In cinema, subtext can come in many different forms such as dialogue, images, music, character motivations/actions or the whole film itself. Subtext is a great way for an artist to convey the underlying themes, metaphors and opinions in their work in creative and subliminal ways. What’s on the surface of a piece of art is almost directly linked to what’s going on beneath and its reason for existence or creation by its artist.
When it comes to dialogue, characters will sometimes say one thing but mean something else. Much like in real life, people often use subtext to hint at something they would rather not say directly. There are various reasons for this which is inherent to character’s wants or social constrictions or relationships. Done well, subtext can be hard to see on the surface.
As long as it supplements the content of the film well, subtext is an amazing way of enhancing a story. Let us look at some great examples at the different ways subtext is used in films and what they could mean.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Type of Subtext: A Line of Dialogue
One of the most quotable lines in cinema history is from Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal classic ‘The Godfather’ with the line: “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”. So powerful in its simplicity, this line of dialogue is subtext at its most basic and also at its most potent. It’s an unforgettable line that has not only become synonymous with gangsters and wise guys but a part of pop culture as well. Everyone and their grandmother have said this quote at one time or another.
The famous quote is said by Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) when his godson Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) asks him for a favor. See, Johnny is a famous singer who wants to transition into pictures and become an actor. When he is turned down by the producer for a role in a movie that he really wants to be in, he goes crying to his godfather for help and Corleone tells him “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”.
What exactly is this offer that he won’t be able to refuse? Well, it’s not so much an offer but a threat. Said producer later wakes up in bed one morning next to the severed head of his prized racehorse. Needles to say, Johnny ends up getting the part. This line is a brilliant example of subtext in just a few short words.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Type of Subtext: Dialogue
‘No Country for Old Men’ is filled with many unforgettable scenes throughout its two-hour runtime. The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name is a masterpiece in tension, symbolism, philosophy and adverting audience expectations. The fact that the most memorable scene in the film is a conversation between a sadistic customer and an unknowing gas station owner behind the cash register is a fine example of how powerful subtext in dialogue can be.
There are always power dynamics in any and every conversation. Usually, one person leads the conversation and the other follows. With subtext in dialogue, it’s exactly the same, one person can engage the conversation with subtext without the other person realizing it or being able to follow. Or on the flip side, both people can engage in it.
Here, the conversation is particularly one-sided when hired hit man Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) stops at a gas station to fill up. While paying for his gas he gets annoyed by the gas station owner’s prying yet innocent questions. Chigurh starts leading the conversation by asking the owner some personal questions about his past and family life. The gas station owner has no idea why Chigurh is asking him these questions and when Chigurh challenges him to a coin flip he doesn’t fully grasp what they’re playing for or what’s at stake.
Chigurh is a man who lives by his own moral code and worldview. He believes in consequence, fate, and destiny. He kills people who get in his way and assigns a coin toss to decide the fate of others. In this scene, he’s basically telling this old man behind the cash register that his destiny has led him to this moment and encounter with him. An encounter that has put his seemingly easy and naive life at stake that a simple coin toss will decide.
3. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Type of Subtext: Dialogue
Romance has always been filled with subtext. Much like in real life, people find it easier to spill out their feelings with subtext other than blurting out what they’re really feeling. It’s a way to protect one’s feelings and fears of putting your heart on the line.
After 25 years of marriage, Cal (Steve Carrell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) find themselves in the middle of a divorce. Cal has moved out into an apartment with the wife and kids staying at the house. On one evening he returns to secretly water the plants in the garden but more obviously to check on his family because he misses them. Just then Emily calls him because she needs help with the house’s pilot light in the basement but Cal can see that she’s not in the basement through the window.
It’s just an excuse for her to talk to him because she misses him too. Cal realizes this and plays along by putting across his own feelings with their situation. Emily is simply saying that she misses him and wishes that he was there, still living with them. With the added benefit of seeing through her guise, Cal is able to understand what she’s really saying and decides to try and win her back.
4. Sideways (2007)
Type of Subtext: Dialogue
In this touching and emotional scene, two love interests Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) use their love of wine to describe themselves. It’s a simple yet effective scene of two people getting to know each other and the two describing how they see themselves.
Miles obsession and love for Pinot is played for laughs throughout most of the film but it’s in this scene that we truly understand why it means so much to him. Pinot is his favorite wine because the difficult grape is much like him ‘thin-skinned’, ‘temperamental’ and ‘needs constant care and attention’ to grow.
Maya, on the other hand, loves wine because it makes her think of different places and times. It’s constantly evolving and gaining complexities just like her. In this soulful and honest scene, Maya and Miles lay out what they’re looking for in a partner and relationship because love like wine is a long-term investment that needs the right kind of care to reach its full potential.
5. Annie Hall (1977)
Type of Subtext: Subtitles/Humor
Woody Allen’s classic romantic comedy looks at the challenges of modern romance with Allen playing a comedian who looks back on his relationship with the titular character and tries to understand why it failed. Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) first meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) during a tennis match with friends. After the match, she offers him a ride uptown and then invites him into her apartment for a drink of wine. They stand on her balcony having wine and engage in small talk to get to know each other better. This small talk involves the usual awkward banter of two love interests getting to know each other and trying to connect.
The genius of the scene, however, is the subtitles that appear onscreen letting the viewer read what the characters are really saying versus what they end up saying instead. Things like “I wonder what she looks like naked” and ‘God, I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a shmuch like the others’ appear as they talk of banal things.
While it may be cheating, the subtitled subtext in the scene is dumped-down and played for laughs with the point of showing us the inner thoughts of the characters. Hilarious..
6. Ordinary People (1980)
Type of Subtext: Character Action
Sometimes the best way to tell audiences about your characters is through simple actions. The way they act or react to something can offer great insight into the type of person they are more than any amount of dialogue can. One of the most famous examples of this is from Robert Redford’s Ordinary People which follows the disintegration of a family after one of their teenage sons dies in a boating accident and the other son attempts suicide because of post-traumatic stress disorder. The matriarch of the family Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) is a proud, passive-aggressive and obsessive-compulsive woman. She deals with the loss of her son by not acknowledging it and becomes distant and cold with her surviving son Conrad (Timothy Hutton).
She does, however, try to reconnect with her son by making him French toast, which is his favorite breakfast. But when Conrad tells her that he’s not hungry she immediately snatches it away from the table and pushes it down the sinks garbage disposal before Conrad knows what’s what. With her reaction, we can tell that Beth is not only hurt but angry that she put the effort into making something special for her son only for him to not appreciate it. This simple character action tells us not only how she’s feeling at that moment but also what type of person she is. This type of people keep everything bottled up inside. Or maybe it’s just because, she says ‘you can’t save French toast’.
7. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Type of Subtext: Music/Song
Another great way of using subtext is through music. Other than using a score or a pop song to highlight a character’s emotion in a scene you can have that character sing a song instead. A song that means something to them that captures the moment perfectly. Stanley Kubrick was a master at using music to underline the themes of his films and the psychology of his characters. Other than going for the most obvious choice in music he would use the most unlikely pieces of music and songs to great ironic effect. One such trademark was having his characters sing a popular song that would change the whole context and meaning of that song.
From supercomputer HAL singing Daisy in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as his being disconnected which shows that this machine is human in more ways than one, to Alex bellowing “Singin’ in the rain” in A Clockwork Orange while committing a horrendous crime which shows the joy he’s overcome with. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ follows a group of soldiers through training and then deployment in Vietnam. Some of these soldiers end up in the same squad that engages in combat with a well-positioned sniper who turns out to be a teenage girl. After granting the teenage girl’s pleas to be shot, the Squad marches back to camp while singing The Mickey Mouse March from the popular Disney TV show from the fifties.
Besides the song reflecting the camaraderie and brotherhood between the men who’ve gone through hell together the song also signifies their collective loss of innocence. Most young men in the military at that time were familiar with the Mickey Mouse show where the theme came from. It’s a song they grew up with. Surrounded by the horror and destruction of war, singing a children’s song is not only a way of keeping the spirits up but also a way to rebel against the usual songs they were made to sing.
8. Fight Club (1999)
Type of Subtext: Visual Symbolism
David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same name deals with themes of masculinity, generational delusion, and consumerist culture. The Narrator (Edward Norton) is an automobile recall specialist who’s disillusioned with his white-collar job, possessions and his life in general. He’s able to find catharsis when he starts a fight club with a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) which soon evolves into a mission statement.
Known for his attention to detail, Fincher literally had a cup of Starbucks in every shot of every scene in the film to signify how consumerism has taken over our lives. The Easter egg was initially missed by viewers when the film came out in 1999 but fans have since dedicated websites to finding every single cup of Starbucks coffee throughout the film. While some cups are hard to see because of framing, it’s obviously apparent when you watch the film with that in mind.
Throughout the film, Fight Club looks at consumer identity through its two contradicting lead characters. In-between the male bonding and male fighting, the two start ‘Project Mayhem’ which aims to take down cooperate America which has enslaved the masses. And there’s nothing better that signifies America’s obsession and addiction to money and spending for their addiction to coffee by a franchise company.
9. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Type of Subtext: The Whole Movie
There a lot of themes in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s bestselling novel of the same name. The horror classic about a pregnant woman’s suspicions and paranoia that her elderly neighbors next door are part of a cult that wants to use her baby in one of their rituals still hasn’t lost any of its potency or relevancy. Beneath the surface, the film looks at the women’s liberation that was especially prevalent at the time of the film’s release. After Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) move into their new apartment they take the next step in their marriage and decide to have a baby.
From that moment on, Rosemary starts losing control of her body and independence as her choices are made for her by her husband, doctor, and neighbors (who’ve become her parental figures). Rosemary’s own thoughts and opinions are disregarded by those who know what’s best for her or have ulterior motives in using her body for selfish needs. Through manipulation and deceit she’s drugged and raped when she’s unconscious, after she becomes pregnant she’s told what doctor to see and what medication to take by that doctor even though it’s obvious that the “medication” isn’t making her feel better. Her body and sanity start deteriorating. When she finally puts two and two together and tells a different doctor about her fears and suspicions, that doctor assumes she’s delusional and calls her husband to come to get her.
Aside from the devil worshiping and cults, at its heart Rosemary’s Baby is about a young woman’s fight for personal independence in a time and place where women were fighting for their own liberation. The sixties saw the world and society change from its old ways and beliefs into a new dawn where people were fighting for their right to be viewed as equals besides their race and/or gender. A feminist piece that seems all the more ironic considering its director’s sexual abuse charges.
10. The Fly (1986)
Type of Subtext: The Whole Movie
Horror movies are known for their excellent and genius commentary on social issues like racism, classicism, sex, disease, politics, prejudice etc. Fear or more accurately fear of the unknown often brings out the worst in man which horror movies use to great effect with their storytelling. No one does this well than the master of body horror David Cronenberg. His films are always filled with subtext, social commentary and visual metaphors in a range of topics and the consequences of how they affect our bodies.
On the surface, The Fly is about a science experiment gone wrong. Eccentric scientist Seth Bundle (Jeff Goldblum) starts morphing into a fly-hybrid creature when his DNA accidentally mixes with that of a housefly’s during a teleportation experiment. His body starts slowly deteriorating as he becomes less human and more fly. Beneath the surface, it’s about the effects of terminal disease. David Cronenberg noted that he intended it as an analogy for terminal conditions like cancer or the aging process. Many critics and viewers saw the film as a metaphor for cultural AIDS which at the time was a growing epidemic and was in all of the headlines. It’s not hard to see why many people would see that parallel because of Seth’s romantic and sexual relationship with his science journalist girlfriend Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis).
The couple have a very sexual relationship which inspires Seth to make a breakthrough with his experiment. When his jealousy gets the better of him during a night of drinking he decides to teleport himself which eventually results in his fateful demise.