Spoiler Warning: This article breaks down Psycho, Gone Girl, and The Place Beyond the Pines. Consider thyself warned!
One of the unwritten rules of screenwriting is that you “dance with the one that brung you”. That is, you select a protagonist in the outlining phase then allow that character to serve as the principal point-of-view for the duration of the film. This device helps orient the audience, it clarifies elements like conflict and backstory and gives your plot a linear progression. What that singular focus doesn’t provide, however, is much latitude for innovation, for the kind of iconoclastic stories you get from the Coen brothers, from QuentinTarantino, or even last years’ wonderful Wild Tales (from Argentine hypenate Damián Szifrón).
Multiple-POV plots can be a tough sell in the feature spec market. However, if you are bored with three-act screenplay structure and a single POV, there are creative alternatives. For instance, writers working in conventional scenarios have employed a modified two-act structure that includes abrupt shifts in POV. Basically, they’ve constructed a double feature within a feature. The results are a mixed bag, but let’s look at three examples:
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho (screenplay by Joseph Stefano from Robert Bloch’s novel) starts out as a heist story centering the poor, doomed embezzler Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). The setup is exclusively Marion, and the audience images this to be Marion’s story, that is, until she checks into Bates Motel and takes the most famous shower in motion picture history. Marion’s POV ends with her murder; the narrative takes an abrupt “skip”, and we continue with Norman Bates’ POV. This transition works, in part, because Hitchcock has paced the story so well, and he’s introduced a highly specific, malevolent villain that the audience wants to follow.
The 2012 film The Place Beyond the Pines (written by Ben Coccio and Derek Cianframe, who also directed) also features a criminal setup that spirals into a fresh story. As with Psycho, two stories basically collide and then proceed consecutively. In Pines, a n’er-do-well carnival stuntman (Luke, playedby Ryan Gosling) moonlights as a bank robber, escaping by motorcycle with the aid of a mechanic accomplice. Luke’s story ends when he attempts a solo stickup and is confronted by patrol officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). They shoot it out, Luke dies and Avery sustains a leg wound which earns him a commendation and a boatload of goodwill, which he leverages all the way to the post of Attorney General.
So in A Place Beyond the Pines, what begins as a romance and a crime thriller morphs into a 15-year political saga. The central villain of the story, Det. Deluca (Ray Liotta), doesn’t even appear until halfway through the film. The third act also introduces a highly coincidental friendship that develops between the teenage sons of Luke and Avery. Writers Coccio and Cianframe are grappling with large, generational themes here, how a criminal legacy impacts the progeny, etc. But the POV skip in The Place Beyond the Pines is so complete, the tone shift so absolute that it could alienate all but the most indulgent audiences.
In Gone Girl (screenplay by Gillian Flynn from her novel), the audience is presented with a seeminly placid marriage shattered by a the sudden disappearance of Amy, wife of the hapless Nick Dunne. For the first hour of the film (and the first half of the novel), the audience shares Nick’s unfolding nightmare from his point of view; the swirl of tabloid publicity, rumor-mongering and suspicion. Nick is the primary suspect in what appears to be a cookie-cutter spousal homicide. The investigative leads all point one way. Only the body is missing.
One hour into Gone Girl (Spoiler alert!) we have the abrupt POV shift to Amy, who is very much alive, and fully implicated in her own disappearance. Her unfolding backstory is dramatically different from the rosy, Nick-generated depictions. Amy’s Plan A, which involves living incognito while the criminial justice system shreds her husband, is derailed by a robbery. Living underground is expensive; the genteel Amy can’t abide park-bench slumber and dumpster diving, so she reverts to Plan B—duping ex-boyfriend, Desi, who just happens to be filthy rich. The ever-resourceful Amy hatches her Plan C plot (kill Desi in self-defense) to remain the victim while re-occupying her former life.
The second half of both Flynn’s book and her screenplay involves some wild plot contrivances that strain credulity (e.g. self-made multi-millionaire Desi is revealed to be as dumb as a bag of hammers). Gone Girl is a deeply cynical story, one in which all-bad-deeds-go-unpunished, but it’s two-act, two points of view structure serves the story well. Writer Flynn (and director David Fincher) are making a larger point here about how our self-concept can differ radically from how others perceive us.
Also, Gone Girl differs markedly from both A Place Beyond the Pines and Psycho. Granted, all three scripts employ a second act POV shift. However, in Pines, there is no early reference to Avery Cross. He functions a bit like Norman Bates in the sense that the only time he interacts with Luke is when he kills him. When Avery first appears audiences have no reason to ascribe any significance to him, except that a star, Bradley Cooper, is playing him.
Likewise, there is no early reference in Pyscho to Norman or the Bates Motel, no ominious foreshadowing of what may lurk there. But in Gone Girl the Amy Dunne character is omnipresent from the get-go, presenting both a cipher and a catalyst for all of the chaos and soul-searching instigated by her disappearance. Amy appears in flashbacks, so that by the time we pick up her parallel story, she is fully dimensional—albeit as a victim. The first half of Gone Girl’s plot is preoccupied with the Who and the What. The rest of the story focuses on the Why?
To reiterate, what Gone Girl and Psycho demonstrate is that, at least in the thriller genre, a two-act structure with a dual POV can not just work, but work very well. A Place Beyond the Pines is more of a cautionary tale, a shambling, ambitious work that feels overstuffed and unfocused.