12 Brilliant Understated Movie Moments



Understatements in movies – by which we mean those scenes or moments that are not as obviously dramatic as the main events, or that may not contribute to moving the story forwards in an immediate sort of way – essentially feature in exactly the same way as those sorts of moments do in day-to-day real life; while not very much appears to happen, they have the ability to create a very particular effect.

Whether it is the words in an argument that are said quietly (universally recognised as being somehow so much worse than being yelled at), a look exchanged with someone that takes the place of an whole conversation, something that happens quietly but totally at odds with everything else around it, or – God forbid this last one – the phone-call that doesn’t come, moments of minimal action give a sort of added depth that can often only come from restraint or subtlety. If the main events are the bricks in a movie’s wall, the understated moments are the cement between them.

So vital, in fact, are these seemingly minor parts of every day life that almost every kind of film has them in some form or another – even genres in which we might not necessarily expect to see them. Heath Ledger’s phenomenal turn in The Dark Knight depended on his repressing the Joker’s insanity, giving him a sort of secretive, lurking danger that felt far more threatening than when he started blowing up hospitals. Mark Steven Johnson – director of both Daredevil and Ghost Rider – claimed he wanted his superhero films to be true to the original characters but also to include those sort of moments that would make them feel real (…better luck next time eh Mark?).

And as for Pacific Rim itself (the recently announced sequel to which we can probably safely assume wasn’t secured on the basis of its moments of insightful subtlety – more likely it just punched anyone on the commission board who didn’t agree), for some audiences there was no palm in the world big enough that they could slap to their face at the moment the robot’s fist knocked into that desk pendulum. For others, it was the pinnacle of the fun that underpins the entire film. But whatever the reaction, the moment had the desired effect; like the slight pause right at the top of a rollercoaster just before it plunges downwards, very little was happening – but everyone was damn well paying attention.

Below is a collection of twelve of these kinds of understated moments, picked from a fairly wide range of years and genres. They are not meant to be a top twelve (believe me, just be glad it stops at twelve), nor do they go in any particular order. They have simply been selected on the basis that they are striking examples of that glorious side of moviemaking in which very small things have in some way been made to say a very large amount.

There is just one last thing to say before starting. This is that there is one particular movie that specifically hasn’t had one of these moments included on the list itself. The film in question is overall so carefully put together, so beautifully written, so well acted – and so highly and deservedly admired – that to extract just one moment from it felt like something close to performing open heart surgery without anaesthetic. Instead it has been included at the end, completely intact, as an honourable mention.

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