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Jaws, conflict and subtext

I was watching Jaws the other night and something about this scene really grabbed me. Here’s a quick recap of what had happened in the film up to this point:

Martin Brody and his family have just moved from New York to a New England beach town where Brody now serves as Police Chief. Despite a string of deadly shark attacks, the town’s Mayor brushes off Brody’s demands to close the beach, weighing tourism revenue over public safety. However, the real danger becomes unmistakable July 4th weekend when Brody’s son Michael, barely escapes a shark attack and goes into shock. This clip picks up with Brody, his wife, and their other son at the hospital.

The Hospital from Jaws

When Brody hands his wife their sleeping son and says, “Take him home”, she replies “Like back to New York?” She of course knows that he means to simply take him home and put him to bed. But she uses this opportunity to suggest her true desire to escape the situation and go back to their home in New York. She could have just said, “I want to go back home to New York.” But this could come off as confrontational and unsupportive. Instead, her acting choice to use a question expressed her desire without being forceful. When Brody replies, “No. Home here.” again she avoids confrontation by replying only with her eyes as they both take in the gravity of what he’s really saying: That he’s staying to face the shark. The dialogue could easily have gone something like this:

“Take him home.”
“But I don’t want to stay here. I want to go back home to New York.”
“No. I’m the Police Chief and I have a responsibility to protect these people.”
“Fine!” and she storms off.

Pretty dull right? We’d have conflict but the characters would feel shallow and boring. Yet, they did say all of these things in the subtext of their dialogue. Many movies have turned a likeable character into one you hope gets killed off by simply having them express a natural desire too bluntly, or too often. Not only is her character deepened by her approach, but she also shows us the depth of their relationship. Truly great acting!

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