Hanna: A Master Class in ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Filmmaking

Hanna is one of those movies which I had always heard was good and always knew I would like, but for some reason, or no reason at all, had never decided to watch. My assumption was that Hanna was an above-average, post-Bourne, post-Kill Bill action flick made novel due to having a child – a female child – at its center. In short, I figured that it was something I’d basically seen before, and I had Human Centipede sequels to watch, so I never pressed play.

Well you know what they say about assumptions: they make me a stupid ass.

Not only was Hanna much more than the things I said above, it’s also the best version of those things. It is action-packed, but it is not an action movie. It is thematically rich, speaking toward the inevitable loss of innocence and the tainted lengths through which we try to preserve it, especially for young women, but it is way too much fun to be a stuffy morality play.

Short of about 8 seconds of “night vision” (a visual device which almost never works), I’d say Hanna is perfect. It’s everything I love about movies rolled into a single package. There are countless blogs to be written about the many delights of Hanna, but I’d like to focus on one thing in particular. This scene:

What you just watched was done in a single, 3-minute take. There are only two pieces of dialogue, yet it says so much more than any verbose exposition could ever hope to, all the while delivering a cleaner action sequence than I’ve seen in a long time. The choreography is not as dynamic as, say, Jason Bourne, but it works infinitely better because I can actually see it. This isn’t to say that the camerawork is minimalist in any sense. Director Joe Wright is clearly showing off his talent for framing and blocking, but what makes his style so digestible is the way it doesn’t divorce the camera’s motion from my own physical reality.

Readers of this site know of my (almost) zero tolerance policy toward hyper-cutting and shaky cam, but in watching Hanna I realized precisely why it’s such a bother to me. The fight sequences in the Bourne movies, and as much as it pains me to say, Captain America: Civil War, function to insist that a dynamic action scene is occurring without actually showing it to me. I don’t like being told what to do, not even by Matt Damon, especially when what it is you want me to do is something I want to do anyway. In this case, we (the filmmakers and I) both want for me to feel like I’ve seen an explosive fight scene – but we differ in that I’d actually like to see it, rather than just assume it occurred.

By allowing the camera to adhere to very human physics (i.e. Not cutting to 6 different angles during a single punch), it’s easy to forget that a camera is there at all. When it comes to hand-to-hand combat in film, this should be the ultimate goal. In a way, the viewpoint of the camera in this particular scene is very similar to that of a boxing referee: it needs to be able to see every last detail, and it absolutely must stay out of the way.

When we look at the actual fisticuffs on display, we’re not getting anything groundbreaking. It’s certainly not bland choreography, but there isn’t any walking on walls or clinically applied martial artistry. We don’t need it because at this point in Hanna, the action has weight, and by being able to see the punches and kicks as they connect – and the way these tremendous stunt performers react – the violence becomes tactile instead of showy. Pair that with confident, smooth camera work and blocking, and suddenly the whole things feels both tactile and showy.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the scene and explore how much story/exposition is being presented. Erik Heller (Eric Bana) steps off of a bus. His suit is ill-fitting, his hair haggard, his demeanor one of a man who has spent the past decade-and-change in seclusion. He’s a tourist in a world which used to be his home. Funny he’d be arriving by bus. Look around him. Not only is the density of the background action impressive in a technical sense, but we also see more thematic richness on display. A couple reunites, presumably after a long time apart. A salesman peddles his wares to travelers on the go. A skateboarder (who re-enters this grand dance two additional times before its end) zips by. Heller barely notices any of it. Partially due to his own paranoia-induced urgency, but also due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, interaction with everyday people is a luxury locked firmly in his past.

As he enters the waiting area of the bus station, a support pillar passes into the foreground and we see that Heller’s paranoia is justified. A threatening-looking agent is watching him from behind the structure. It’s dramatic irony that isn’t. Yes, we know that Heller is being tailed, and even though he doesn’t yet know, his suspicion-based behavior is indeed one of certainty. Notice too how this reveal of a threat is punctuated by a soft swell in the score (which is stellar throughout the entire film, seeming to have been composed by a robot with the ability to breathe).

While Heller walks through the waiting area, the camera enters through an adjacent door into an adjacent room. Once again, we see stylish direction that doesn’t betray human physics. Watching Heller move while behind a pane of glass is positively dynamic to watch, and it’s something which is accomplished without gaudy camera acrobatics.

Heller steps outside and takes an exasperated look at a plane passing overhead. This is both a callback to an earlier scene when his daughter reacted with wonder after seeing a plane for the first time in ages, as well as a way of illustrating how distant he himself is from the modern world. Living for so long in the forest can put an edge on what, for the rest of us, barely registers as stimuli. This happens throughout the entire scene. As vehicles pass and the noises of civilization pop all around him, Heller reacts with a nervous twitchiness.

This next few moments would, in a film less inspired by exploitation cinema, receive the dreaded “on the nose” criticism. As Heller moves along his path (one could ask where he is headed, although it later becomes clear he’s drawing his pursuers together so he can covertly dispatch them in one place), we not only see a man following him, but the setting is covered in surveillance imagery: graffitied eyeballs adorn the walls, as do multiple adds for eyewear. Someone has even painted a wall to say “ONE NATION UNDER CCTV.” Blink and you won’t miss it.

Heller sneaks a backward glance while his obvious pursuer pretends to check his watch. Our skateboarder friend peels by in the deep background.

Heller boards an escalator into an underground area. We now know he’s aware that he’s being followed, as evidenced by the nonchalant unbuttoning of his ill-fitting jacket. He’s going to need breathing room if a fight is to occur. The skateboarder, now underground, zips by and draws the eye of our camera for a split-second, cleverly giving us a quick look at the geography of the battleground, but also silently quelling any protests of “why is this place empty” which may come from those with an itchy critical trigger finger. The music begins its final swell, culminating in a percussive burst as the fists begin to fly. At this point, it is, as they say, ON.

“We’ve got him” says a henchmen into his walkie talkie, right before that statement is made into a lie.

The sequence ends with only one heightened flourish: as Erik throws one henchman into the path of another’s bullets there is the slightest instance of slo-mo. It’s as if the filmmakers wish to remind us, if only for a split second, that we just unwittingly witnessed an incredible feat of movie-ness, while also dropping a piece of visual punctuation to remind the viewer that it is now okay to breathe.

Then we must consider that through all of this, some brilliant film architect had to block precisely where the “we’ve got him” walkie talkie dropped, so that Heller could pick it up, hear the one piece of expository dialogue which couldn’t be told through visuals, and run back out into the world.

The scene neither announces its showiness, nor stops the flow of the film as a whole, proving that in a cinematic world which leans heavily on post-production, pre-production remains king.

For more, listen to Dan Scully and Garrett Smith discuss Hanna in-depth on the latest episode of their podcast, I Like 2 Movie Movie.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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