For the purposes of this piece, a kill is considered what happens when one character actively takes the life of another. No leaving someone to die, no ordering someone killed (though these facets may get explored in a later piece), this is to explore someone who takes action themselves to end another’s life.
I’m going to try and avoid following any particular acting style here, regarding this less as a step-by-step process and more of a list of things worth keeping in mind. We’re also focusing on the act instead of the person to break away from both the idea that a “killer” is a certain type of person as opposed to someone who committed an action, as well as the rigid sheep/sheepdog/wolf categories of sheepdog theory.
A cinematic or theatrical kill consists of four parts: The decision, the circumstance, the action effects, and the aftermath effects.
Based on decision, there are three kinds of kills: A rational kill, an instinctual kill, and anundecided kill.
In a rational kill, the killer actively and consciously considers the circumstances surrounding the kill before making the decision. The killer might not consider all circumstances, and might or might not consider them very carefully, but the killer will make such considerations before the decision to kill is made.
A rational kill that is unlawful would be considered a premeditated murder.
Theatrical examples: Hamlet’s killing of Claudius, Clarence’s murder from Richard III
In an Instinctual kill, the decision happens as a direct result of a particular stimuli, with no conscious consideration leading up to the decision and subsequent action. If considered unlawful, an Instinctual kill would be considered 2nd-degree murder or a “crime of passion.”
Keep in mind that a kill that happens quickly is not an Instinctual Kill by default. Say a commando enters a building with rules of engagement to kill any armed person not a member of their team, then an armed man jumps out of the closet and the commando shoots and kills him. Despite its speed, it is considered a rational kill, as there is significant conscious thought before the decision.
Theatrical examples: Romeo’s killing of Tybalt. (1)
In an Undecided kill, the decision is either not made at all or made to kill someone besides the intended victim. In other words, an accidental or negligent kill.
Theatrical examples: Hamlet’s killing of Laertes, Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio(2), any number of “taking a bullet for someone else” scenarios.
Circumstances will sound familiar to the dramaturgically inclined among us. It examines a lot of the same cultural, religious, and socioeconomic ground that happens in the analysis of any scripted world. But Circumstances here revolve around reactions to the kill.
Tangible rewards and punishments
These are the various consequences of a kill: the legal process including fines, jail terms, and likelihood of arrest and conviction, what government officials, religious authorities, and the character’s employer are likely to do, and the economic ramifications (legal defense, loss of employment and the like) of all of the above are. This also includes rewards such as medals, bounties, and commendations.
Intangible rewards and punishments
Intangibles fall under unofficial, individual reactions. How would the character’s family, romantic interests, coworkers, and passersby react in response to the killing? Would the kill increase or decrease their social status? reputation? sexual attractiveness?
The character’s thoughts
The character’s own thoughts come into play with what they believe concerning the kill they consider. Bear in mind A) what the character would or would not admit to another, or even themselves, B) what they believe the result of the kill would be, regardless of what the more likely scenario actually is and C) what the character hasn’t considered in regards to their own opinion. After all, how many people sit down and seriously contemplate how they feel about killing someone?
These thoughts can and often do intertwine with other circumstances mentioned. Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius at prayer may be considered an intangible reward/punishment (what the predominant faith believes will become of Claudius’ soul should he die in a state of grace), but it also stems from Hamlet’s personal desire to see Claudius experience prolonged suffering as opposed to simply die at his hands.
general vs specific
When looking at all of the above, bear in mind the difference between a kill in general terms and the specific kill committed by the character. Relationship between killer and killed, social status of killer and killed, method used, and cause to take deadly action all influence the circumstances surrounding the kill.
THE ACTION EFFECTS
Action effects cover the physiological state of the character leading up to, during, and immediately after the kill. Current science does not know why certain effects happen to certain people and not to others. What is known is that the effects shown below do happen on a frequent basis.
((Side note: the Color Condition Code
I could write a whole piece just on the possible theatrical applications of the color code(and might). In a killogical sense, the code developed by Cooper and expanded on by Grossman tracks a state of readiness, with accompanying tracking of heart rate, blood pressure, and motor coordination.
Plot the character’s condition using the code through the entire sequence that features the kill. Keep in mind that the character does not have to follow a linear path from white to yellow to orange and so on. The character may or may not skip steps altogether, or enter the scene in a different condition than usual. Tracking the character’s condition through the act of the killing while exploring the action effects can give us a rough framework for the character’s physiological and psychological state during that time frame. ))
Time dilation is when the character’s perception of time alters during a combat situation. Time may seem to speed up, slow down, or both.
Cinematically, we’re most commonly accustomed to time dilation in the form of slow motion. Diegetic time dilation is rarely shown explicitly, but it does happen (3).
Having experienced this one myself, my pet theory on time dilation is that the sensory input comes in too fast for the brain to process, resulting in the fighter’s perception of time slowing down. This is similar to a high-speed camera taking many more frames per second than normal, which becomes a slow-motion shot when played back. The fighter may well be moving extremely fast, but will experience it in slow motion until processing catches up to input.
Going about in our day-to-day lives, our bodies tune out a lot of our sensory input to prevent our minds from being overloaded with the nuances of what is around us. This is aided by modern marketing’s constant fight over the attention of consumers, which attempt to drown each other out even as people actively or otherwise tune their messages out as well.
In a deadly encounter, the human body opens up the senses in an attempt to gain as much input as possible, whether from the viewpoint of a predator (what bit of information will let me catch lunch?) or prey (what bit of environmental knowledge will keep me from becoming lunch?). The trouble with this is that the little-used instincts of the body now have to decide and emphasize what it thinks is important.
The results can be selective hearing (not hearing gunfire while hearing the ratcheting sound of a gun’s action and the clinking of brass hitting the ground), selective vision (not seeing the face of an opponent, but seeing their weapon hand detailed enough to know the length of the fingernails and engravings on finger rings, visual distortions (especially tunnel vision), and imbalanced reaction to touch (ignoring serious wounds while reacting to simple cuts and bruises).
THE AFTERMATH EFFECTS
Aftermath effects follow anywhere from the first few moments to several months or more following a kill.
The important thing to keep in mind when exploring aftermath effects is looking at whether such effects are the result of the kill itself, or the result of surrounding circumstances (sustained wounds, excess adrenaline, an arrest or detainment, deaths of companions in the same scene, ect).
As a result of the altered senses described in combat effects, it isn’t unusual for someone experiencing a life-or-death fight to have gaps in their memory, especially if specific aspects are looked for. It would easily be possible for someone to not remember the face of someone who wounded them, but remember what their hands or weapon looked like. Sequence of events, number of shots fired, and any dialogue may be remembered differently or even forgotten by a character.
Interactions with others
The heightened sense of readiness and awareness of the killing character do not die with the one killed. Depending on the circumstances, the character may remain in a high color code condition (red, black, or gray) for several minutes following a kill.
Following the scene, the character’s interactions will likely be colored by the circumstances of the kill. How the character chooses to continue their life will govern their behavior to a large extent.
Keep in mind that there is a major difference between the character coming to terms with their kill and themselves, and the character coming to terms with the reactions of others to that kill. A character who is perfectly content with the kill they made within their own mind may still be reticent in discussing it among colleagues, friends, and family members. They may also face various social pressure to speak of the kill in certain ways as opposed to others.
Fatigue and sleep
Combat is a physically intense activity. Prolonged fighting, especially in lethal scenarios, can easily lead to exhaustion. Once a character’s body is convinced that the need to keep in a fighting state is over, heavy fatigue is extremely common, and sleep comes easily (which in some circumstances can be its own danger).
Sleep reactions in the days and months following a kill are most commonly depicted in two forms. The first is a “light sleeper” mentality, when the character maintains a certain state of readiness while sleeping, the better to react if another deadly encounter happens. The second are the adverse reactions of insomnia and nightmares.
Appetite and Libido
Evolutionary biology claims that human beings have four main drives: the need to fight, flee, feed, and fuck, respectively. While it’s not uncommon for a lack of appetite for food or sex to follow a deadly encounter (particularly ones that overwhelmingly disturb the character), it may be even more common for a character in the aftermath of a killing to crave both.
As far as food goes, the high-intensity nature of combat can easily be considered to drive up the metabolism as well as the appetite. This is especially true if the character purged themselves (from either end) before, during, or after the kill.
As far as sex is concerned, “combat as an aphrodisiac” may well join the pile of whole new articles I need to write. Some may consider it an evolutionary impulse: an instinct to breed before one dies. For other characters, it may be a need for intimacy following a traumatic event. And for others, it may be a need to burn off excess energy following their hyped-up state.
((A side note on PTSD: Once more, the subject for a whole ‘nother article. But as someone who has experienced combat but has never had PTSD, I have intentionally excluded its effects in this article. Aside from my own personal inexperience, I have been rather disturbed by the use of PTSD as a cheap source of drama in the past decade or so of cinema. After seeing comrades experience it and having been repeatedly tested for it, I can honestly say that medical science has only scratched the surface of what PTSD is and how it affects trauma survivors. With our understanding of what it exactly it is so premature, we do our survivors grave injustice by depicting it as a one-note way to raise dramatic stakes. They deserve better, and so do our audiences.))
Without going on for more pages than I care to think of, this is a rough guideline to consider when depicting a character’s kill. There are no real cut-and-dried solutions, only ideas from what has come before.
What we remember from characters is what we remember from people: the things that make them unique in how they go through the world: The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they kiss. The way one kills is as unique as the rest of their actions, and should be examined accordingly.
(1)Depending on interpretation, this can be argued, as Romeo does have time to speak, which implies time to think. But the short time frame of the scene combined with Romeo’s “either thou, or I, or both must go with him” convinces me that nothing in Romeo’s thoughts is actually considering the ramifications of killing Tybalt, making the kill itself an Instinctual one.
(2)Varies by interpretation. In this instance, I’m going to take Mercutio’s line “I was hurt under your arm” and roll with it as a killing blow intended for Romeo that catches Mercutio instead.
(3) Most notably in the recent movie Dredd, where the lead villain deals in a drug that alters the user’s perception of time.