Story Shots: Setups and payoffs with Bullet Train

Hi All,

We’re back again with another Story Shot, this time featuring Brad Pitt’s recent action movie, Bullet Train. Bullet Train is about an unlucky assassin named Ladybug (Pitt) who is trying (unsuccessfully) to change his ways on a hitman-packed bullet train. The story revolves around their chaotic dance within the train’s tight quarters, predominantly as they try to chase the money-stuffed briefcase McGuffin–and each other–without getting murdered. The film is based on a Japanese book by Kotaro Isaka called Maria Beetle, and feels like a more chaotic, over-the-top version of an early Guy Ritchie movie. Full disclosure, it is deservedly rated R for violence and language, so if you don’t like gratuitous amounts of either (which will not come up in this post in great detail), this movie is not for you. Note: Major spoilers ahead.

Now, there are a lot of different things one could study about this movie. It’s a great example of how settings can help determine the limitations and plot of your story, how to use characters as reflections of theme, and even how to weave multiple storylines and characters together. However, the best thing I think this movie can teach is setup and payoff.

Setups and payoffs are all about introducing story elements (ideally in an at least somewhat subtle fashion) and then later using those elements to satisfying effect. It’s a concept tightly entwined with foreshadowing, the most common example of which is probably Chekov’s gun, a principle wherein anything included in a story must have a purpose within it. I.e. If you show a gun on the mantlepiece early on (setup), it better go off later (payoff).

Bullet Train is a master class in this idea. I’ll give a few examples:

  • A throwaway line in the opening scene becomes the key to a major revelation later in the movie.
  • A news report about a missing snake in an early hospital scene pays off not only within the plot but also in relation to past events and flashbacks.
  • The freight of a specific truck provides catharsis after a character’s death.
  • A villain is successfully killed by a booby-trapped weapon that is meant to kill them, but in an ironic way.

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list. This movie is rife with clever details, hints, and foreshadowing. But one thing I wanted to point out about these specific examples is how versatile they are. In the above examples, you see payoffs affecting the plot’s action, character motivations, revelations, flashbacks, the reader and characters’ emotional experience and release, irony, and theme. From four examples.

Now, I could go on with a longer list of more examples, but as that would be both way too long and not particularly helpful, we’ll focus instead on just one: the water bottle. Note, it’s about to get real spoilery in here.

In the movie, there is a Fiji water bottle. It belongs to one of the assassins, Lemon. At one point in the movie, Ladybug knocks Lemon out and then puts sleeping powder (also setup early in the movie, by the way) in the bottle. Later, Lemon drinks it while talking to another antagonist, Prince, before falling asleep mid-murder. Prince shoots Lemon, who is then presumed dead by all, including by his “twin” Tangerine. Tangerine catches up with Prince (he realizes who she is via a different setup), and tries to kill her. Ladybug, not knowing she supposedly killed Lemon, defends her, instead killing Tangerine before he can reveal her secret. Only then, in a Romeo and Juliet level twist, it’s revelated that Lemon is actually alive (on account of the bullet-proof vest he told Tangerine he wasn’t wearing). He goes on to kill Prince later in the movie by hitting her with a truck full of, you guessed it, tangerines.

Why it works

The reason the setups in this movie are so effective is because they are all multi-purpose. As an example, the water bottle is used in the following ways:

  • As a practical prop for a character who is thirsty
  • As a payoff for the sleeping powder
  • As a source of tension while we watch an unknowing Lemon drink a bottle we know is poisoned
  • As a source of grief, confusion, and misunderstanding
  • As a plot driver for his downfall/imprisonment, the death of his brother, and his revenge
  • As a reflection of the theme (it is later revealed he only got the water bottle in the first place by “lucky” accident when trying to get something else)
  • Less importantly, as a source of product placement and as the centerpiece of a cool shot within the film

There are probably more. The point is, the filmmakers use this one item to serve no less than eight purposes within the movie, only three of which (prop, payoff, and tension) would be readily expected and predicted by the viewer. Not only is this an extremely efficient use of a story element, it also leaves room for suprise because the easy and most predictable payoffs are in fact distractions or setups for future revelations and twists. Stack dozens upons dozens of these within a single movie, and you get an end product that is densely packed with meaning, plot, surprise, irony, emotion, and theme.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Story Shot. Make sure to sign up for my newsletter or blog updates using the appropriate sidebar signups to get more of them sent straight to your inbox (note: you may need to exit mobile mode if you’re on your phone). If you have examples of setups and payoffs that you’ve enjoyed or have ideas for future Story Shots, let me know in the comments below.


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