by Will Ross
To date, the original Matrix film is arguably the summit of both Bill Pope and the Wachowski sisters’ careers as imageists. The film’s camera direction, lighting, and compositions brim with the best kind of pop-cinema inspiration, with even the most modest sequences offering much to admire. The film is packed with justly iconic moments — Morpheus’s sunglasses, Trinity breaking the glass (and implicitly the fourth wall), the moment when Neo plucks a floating bullet out of the air, among countless others — whose craft could easily merit their own post. My favourite shot in The Matrix doesn’t have quite the same glitzy showiness as so many of the movie’s other high points; I hope I can be forgiven for declaring a self-consciously arty and moody moment as the visual peak of a film that raised the bar for accessible pop moviemaking with its photographic bombast. But my favourite it is, and I’d like to deconstruct it to explain why.
Let’s run down the necessary dramatic context: Neo — who hasn’t yet been awakened from his simulated existence in a matrix designed to mollify all humanity while machines suck their juices out for battery power — is waiting for his contact, known only as Trinity. Neo internally understands that the world he lives in is somehow not the world as it really is or ought to be, that he does not fit, that he desperately wants answers but doesn’t know his own questions. So he waits at the agreed upon place, under an overpass, watching the pouring rain.
The shot makes clever use of several compartmentalized elements in order to achieve a complex expression of that dramatic situation within a simple frame. Let’s first consider the composition. The shot is a clear example of a frame within a frame, with Neo situated within a semi-circular arch in front of the wall of rain. Yet the image is even more sophisticated than that: not only does the frame-within-a-frame of Neo in the arch function coherently as its own separate image, the material surrounding Neo would survive the removal of that semi-circle. Here are visual examples to illustrate what I mean:
The “Tunnel” shot works as a spare, simple frame. Its concrete textures and soft, minimal lighting creates a sense of inevitability, foreboding, and tightly constructed oppression. The “Rain” image is much more emotionally tumultuous and personal, connecting a human silhouette to a complex textural experience (the water) that cannot be described in simple geometry. The falling water furthermore suggests a vast and oceanic internal state, and its bold blue-green colouration — along with the hints of red scattered throughout — contribute to its evocation of a subjective state. Only the reflections on the ground connect the two images (I’ve darkened them above to better illustrate my point), which are otherwise discrete and easily readable in and of themselves. The shot’s multi-layered construction invites us to consider it in part as two separate competing images. Such an approach yields narratively appropriate results: the oppressive, precise geometric image represents the world of the machines, which, from the shadows, encloses and subtly controls the emotional world of the humans represented by the inner frame.
We can further observe the overall shot’s lack of discernible depth — the walls of the tunnel are too indistinct to evoke distance, and the sheets of rain pouring off the walls of the overpass form a “wall” directly in front of Neo that prevents him from being able to “see” farther than himself. There is therefore a sense of immobility, of being “trapped” within a broader structure that cannot be seen or articulated, as well as a sense that the inner and outer image are inseparable, albeit distinct. It’s a rich metaphorical statement of Neo’s place in the world at the beginning of the film, but the final touch that makes it my favourite is yet to come.
Trinity’s car, its tail lights glowing red, violates the perfectly balanced ecosystem of the frame from the extreme foreground, violates the flattened z-axis, violates the hermetic and colourless space of the tunnel. It provides the means of escape for Neo, like a 2D character being introduced to the concept of 3D movement for the first time. It effectively revolutionizes the status quo of the frame.
How elegant is that? A single frame, its logic carefully worked out in each element of colour, light, and composition to describe one state, and then those elements thrown completely out of order by an invading element that reconfigures that state and throws the situation into tension. It’s an excellent example of how cinema can formally recontextualize itself in clever ways, wordlessly evoking a world of ideas in just a single four-second shot.