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Tropic Thunder: How Dialogue Can Change With Context

Storytelling is all about context. Context changes everything depending on setting, characters, tone, and every other detail one can think of. In fact, context can even take a single line of dialogue and turn it from being a ridiculously hilarious comment to something darkly sinister and threatening. It all depends on the situation and how the line is delivered. A great example can be seen with a very funny line from Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder

 

In the film, Nick Nolte plays a war veteran who lost both his hands during Vietnam. (He really didn't, but that's irrelevant for our purposes.) Nolte portrays this character brilliantly as a very hardened, grizzled man who takes everything too seriously and considers everything a matter of life or death. At one point, he is asked what kind of gun he is carrying. To which he responds, "I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man's life." The way Nolte delivers this line, with such dead earnest, comes off hilariously over the top. 

 

But the line could actually be considered a pretty badass statement given the right context. Consider a western, where a single lone gunman enters a town filled with outlaws. They surround him, their hands hovering over their weapons. The leader of the outlaws notices the gunman has a revolver on his hip and asks him what brand he's carrying. To which the gunman responds, "I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes a man's life." In that instance the line is delivered with the subtext of a threat when it hadn't before. It's a pretty badass way to tell someone to back off and just goes to show that something absolutely hilarious can be considered pretty menacing given the right context.

 

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