Warning: Mild spoilers. Mild in the sense that the post reveals that character development does indeed happen and adventures do indeed ensue. Any details discussed could be picked up in a trailer.
Walter Mitty’s real secret is that he was never supposed to change for the better. Columbus’ own James Thurber wrote a short story (1939), nothing more than a character sketch really, about a pitiable dreamer named Walter Mitty. In the 5-page story (I mention the number of pages only to give you all the strength to read it) Walter Mitty never changes at all. He remains an ineffectual, impotent man with the grandest of dreams.
This characterization must have struck a nerve; according to my extensive research, this brief story is one of Thurber’s most popular and is seen as a prototypical Thurber-story. It also went on to be adapted to the screen in 1947, adding, among other things, character development. Ben Stiller, in turn, remade the movie last year. Adding, among other things, a ton of social-media references.
The enduring allure of this character, Mitty, is that he’s an extreme version of what so many of us feel. We all have great dreams and hopes, but instead we’re stuck in the same job, anxiously awaiting the time of year when we can sit on the couch, eat nachos, and pin our entire emotional state on the performance of 19-year-old giants in football pads. (But really, I can’t wait.)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014) portrays this characterization in the usual ways: romantic and professional ineptitude. Nothing too exciting there, but how they visually characterize Mitty, and his change, is amazing. In fact, the first ten minutes pack enough visual punch to foreshadow everything that happens in the rest of the movie.
The film opens with Walter Mitty in his apartment trying to ask out a woman from work through eHarmony. Why not just ask her in real life? Mitty’s eHarmony counselor wonders the same thing. But even this hopelessly indirect signal of affection doesn’t work for Walter Mitty. The “wink” button is broken. Mitty’s stagnant life is encapsulated by this small moment, his frustrating attempt to press a stupid button. Our impression of this awful life is reinforced by the same monotonous blue-grey that fills his apartment. This color palette dominates the first parts of the movie in almost every other environment as well, especially his office at LIFE magazine.
The introductory scene is followed by the site of his first daydream: the train station. The mundanity of a morning’s commute and his strange, slow struggle with eHarmony’s site is interrupted by a scene ripped straight out of the action genre.
But let’s break the scene down a little more. The first shot centers him in the middle of a two-dimensional environment. Everything remotely interesting exists to the left or right; he can only possibly move to the left or right. It reminds me of those classic Sega Genesis games that existed in a world without depth. Only Sega rocked; Mitty’s life does not rock.
Walter Mitty is literally (and figuratively) missing an entire dimension to his life. But watch the scene again and notice how he suddenly moves in diagonal during his daydream. As he crashes into the window he moves through length, width, and depth simultaneously, breaking the barriers that once confined him. The added third dimension shatters his stagnant and flat existence. At this point, though, a multi-dimensional world is only possible in his fantasies.
The movie also radically shifts the color palette in this imagining. The color red explodes onto the screen. I mean, it actually explodes onto the screen. His love interest, Cheryl, then quickly runs up in–what else?–a red dress. Red is set up as the antithesis to Walter Mitty’s blue-grey existence. Red is the adventure and romance that he can’t quite reach.
Red’s symbolic importance carries through the rest of the film: Mitty flies to Europe on a red plane; the film riffs on The Matrix‘s decision between the truth (red pill) and comfort (blue pill) when Mitty has to choose between the only two rental cars at Greenland’s airport. He chooses the red one.
His time in Greenland includes the moment where he fully embraces the adventurous life. His chase after a helicopter preparing for take-off calls back to his introductory daydream. Once again Mitty moves across a diagonal space, only this time the adventure is real. The chase is shot in a series of 6 sharp cuts in 7 seconds: an extremely violent editing style that cues Walter Mitty’s sudden and total transformation. The violent cuts signify a sharp break between pre- and post-Helicopter Mitty. This editing style never resurfaces again, an omission that suggests the importance of the moment.
Mitty’s 2-dimensionality is non-existent throughout the rest of the film; what once was a prevalent camera angle disappears, and red continues to play a prominent role. Soon after he boards the helicopter he trades his blue-grey business outfit for a red sweater. And he of course climbs the Himalayas in a red coat. He has, put simply, found the adventure he’s always dreamed of.
What jazzes me about these details is that they aren’t meaningless nuggets one snobby artist includes for equally snobby viewers to pick up on. We feel these. We feel Walter Mitty’s flat existence, and we feel the sad monotony of blue-on-grey-on-blue everywhere around him.
After all, movies are nothing more than emotion-machines. Great storytellers know how to manipulate their audience to care and feel. They endow their characters with traits that make us want them to prevail and succeed, they take the protagonists through highs and lows in such a way that we cry and rejoice with them. And great storytellers fill their screens with visual details that affect how we feel. Fine workmanship is always something worth appreciating, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is filled with gorgeous and meaningful cinematography from credits to credits.