Rachelhood: Batman, Boyhood, and Suspension of Disbelief

What’s more remarkable: “Boyhood” using the same actors for the same characters over 12 years, or us accepting all of those instances where different actors play the same character?

Boyhood, as you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, is a remarkable film that uses the same set of actors over 12 years to tell a touching coming-of-age story. This is both an incredible technical and artistic achievement, and the movie deserves all of the praise that’s been heaped upon it.

But isn’t it also impressive that when the opposite happens–when different actors play the same character–we are so readily accepting of this? That seeing a character’s appearance change from movie to movie, or within the same movie, doesn’t shatter our suspension of disbelief?

To illustrate this, I cut together a parody of the Boyhood trailer using Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who both played the character Rachel Dawes in Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies. This raised a few eyebrows at the time, and may have bothered some people a bit, but the vast majority of us barely gave it any thought. Isn’t that remarkable?

I see this phenomenon as a great example of the power of the artform to suspend an audience’s disbelief and get them to accept things at something other than face value. In many ways, we treat the movie screen as a perfectly transparent window into a different world, particularly when a movie purports itself to be “gritty” and “realistic,” as opposed to abstract or cartoonish. When we see Batman punch a guy in the face, we register that as an actual punch to the face, not as a carefully choreographed stunt. When we see the Batmobile crush a police car, we register that as actual car-on-car violence, not as a collection of models and computer graphics arranged to depict a crash.

But when we see two different actors play the same character, as we do with Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, we think little of it. The characters in the movie think nothing of it. No one cares. Thanks to the power of cinematic persuasion, we suspend our disbelief and move on.

If this is the case–that we’re able to accept a large amount of latitude in the change of appearances of individual characters while still accepting them as the same characters–then why are we so impressed with Boyhood’s achievement of using the same actors to portray all of the characters? It does demands less suspension of disbelief, in the same way that CGI Caesar in the modern Planet of the Apes movies demands less suspension of disbelief than his suit-and-mask ape predecessors.

But leaving it at that reduces Boyhood‘s achievement to a mere “special effect,” which feels inadequate. Boyhood is an unusual movie in that its meta-narrative, which revolves heavily around the casting continuity “special effect,” is almost equally as important as the narrative itself. When you go to see Boyhood, you’re not just watching Mason grow up on screen. You’re also watching actor and actual human being Ellar Coltrane grow up. Clearly, nothing of that sort is going on in the Batman movies; no one shows up at the multiplex for a meta-narrative of an actor struggling to find her place in a sprawling, male-dominated superhero epic.

All that is to say that Boyhood is a singular, unique achievement in filmmaking and storytelling, rather than some sort of advancement in the technical craft of filmmaking that can be repeated to lessen the audience’s need to suspend disbelief. Actor-swapping and old-age makeup haven’t been made obsolete or any more undesirable than they were to begin with. Audiences won’t revolt over the next casting change in a movie franchise based on some new standard set by Boyhood. Setting Boyhood and the Nolan Batman movies side-by-side was just my clever way of making this point while having some fun at the same time.

11 Comments on “Rachelhood: Batman, Boyhood, and Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. mezdef #

    Linklater (all hail) is something of a poster-boy for this kind of thing. The ‘Before’ trilogy has been achieving a similar effect for the last decade or so to—in my opinion—great success.

    So I’d like to throw a few properties out there for consideration on this topic:

    1. James Bond, the longest (?) running movie franchise, which also routinely changes it’s actor.

    2. Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent, Star Trek) which does the same thing, but usually between seasons.

    3. The two Tron movies, especially the latest one in which we are treated to ‘CGI Young Jeff Bridges’ in favor of another actor etc.

    4. Indiana Jones 4 and Diehard 4 & 5, in which ‘young’ versions of the characters are introduced in an attempt to bring the series forward for a new generation (presumably, but really who knows what’s going on there).

    The example Mark points to in the article (Nolan Batman 1 & 2) works, I think because the characters (thanks to the actors) occupy much the same place with subtle shifts in tone and style to match the tonal difference between the two movies. It also helps that they look *somewhat* similar, and give very little reason for the audience to complain.


  2. Kyu #

    Amusing, but this is a little bit of a false comparison. Recasting Rachel in between films doesn’t bother me because, while somewhat serialized, the Nolan Batman films are individual movies. While I am watching The Dark Knight, Rachel looks and acts like Maggie Gyllenhaal. When I’m watching Batman Begins, she’s Katie Holmes. Both make sense in context and so don’t require a lot of mental effort to suspend disbelief. (I actually found this shift much less annoying than the switch from Terence Howard to Don Cheadle between Iron Man 1 and 2, because the latter switch is jokingly called attention to within the film itself.)

    The more interesting question is how we process two actors in the same role in a single film. The way Batman Begins does this is typical: a child actress portrays Rachel as a young girl in the film’s opening, and then Katie Holmes assumes the role for the rest of the movie. From a narrative perspective, this is meant to show us that Rachel has been Bruce’s friend for a very long time, lending the adult relationship portrayed by Holmes and Bale greater weight and intimacy.

    However, I would argue that this standard practice is actually less effective than it should be. On the simplest level, cinema is about what we see and hear. We attach emotional qualities to characters based on their visual and auditory appearance–an attachment that is threatened or even broken when that appearance changes. This can be deliberate–for example, Travis Bickle’s new haircut in Taxi Driver works to disturb and distance us from a character we had previously identified with and grown used to. Or it can be an unfortunate accident, as when Cameron’s Avatar throws away much of the attachments we’ve built for the protagonist when he becomes a tall, blue alien with little physical resemblance to the original actor. (A more Dawes-like example in a more serialized trilogy is the recasting of the Oracle for the third Matrix film, sadly necessitated by the original actress’s death. In my opinion, because of this switch, the Oracle’s interactions with Neo in Revolutions largely lack the emotionality one would expect would have been built up by repeated scenes between the two characters over the course of the previous two films.)

    You can see where I’m going with this. When you switch from one actor to another in order to convey the passage of time–for instance, from the child actress to Katie Holmes in Batman Begins–the emotionality that we naturally attach to the first actor’s appearance does not easily transfer over. The process functions, but it is intellectualized–I have to remind myself that this Assistant District Attorney was once the little girl playing games with Bruce Wayne. It’s a forced connection, felt in the head rather than the gut. (This notion of emotionality being tied to appearance is, I think, one reason why filmmakers will try and find actors for the same role who resemble one another, and sometimes use similar costuming, sets, or even camera angles to reinforce the connection between the two performers.)

    Boyhood sidesteps this problem entirely. When teenaged Mason reacts to a certain situation that mirrors one that child Mason went through, the connection between the two is not intellectualized at all. It’s immediate and powerful. We’ve formed certain attachments to young Mason, we’ve watched him age, and we understand that we are seeing the same individual throughout. We get on an instinctive level that the same character experienced both events years apart. The emotional attachments have carried with him over that period of time, and there is no need for us to remind ourselves consciously of anything. It simply works, to an extent that no film featuring multiple actors in the same role can ever match.

    (For another example of Boyhood’s technique in action, look no further than the Harry Potter films, which watched its young leads grow up over the course of about a decade. This lends an uncommon power to the last few films in the series–instinctively we recognize that the brave, heroic Radcliffe at the end of the series was once the small, frightened Radcliffe of the first film. The Harry Potter films are generally a source of fascination on the subject, since in addition to the Boyhood technique, they also feature a character recast between movies (Dumbledore is portrayed by Richard Harris in the first two movies and then by Sir Michael Gambon in the rest) and a number of child actors doubling existing adult roles, including Dumbledore again and Voldemort/Tom Riddle.)


    • BastionofLight #

      In the Batman Begins example, could the emotional through-line exist if young Rachel Dawes was played by a young Katie Holmes, and would that depend upon how similar she looks at both ages?


    • Connor Moran #

      The breaking of the emotional connection the audience has with a character when the actor changes brings to my mind the character of Octavian in the TV series Rome. Young Octavian is a favorite in my circle and while he is cold and ruthless even as a child he is so charming we loved him. Then partway through season 2 the actor changes as the character ages and he goes from one of the most sympathetic to least sympathetic characters. Now, I’m sure the decision is one that was primarily for practical reasons, but it’s not 100% clear that’s a bug not a feature. At that point in the story the character of Octavian switches largely from being a protagonist to being a powerful force that hampers the other character. Maybe that switch would be more potent if we saw the same person fall with all of our emotional attachment, but then again maybe it would be too tough of a cognitive dissonance to see the same person in both roles.


  3. Anton Sirius #

    There are movies that have multiple actors play the same character within the same film, which might be a more interesting point of comparison to Boyhood in terms of suspension of disbelief – Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire is probably the most famous arthouse example, with Solondz’s Palindromes a more recent film using the same ‘trick’, while Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus found a fairly clever justification for replacing Heath Ledger in certain scenes.


  4. Mike #

    Nolan Batman franchise were mediocre films, and possible bad Batman films. This was not a good series.

    And when they change actors, it is very noticeable and bothersome. Make an off hand comment that the character got hit in the face. ANYTHING is better than not addressing it – it’s as if they’re saying “the audience is too stupid or not important enough to even try to come up with a reason.”


  5. Samuel Segrist #

    I disagree entirely with the presumptuousness of this statement: “But when we see two different actors play the same character, as we do with Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, we think little of it…No one cares. Thanks to the power of cinematic persuasion, we suspend our disbelief and move on.”

    When it comes to franchises and trilogies, for me, it is always preferable to have the same actors play the roles. It only decreases the need for the suspension of disbelief. When I saw TDK, celebrity infotainment and gossip related to Holmes’s marriage to Tom Cruise was in the back of my mind. Even though she’s a character I truthfully didn’t care that much about, it’s jarring to see a new character in the same role. I preferred Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role to the degree that I wished she had been cast for Batman Begins instead.

    I was so glad that The Hobbit films got made while Ian McKellen is still alive. Mark, do you really think any LotR film fan would “think little of it” and “not care” if someone else had to play Gandalf? Or is that different because the role of Gandalf is so much more important than the love interest of the Nolan Batman films? Is there a sliding scale for replaceability?

    What about the first five seasons of Mad Men where a different child actor was used to play Bobby Draper? Four different actors have played the little tyke. I always thought this was a clever way to show that Don as the Ad Man cares so little for his family that his son is changing and he doesn’t even notice. Obviously, for Don to comment on it–something similar to the woeful scripting of Iron Man 2–would be violating a normal believability principle of cinema, but it was a side benefit of the recasting.

    I realize films are huge productions and death, contracts, and all kinds of screwy stuff can happen, but more often than not, it is better to keep the same actors in the same roles until there is an appropriate narrative moment to replace them.


  6. Gilliflower #

    I do agree with the premise of the post, but I would like to add a caveat. Sometimes a change of actors can bother us, or at least it has me. Mostly, the mechanism you described above has worked in me exactly as you have laid it out, but there have been a few notable exceptions. For example, I liked the Jennifer Ehles/Colin Firth mini series of Pride and Prejudice so much that when I saw the Kira Knightly/Matt MacFayden version years later, it took me a good 30 minutes of dealing with the “what is thiiiiss?” feeling before I could move on. Also, I had the same reaction with The character switch from Richard Harris to Michael Gambon’s Dumbedore in the Harry Potter films. Perhaps the importance of a character or the strength of a portrayal of a role figures into the calculus of our suspension of disbelief, as well.


  7. Wenyip #

    I think that, for most people, a change of actors between films or in different series of a TV show is less about suspension of disbelief and more a simple matter of forgetfulness. Batman Begins came out in 2005, The Dark Knight in 2008. The average viewer (yes, him) might have seen the first film at the cinema the first time, maybe caught it on TV later. But probably there was a long time enough between watching each of them that you wouldn’t even notice that it was a different actor. It was certainly that way for me with Dumbledore, for instance.

    When someone, especially a fan, rewatches a franchise or TV show after it’s finished, however, the time period tends to be much, much shorter. If you watch the Dark Knight Trilogy on consecutive (dark) nights, the different actors stand out much more. I’ve recently been watching Jeeves and Wooster (with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry), and it’s painfully obvious when Madelaine Basset is portrayed by 3 different actors and Aunt Dahlia by 4. But I suspect that, with a year between each season at the time, I’d barely have noticed.

    I think it’s important to bear the difference in mind, as compared to having different actors playing the same role in the same movie. That is what definitely has to occasion a suspension of disbelief.


  8. Grumpy #

    So Katie Holmes & Maggie Gyllenhaal are this century’s Dick York & Dick Sargent. (Did anyone think to create a parody called “Darrenhood”?)

    The comment, “Boyhood is an unusual movie in that its meta-narrative… is almost equally as important as the narrative itself,” reminds me of the criticism of “Russian Ark.” In his review, Roger Ebert said (and I’m paraphrasing) that its all-in-one-take stunt was interesting, but he was satisfied with the content by itself. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/russian-ark-2003


    • Grumpy #

      “Every film is a documentary of its actors.” –Jean-Luc Godard

      This quote is perhaps most relevant to any discussion of “Boyhood,” yet I never encountered it until today, in a retrospective of Robin Williams’ dark, brooding roles.


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