I recently watched a movie, The Last Shift, and it got me thinking about exposition and character-driven storytelling.
The Last Shift is a horror movie about an unfortunate rookie cop, Jessica, whose first night on the job is supposed to be really easy. The police station has moved to a new location, but some of the more…bloody and icky evidence bags haven’t been picked up by the Hazmat crew, so our protagonist gets to sit at the desk and babysit for the night.
Well, it should be an easy babysitting job but of course stuff starts happening. She starts seeing things, hearing things, and getting weird phone calls. There’s a reason this stuff is happening, and it has to do with something that happened a year ago when a Manson Family type cult was brought in.
It’s a well done indie horror, with a lot of creepy moments and slow build. Although the ending was disappointing when compared to the build up, I can still recommend it for creepy factor alone. In fact, I’m glad I saw the movie during the day time. I think I’d give this movie a solid “B” rating.
But, I’m going to talk about some of the things this movie did in regards to character development, plot, and exposition, and it’s going to be spoiler heavy. You’ve been warned!
One thing any good story has to have is a good protagonist, right? Or, at least, someone we need to care about. If there’s nobody we want to take this story’s journey with, what’s the point of taking the time to watch or read the story? Most of the movie is just Jessica, the rookie cop, reacting to the things happening to her so Jessica has to be worth our time. And I think the movie did a good job of making her sympathetic.
The movie starts with Jessica telling her Mom she’s going to be okay as a cop, and while the scene is a little contrived (the conversation was played like it was the first time they’d had it, and yet, if the Mom was worried, wouldn’t this be a conversation they’d had numerous times? From when Jessica began training as a police officer?), Jessica’s impatient replies set her up as the perfect rookie. Confident she’s made the right choice, ready to start her new career, and young. When she interacts with her superior officer in the next scene, we see she’s nervous, too.
I also like that they used Jessica’s outfit to convey her character, as well. Her uniform is immaculate, her hairstyle precise. She looks like a newbie.
So, through these two interactions, we get Jessica. As the movie goes along, I really liked the use of her uniform and hairstyle to show how she was unraveling. As more things happened, her hair become more messy. Yes, it makes sense that her hair wouldn’t stay perfect, but they didn’t have her go to a bathroom and fix herself up. The symbolism was that as things got worse, she became more disheveled mentally, mirrored by her hair.
Another good thing this movie does is “information drops”, when exposition is given, it’s done in such a way that forces you to connect the dots. In some cases, this leads to a nice creepy moment in the movie. For example, at a certain point, a cop comes by to check on Jessica. He admits he was there the day Jessica’s father died. Jessica asks him for the story and he says that they went in without backup because the Paymon Family were going to kill their victims. They managed to get four girls out before the Paymon Family killed six girls and two cops, one of which was Jessica’s father. This bit of information is just slipped in. So, later, when the cop Jessica is speaking to turns around, showing a huge bullet hole in his head, you think: Oh yeah, he did say two cops died. That is a good reveal.
But, let’s talk the way they introduced exposition, because I think it’s here that the story gets a little clunky. The problem with exposition when you have one major character alone in a building is…how to do it? Personally, I think as all the weird stuff started happening to Jessica, it wouldn’t have been odd to have her do a little snooping. Strangely, Jessica had an old flip phone (was this movie supposed to be set in 2005?), but I think giving her a smartphone would have been better. At one point, a CCTV flickers on and she sees the interrogation with John Michael, the cult leader, and some of his followers. Afterwards, Jessica could have done some Googling on her smartphone. Or, snooped around the evidence bags that were left over. Instead, the movie repeats the way we receive information: Someone either calls or shows up and just info dumps all over the place. Sometimes, the info dumps are just given for no reason.
There’s a scene with a prostitute showing up. Why? No reason, she just wanted to smoke a cigarette there. Suddenly (and I do mean suddenly), she starts talking about the Paymon Family and how she was there that night. Why suddenly say this? Nobody had asked her about the Paymon Family. In fact, Jessica is about to turn around and go back into the building when the prostitute suddenly shouts: “I was here, you know…” forcing Jessica to ask “what are you referring to?” And then we get an info dump about “this wannabe Manson family.” It is a really clunky way to give exposition, and it happens often in the movie.
I realized the reason it bothered me is because it isn’t character-driven. Stuff is happening to Jessica. And maybe that’s my biggest complaint of The Last Shift. It is very plot-driven. Most of the movie follows this format: Jessica sits at her desk. She hears a weird noise. She goes to investigate. She sees some weird, creepy shit. Maybe the weird, creepy shit tells her a little more exposition. She convinces herself it’s all in her head. She goes back to her desk. Rinse, repeat. Yes, the weird, creepy shit is really creepy. The suspense is great. The direction is good. The sound design is really good. There are visual moments that are quite excellent for a scary movie, let alone an indie horror movie.
But a story needs to be character-driven, it really does push a story from “good” to “excellent.” If Jessica had done something more than just react, I would have been much more invested. Even if it was as simple of rifling through evidence, shouting at her visions, having a conversation with dispatch when they didn’t believe her about the phone calls. Maybe even calling her mother and talking to her.
Did you see this movie? What did you think? Or, what do you think about character-driven versus plot-driven storytelling?