questioned, keeping the cameras focused on the interrogators so the man’s answers come from off-screen. This goes on for a couple of minutes before the camera pans over to reveal what have known to be the case since they busted into the man’s home: this man is not the face of the man we saw in the parking garage.
The wrongfully accused man then asks for Jack Reacher. Who is this Reacher guy, the police and DA want to know. A detective does some research and explains to the DA that Reacher is an ex-army member of the military police. We cut to a shot of a man’s legs walking. He was exceptional, the detective’s voiceover tells us. He served in wherever, has a bazillion medals blah blah blah. Headless man is still walking. But Reacher is basically a ghost now, dropped off the grid since he got out of the army. His payments go to an account in Virginia and he always collects them by wire transfer at a location they won’t be able to get without a warrant. We see the legs walk up to a Western Union booth and the woman behind it hands over some cash with a nod as though she sees the man regularly. Headless man walks away. The description continues and the legs go a few other places. Now I don’t see a lot of commercials and this wasn’t my movie pick, so I didn’t know a ton about the movie going in, but even I knew that Tom Cruise played Jack Reacher. It’s on the poster outside the theatre. So when the DA, defense attorney and detective are talking in the hospital outside the accused man’s hospital room and the legs walk up to them and they want to know who the man is, I’m not quite sure what the point of revealing Tom Cruise’s face as he introduces himself as Reacher is supposed to be. It’s unusual to meet the main character so late into a movie but presumably the idea is to emphasize that Reacher is a tough guy to find and make his protestations at being drawn into the events more believable. But delaying it even longer than necessary with these awkward camera angles is puzzling. Once Reacher’s name is mentioned, shouldn’t it be fine to just cut to him doing his thing? That’s what we’re there for.
After this, I couldn’t stop noticing how characters were introduced and re-introduced. Weirdly, they sort of subvert the trope with the Big Bad. He is standing off in the shadows at first, but it’s not long before he steps out and one of the minions then actually turns his head away to avoid seeing the Big Bad’s face because he thinks that increases the likelihood of his being killed.
Anyway other than the overuse of the delayed character reveal, which I found distracting (I kind of want to watch it again just to catalogue them all), I really enjoyed the movie. If you’re an action movie fan and not bothered by Tom Cruise, I recommend it.