Creed and the Subtle Build of Stakes

I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Creed last night, and immediately started thinking about what a remarkable film it is. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because the inimitable Grant Watson has already written the best review of the film you’re going to see. So good, in fact, that I immediately went back and re-watched bits of the film that he talks about so I could appreciate them all over again.

But from a writing point of view, I do have things to add, because there are things that Creed does that are worth learning from.

In this case, it’s a film of enormously subtlety, with a script of enormous subtlety. It isn’t afraid to set things up, then let them pay off without you noticing.

Case in point: There is a scene, early in the first act, where our protagonist Adonis Johnson tells his mother, Mary-Anne Creed, that he plans to be a full-time boxer. She immediately tries to talk him out of it. “Do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs because he couldn’t walk?” she asks. “How many times I had to wipe his ass, because he couldn’t use his hands?”

It seems like a throw-away series of question, three seconds of dialogue that demonstrates the dangers of boxing and establishing the stakes. And they do that, admirably, but they also do more, because both of those questions and the way they are phrased set up stakes for things that happen later in the film in ways you’re not even thinking about as a regular audience member, because they immediately connect Adonis Johnson to the two most important people he meets in the second act.

The first question – do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs – is all about Mary-Ann Creed’s history with her husband. It’s a warning, yes, but it’s also a testament to the connection between her and her husband. It’s about the past, and shared experience, and one that only happens because the two of them are bonded.

Then the second act of the film introduces our B-Plot: the beginning of a surrogate father-and-son relationship between Adonis Johnson and an aging Rocky Balboa. And while the thing that lays Rocky low in this story isn’t boxing, there is a particularly loaded moment in the finale that involves Johnson carrying his father figure up a flight of stairs, and it’s incredible.

The film never hits you over the head with this. It doesn’t actually care if you notice or not, ‘cause that stair scene will make you feel if you’ve got a goddamn heart of stone, but the resonance sings through the movie.

The second question – about losing the use of his hands – proves to be just as big a set-up. One of the first people Johnson meets when he hits Philadelphia is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a young musician with a degenerative hearing condition that will eventually take her hearing. She explains it during the pair’s first not-really-a-date, teaching Johnson the one piece of sign language she well and truly remembers in preparation for the date. Johnson mimics the sign, and they bond, the whole love-interest vibe sealed.

And it’s a beautiful moment, because even though the film never touches on it again, the threat of what losing his hands could really mean for Adonis Johnson’s future is immediately contextualised and given an external metaphor.Of course, that metaphor is also a musician committed to following her dreams today, before the inevitable happens,which makes her simultaneously a warning and a cheerleader urging the plot forward.

I’ve got an incredible amount of admiration for the layers in this film. Now either of these things would have been unbearable if they had attention called towards them. It would have seemed schmaltzy and sentimental, drawing away from the other parts of the film.

But because they are inserted into the script, and used with a deft hand, the viewer is free to make the connections themselves and lose nothing if they do not. It’s a little thing that pays off if you choose to do a closer reading, and it shows the level of control and craft that’s gone into every aspect of the film.

It’s a technique worth stealing, when you get the chance.

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