Sometimes the plot patterns in movies are obvious, and sometimes they are pointed out to us (ala the horror movie “rules” spelled out in Scream). But others are more subtle. Main character patterns can be even more difficult to discern. A closer examination, however, brings them to light.
The thriller movie is a good genre to begin pointing out character patterns. The main character in the thriller has a flaw, sometimes a serious flaw that he must work through during the movie. He will usually get advice from other characters, but in the end he finds the answer himself. He is often a victim of circumstances beyond his control, or so it appears. The ending of the regular thriller is typically both good and bad, but the main character in the psychological thriller does not usually fare well at the end. Nor do things work out for the character if he is unwilling (not unable) to work through his flaws. The regular thriller often ends with the main character saving himself, but the psychological thriller usually ends with him saving someone else.
Regular thrillers that exhibit this pattern include Mr. Brooks. Kevin Costner’s character’s flaw is not that he is a murderer but that he is conflicted about it. He vacillates through the movie between fighting his urges and giving in, further complicated by the introduction of the blackmailer and the problem with his daughter. At first, these seem like insurmountable problems. At the end, the conflict and the blackmailer are both taken care of in one fell swoop, presumably allowing Mr. Brooks to return to his life knowing what choice he must make. (Although he now worries about his daughter’s future tendencies, that worry does not seem to affect his decision about his own impulses.)
Saw II shows the character pattern of the guy who won’t work through his issues. While main character played by Donnie Walberg does finally show some genuine care for his son, it is while the son is absent, and Donnie won’t control his anger, which is what ultimately gets him his unhappy ending.
A psychological thriller with the character pattern is the recent Mirrors. Kiefer Sutherland is an alcoholic who has lost his job and is in danger of losing his family. He finds himself in the midst of a fight with a monster that can manifest itself anywhere there is a reflection, a force one cannot see or touch, much less defeat. He avoids the temptation to drink and uses his detective skills to find the answer to the mirrors’ riddle. While we don’t know if he is dead or not at the end, he is most definitely in the mirror world, but he sacrificed himself to save his family.
Even action movies demonstrate a character pattern, very similar to that of the character from the psychological thriller. Again, the main character here has flaws that he must work through by the end of the movie, but in this case, there is nearly always a positive end for the character. How he gets to that conclusion is the difference between the two types of movies. While the psychological thriller protagonist resolves his conflicts through intellectual means (such as Kiefer’s search through pictures and files), the action hero uses physical force. The action character also has a pattern of saving others and inspiring them to save themselves.
Die Hard is a good example of such a character pattern. Bruce Willis’ character has remained in New York while his family has moved to California, and he and his wife are together for just a few minutes before they begin to argue. He has to decide which is more important to him: his job or his wife. While one might say he does his job through the movie, his motivation is to save Holly. At the end, she is all he is looking for. As he leaves the building, the cop who had lost his confidence by shooting a kid he thought was armed shoots the remaining bad guy in order to save Bruce.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, and they are often the movies that we like the best because the surprise us. The Sixth Sense has Bruce Willis saving the boy as the boy saves him, and the ending is both good and bad since the boy and his relationship with his mother are mended, Bruce’s wife is presumably relieved of her depression, and Bruce is released from his limbo, but of course, Bruce is dead. In The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey (assuming you consider him to be the main character) is in it all for himself, not saving or inspiring anyone else.
But these are the exceptions. Knowing the rules doesn’t make watching a movie less entertaining, but it can make it a more interesting experience.