In this scene from the Matrix, Neo’s normal life is disrupted by an unexpected call from Morpheus, who informs him that the authorities are there to arrest him. Morpheus helps Neo escape the office, and directs him to a ledge where he can climb some scaffolding to safety. However, Neo gives up, and is then arrested.
You can watch the scene below: (password is ‘cinevenger’):
The progression of beats in this scene is depicted primarily through linear motif. Neo is shown as being boxed into his environment, and then led through the “rat maze” to a potential exit, but remains trapped and gives up. The scene opens with a dolly shot from behind a wall that takes us into Neo’s cubicle (‘A‘). Starting behind a wall and peeling it back to reveal the cubicle shows how Neo is encased in his environment. Once the camera settles, the “bite” of wall on the right creates a sub-frame (a rectangle) within the full frame. Within that frame, all of the production design is exclusively cubes. So, it’s essentially cubes within cubes within the biggest cube (the frame). (Also, side note: it may be easy to dismiss the rectangular container of the frame as always existing, but as filmmakers, we regularly take steps to make it vanish, the most famous instance probably being the Star Destroyer passing overhead in “Star Wars”). All of this cube business is about showing us how Neo’s “normal” existence is constricting and limiting, i.e. “boxed in.” This is directly related to his emotional journey of the entire film, which is his need to become the master of his own life (i.e. “break out of the box,” which is first depicted as the office, then the Matrix itself, and finally, his own mind: at the end of the film, Neo’s transcendence of the physical limitations that his mind places on the Matrix becomes the ultimate box-breakout).
The first disruption to this linear motif happens when the phone rings, and we cut to a low angle rack focus shot from Neo’s face to the phone (‘C‘). The vertical and horizontal lines of the cube motif have been rotated (and thereby replaced) with aggressive diagonals in Neo’s background, which signal the phone as a disruptive force to his “normal” existence. The extreme low angle reinforces the same idea; the previous shots, all angles of relatively “normal” height, are disrupted by this new extreme low angle. Finally, this is also reinforced by the rack focus; the world was previously portrayed as being completely flat: ‘A‘ and ‘B‘ are devoid of depth cues. The rack focus, a visual depth cue, shows us how the phone could lead to a new depth that disrupts the normalcy of Neo’s life.
A jarringly fast dolly shot from the previously seen medium composition (‘B‘) to a new composition (‘D‘) introduces an element of danger into Neo’s “normal” existance. The speed of the dolly move gives us a sense of the immediacy that Morpheus’ call has brought into this normally mundane environment. Moreover, the camera comes to rest in a new composition that includes a large area of darkness on the left of frame. This cavernous black area (in contrast to the previously low contrast image) shows the surreptitious and dangerous nature of Morpheus’ call.
At this point in the scene, from a geography perspective, we have only seen the inside of Neo’s cubicle. The next composition (‘E‘) introduces the idea of the office as a rat maze, which is critical to the rest of the scene. Specifically, the way in which the environment cuts off the bodes of the agents, and only allows us to see their heads through several more layers of environment and background characters, gives us a sense of the physical obstacles separating the two. This may seem obvious and intuitive, but it’s a very specific and effective choice made by the filmmakers. If the agents had been shown full body, without any obstacles between them and the camera, we would have gotten the sense that the agents could just run over and easily grab Neo. This would have undermined the tension of the next several shots, where Morpheus guides Neo to temporary safety as the agents wind through the maze.
A low angle dolly shot of the agents approach (‘F‘) again turns the previous horizontals and verticals of the office into aggressive diagonals, giving us a new sense of danger in the previously mundane environment. In this low angle, looking up at the domineering agents, they seem to forcibly push the camera backwards, which gives us a sense of their power, danger, and momentum. This is in total contrast to a new high angle on Neo (‘G‘), which pins him into the office space, portraying him as trapped. Note that this angle too has abandoned the previous horizontals in favor of more aggressive diagonals. These two angles are working in unison–the danger and momentum of the shot of approaching agents, contrasted with the hopelessly stationary high angle of Neo pinned in the office. This not only works to illustrate the peril Neo is in, but also to make us “buy” that he feels absolutely compelled to go along with Morpheus’ instructions, despite that what Morpehus is telling him to do is “insane,” by his own admission later in the scene.
In a medium close-up of Neo (‘H‘) we see a much contrastier image than we have seen so far in this scene, which again serves to signal danger, and the tonal shift from mundane office environment to a place of danger. This angle pans over to reveal a medium shot of two agents that leave opposite sides of the frame (‘J‘). This is significant in that it builds tension in a very elementary way: when Neo gets up to continue his attempt at escape, he will inevitably have to exit screen right or left, and because we have now seen these agents leave opposite sides of the frame, we understand that no matter which way Neo goes, there will be danger. Also, the way in which the agents are shown compositionally as mirror images of each other (spaced evenly in the frame, and exiting frame simultaneously) gives a sense of their robotic, artificial nature (even though this idea hasn’t been directly or literally told to the audience yet).
When Neo makes it to the office, the prior beat of “escape through a dangerous rat maze” evaporates. The diagonal lines and kinetic camera moves are replaced with the previous cube motif, and the the previous feeling of being trapped returns. When Neo enters the office, we see a medium shot of him (‘K‘) which pans from the door, to the window, back to the door, and then follows him as he walks to the window. As part of this long panning shot, we again see Neo boxed in by cubic shapes, specifically in ‘L‘, which shows him inside a box drawn by the lines of the architecture, with even more cubes in his background. Also, holding with him in this shot and allowing us to experience his assessment of the entire room without cutting away heightens the sense of being trapped. This is an idea that has been explored before, notably in the film “Irreversable” in which the viewer witnesses an atrocious assault for over eight minutes of uninterrupted shot. The idea is that cutting away is a form of escape, so forcing us watch a character struggle to break away from their environment without cutting can heighten the sense of being confined or restrained. We get a little bit of that in ‘K‘ and ‘L‘, but also in a subsequent shot ‘M‘, which booms up from a closeup of Neo to the street below (‘N‘). We also get a similar feeling from another closeup of Neo (‘P‘) that booms up to an overhead wide of the street (‘Q‘). By moving the camera from Neo to the street instead of cutting, we get a stronger sense of his imprisonment, and his inability to “cut away” from his cage. Also significant about this angle is the return of the aggressive diagonal linear motif in signaling elements of danger.
The linear motif of this scene, horizontals vs. diagonals and placing Neo within cubes, is actually introduced in the previous scene, and continues in the suqsequnet scene, so I would suggest viewing those as well if you haven’t seen this movie in a while.
In final entry about “The Matrix” I will be looking at the color palette which spans the entire film.
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