A smash cut can be a beautiful thing. It can also be a broadly-defined thing, somewhat unfortunately, which means I have to reel you into a conversation about Michael Mann’s The Insider by providing a narrowed definition of smash cut. Excited yet? The added problem, of course, is that one of you
damn dear readers will no doubt have the time to point out precisely where I’m mistaken in my definition, holding my hand and stating that, no, that’s not a smash cut, that’s a match cut, and that one over there is a jump cut, and over there is…my, oh my! Is that a Dutch angle shot in its natural habitat?
Anyway, the thing I’m thinking of might not even qualify as a smash cut, but for now that descriptor will have to suffice. Mann loves an extreme close-up, especially in his earlier works like Heat (I’m thinking of that early bouncing shot of Val Kilmer), and in his follow-up The Insider we probably get closer to the facial pores of Russell Crowe and Al Pacino than we’ve ever been before. But there are a few close-ups not of faces but of objects, inserted for a second or a half-second right smack in the middle of a scene, and those cuts are what I’m talking about. They smash to the forefront when you’d least expect them, these otherwise uninteresting objects. Why does Mann shove these in so boldly, and how does he get it to work so damn well?
Let’s look at three distinct versions of this smash cut subspecies. First, there’s one that you might say isn’t at all unexpected, occurring when Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand strolls out to the curb to check his mail. There’s a simultaneous scene of Jeff’s wife in the basement that serves to heighten the tension of the mailbox routine, but for our purposes we’ll leave that out for now. Jeff opens the mailbox, stoops to peek inside, and the camera cuts for a brief moment to this:
Expected, sure. But shocking nonetheless. The timing of it all is such that the only reason we know to expect something out-of-sorts is that the music and the basement scene and Jeffrey’s long walk out to the curb all telegraph this mini-climax, and in that sense the shock of that inserted shot is a bit fabricated. That’s not a bad thing, but yes: we’re told in everything leading up to that smash cut that whatever’s in that mailbox is something scary. Still, Mann makes it more effective by lingering on the bullet for less than a second, which means by the time we’ve processed the contents of that box Jeffrey is running back up his front lawn towards his family.
The next example is one step cooler, slightly less fabricated in overall drama, and yet somehow still not that perfect visual nugget of storytelling that Mann ultimately proves himself capable of with The Insider. Jeff stalks his backyard at night searching for an intruder after telling his adolescent daughter to stay in the basement. A raccoon startles Jeff in the yard and as he jumps his daughter jumps too, because the furnace inexplicably flares up at that exact moment:
The parallel between raccoon-Jeff and furnace-daughter is a nice bit of artistic license, the kind of detail that elevates this scene from The Insider far above similarly-minded moments of paranoia in thousands of other movies. It might have worked just as well without furnace-daughter, but then again the oh-it’s-just-a-raccoon jump scare is a pretty tired one.
So the best example of this comes in one of The Insider‘s best sequences, a wordless and shadowy night scene at the driving range where Jeffrey first begins to suspect that things are not quite right. He glances down the lines of empty practice mats to see a large man in a suit looking back, offhandedly laying golf balls on his tee and whacking them into the night. The scene cuts between the two of them, the man standing and watching Jeffrey and Jeffrey staring back. The lighting, as seen in the featured picture at the top of this article, is half-brilliant and half-darkened. Then, suddenly, the camera switches not from hunter to prey but to a still net. A white golf ball materializes and stretches the net toward the camera:
Right when you might expect the net to recoil and the ball to shoot back into the night, we cut to the overhead lights being shut down and Jeffrey and his pursuer leaving the range. That brief smash cut to the hitting net is the most original of its kind in The Insider, partly in the way it distinguishes itself from the previous two examples. The lead-up to the shot isn’t telegraphed in the way the mailbox bullet shot is, and it isn’t paralleled in a jump-cut style scare like the basement furnace shot. It’s a visual that stands alone within the larger scene.
What does it contribute? It’s so brief that the answer to that question is kind of up to you, the viewer, and therein lies another aspect of its brilliance. It can represent the tension that Jeffrey feels, the net stretching from an unexpected assailant borne of the pitch black night, stretching with no visible release or relief. It could represent the passage of time, as if the pair kept hitting balls until those lights switched off in the following shot. Mann’s inclusion of this shot isn’t necessarily a demand for interpretation, but it does seem to demand something of us.
Mann’s not the only guy to make a practice of smash cuts like this, nor is he the only one to pull it off so well. Before him there was William Friedkin, whose jarring shots throughout Sorcerer of carved stones in the mountainside, little demonic faces peeking out from the vertical vinelands, accomplish the same instillation of dread as we might find in that bullet or that golf ball. After Mann is David Fincher, who might actually be the more perfect heir to this smash cut patrimony. Gone Girl has a great shot of Nick smashing a glass on the floor (which is technically an axial cut, which is a type of jump cut, which is…wait, come back!), and a half-second shot of a tabby cat sitting by the door that’s pretty similar to The Insider‘s golf ball shot.
These shots and cuts are an attention to detail that seems to somehow have evaporated from Michael Mann’s recent stuff (like this year’s flat Blackhat). Heat and Collateral are likely his most famous films, but The Insider certainly deserves to stand alongside those films for the level of care taken in the construction of each shot.