Chinatown: Five Questions

last updated: 29 March 2019 (approximate reading time: 2 minutes; 316 words)

Chinatown is a neo-noir movie directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray.

On first sight, it feels like a story about political corruption, corporate greed, and financial shenanigans, but as the multi-layered story develops it becomes far more about the exercise of personal power, leading to a very dark ending. By asking five questions we can get to the central core of the story (at least in my opinion).

One quick warning before you jump in: if you haven’t watched Chinatown there’s a fairly significant spoiler in here.

question one: Who is the Main Character?

JJ “Jake” Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson).

question two: What Does Gittes Want?

It’s a long way through the story before Gittes’ aim becomes clear, but his ultimate goal is to save Katherine, Evelyn Mulwray’s daughter.

question three: What is Keeping Gittes From Getting What He Wants?

On one hand, no one has alerted Gittes to Katherine’s situation, so for much of the time he isn’t aware of why she needs help (nor of how his actions are putting her in danger).

On the other hand, the investigations that Gittes are pursuing are uncovering corruption by rich and powerful men who are keen to stop these investigations by any means.

question four: What Must Gittes Sacrifice to Get What He Wants?

Gittes must sacrifice his health (he is seriously injured), his reputation, and potentially he will lose his license (thereby losing his source of income).

question five: What is At Stake?

If Gittes fails, then—to his mind—there will be a fate worse than death: Katherine, who is the product of an incestuous relationship between her mother and her grandfather, will be left in the care of the man who is simultaneously her father and grandfather.

There is no happily ever after in Chinatown. Instead, Gittes is dragged away by his colleges.

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