Hardcore POV: 'Hardcore Henry', the POV Shot, and 'Let's Watch' Cinema
Is Hardcore Henry the start of something new or a repeat of failed past experiments?
The POV "Gimmick"
Ilya Naishuller’s unconventional action shoot-em-up film Hardcore Henry (2015) has polarized opinion. At the time of writing this, it has a 51 percent approval rating from 92 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The film won the Grolsch People's Choice Midnight Madness Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, yet here at PopMatters, we ceremoniously awarded the film a one out of ten score, with Bill Gibron finding the movie: “a gimmick. It’s not a movie since it doesn’t even pretend to offer the basics of the artform -- story, character, drama, excitement, suspense, etc.”
The “gimmick”, according to Hardcore Henry’s own Indiegogo crowd-funding page is that it is “The First Ever Action POV Feature Film.” In the history of cinema, it appears to have taken over 120 years to get to this statement, which seems pretty significant, so I thought I would use my first Reaction Shot article to explore what this might mean.
To understand what the POV shot is, and why it isn’t usually used for the duration of entire films, let’s go back to film school for a moment. As Edward Branigan explains: “The POV shot is a shot in which the camera assumes the position of a subject in order to show us what the subject sees.”
This is usually established through two shots, which lend context to each other. A shot of Person A looking off camera at Person B might be followed by an eye-line match shot from Person A’s imagined POV perspective of Person B. In this instance, as they are edited together in sequence, we would understand more of the context of the second shot (the POV shot) from what we have seen in the first shot. This example would also work for a monkey looking at banana or a banana “looking” at a monkey: it’s a flexible system, but it’s quite easy to see how a lack of context could render the POV shot quite limited.
To understand how the POV isn’t necessarily the best way to convey information when used solely on its own, one only has to look at the DVD bonus content for season one of Daredevil (2015), where the “Daredevil P.O.V. Fight Scene” is one long sustained period of pitch blackness as the character is blind.
However, POVs set up with at least one other shot, or with variations for effect, are a common stylistic device. In action films, like Predator (1988) and Universal Soldier (2012); horror films, such as Halloween (1978) and Jaws; comedies, including The Gold Rush (1925), or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); and as a part of a consistent stylistic repertoire from directors such as Hitchcock, Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, as with any shot selection from the film-makers handbook, the POV shot is utilized in ways that both work with a viewer’s expectations and plays against them.
The King’s Speech
One of the key motivations behind the POV shot is to represent the subjective view of a specific character in order to elicit an emotion in the viewer (even though this character’s viewpoint might only be imagined or hypothetical, like that belonging to the aforementioned seemingly sentient banana). Usually, if the shot “belongs” to the protagonist it’s often in an attempt to elicit sympathy, such as George VI fighting his stutter before a crowd in The King’s Speech (2010), or to stimulate fear if the shot “belongs” to the antagonist, such as the stalking serial killer from the Scream (1996-2011) franchise. In Hardcore Henry then, we might be supposed to feel sympathetic towards Henry.
Yet this intimacy can vary and become extremely complicated, as everything within a film and the way in which it has been presented is never interpreted in exactly the same way by any two people, who may have different star preferences, gender identification, cultural capital, positions on the social field, and so on. I mean, with Scream the kids don’t exactly help themselves do they?
Regarding Hardcore Henry, without context a huge number of critics actually found it difficult to feel empathy for a hyper-violent killer that they could barely relate to. According to The Ooh Tray, movies “offer us portraits of human beings that they hope we’ll inhabit. ‘Hardcore Henry’ asks you to stare at a blank canvas and see yourself. Well, most of us have a slightly more cultivated idealised self than that.”
The Intensity of Looking
Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of the “voyeuristic” look in cinema, contends that there are three different “looks”: “that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters looking at each other within the screen illusion.” The POV shot is distinctive in that it closely aligns all three of these looks, and the (potentially reflexive) intensity of vision can be astonishing.
In Being John Malkovich (1999) for example, the POV shot is used only when a character (played by a film star such as Cameron Diaz) has climbed into a tunnel, giving them the ability to see from the fictional John Malkovich’s perspective, literally, it's insinuated with the POV, through his eyes. Later on, she controls him so that Malkovich doesn’t even “own” his own POV, becoming a passive viewer like the movie audience (who may also wish to “be” a film star, like Malkovich or Diaz). Of course, this Malkovich is being played by the real actor, John Malkovich, and the film becomes a reflexive commentary on stardom, sexual identity, and the Hollywood system itself. The tagline to the film is: “Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can.” And the POV helps to sell it.
Being John Malkovich
Similarly, Hardcore Henry attempts to offer the viewer the ability to become a Hardcore Malkovich. According to Naishuller: “I feel really confident about HARDCORE because it puts you in the place of the protagonist, and YOU BECOME HIM as you experience the journey together in a very personal way.”
Using a custom designed head rig with cameras attached to the unit worn by the stuntman, the camera angle in Hardcore Henry is from the perspective of the actor/character. We see Henry’s arms wave about before the lens, we see the camera move in relation to where one would imagine that Henry was looking, people talk directly to the camera when they are talking to Henry, and most of the action tends to emanate from around the center and near/middle distance of the POV, implying that the camera’s subjective viewpoint is both the center of the viewer’s connection with the film world and the center of the film world itself: everything else is peripheral.
Henry is the viewer’s portal, but the view is not exactly analogous to the reality of our own world. First of all, in using wide-angle lensed cameras, the image is constantly distorted to have a fisheye effect, whereby the horizontal and vertical lines of perspective take on an increasingly convex form towards the edges of the shot’s frame, resulting from a curvilinear perspective rather than the rectilinear one often used in standard narrative filmmaking to create film space. This is a limitation imposed from using the GoPro Hero3 camera (which offers other benefits such as size, weight, and cost), but the effect is a constant reminder that we, the viewers, are only voyeurs with our “peephole” perspective on distorted events. Not that I spend my days lingering around peepholes for research purposes you understand.
The POV is a shot selection that can also appear to come from a camera within the reality of the film world itself, such as in The Blair Witch Project (1999), [Rec] (2007), and Cloverfield (2008). In this respect, it can also offer different properties as the material properties of the recording object becomes a factor in the viewpoint. The use of a night vision scope in 28 Weeks Later, which only one character can use at a time, for example, is another way of playing with this format, as are recent films that use a web-cam gimmick, such as the Open Windows (2015) or Unfriended (2015).
In Hardcore Henry, the POV shot comes from Henry’s vision (as in “it puts you in the place of the protagonist”), but Henry is also a cyborg with eyeballs that seem to be attached to great balls of string coiled within his skull. On more than one occasion an eyeball is removed, giving rise to a split screen POV from more than one viewpoint, but by the same character. While it’s certainly a neat trick, offering new gross-out perspectives, or momentarily confusing the viewer’s understanding of the screen image, it’s also another way in which the relationship between the POV and the viewer is potentially challenged, reminding us of the cinematic form. In fact, in his utterly contemptuous review of Hardcore Henry for Empire, Jonathan Pile points out that “the filmmakers fundamentally seem to misunderstand how the human eye works, in that, it can move within its socket,” so the juddery camera work isn’t at all realistic.
It's impossible for the POV within Hardcore Henry to be a faithful reproduction of visual acuity, but rather it's a heightened approximation of the experience of doing what Henry does. So, as the action in his world becomes more frenetic, the camera mirrors that sensation, which isn’t more lifelike, but is arguably an attempt to be more emotionally suggestive.
Unfortunately, with the juddery lack of correlation between the FOV (or field of view -- the amount of observable film world), the wide angle lens of the POV, and the fixed viewpoint of the audience member, motion sickness and nausea can occur. A similar thing happened with the restrictive camera POV of Cloverfield (2008), which made “some viewers so sick they are stumbling out of screenings before the end,” and some cinemas had to put up signs that warned audiences they might “experience side effects associated with motion sickness, similar to riding a rollercoaster.”
Not that Naishuller wasn’t prepared for such an effect, as he claims “We did HUNDREDS of tests for stabilization using our Go-Pro rigs. HARDCORE gently eases the audience into the POV style at the start of the film … so by the time the frantic scenes come on, the viewer has been comfortably 'living' in the shooting style for some time.”
Despite Naishuller’s prep work, among the din of groaning reviews, The Guardian asked “Do I have any aspirin in my bag?” and MTV, of all places, called it “nauseating, twice over.” The advantages of the low-cost, HD portable cameras are clear, but one might argue that the technology to replicate the experience on a cinema screen isn’t quite there yet. The Telegraph points out that the film “looks grubby and indistinct on a large cinema screen, and the unavoidable judder obscures most of the thrills behind a greeny-grey pixellated smear.” It might be that Hardcore Henry will benefit from a home video release, where the screen is smaller, and the reality of the film world becomes a little less nauseatingly intense.