This music video analysis of Rabbit In Your Headlights by UNKLE featuring Radiohead’s singer Thom Yorke is an abstract from our tutorial e-book 14 music videos.
UNKLE Thom Yorke – Rabbit In Your Headlights – Music video script analysis
The video tells the story of a mad guy who will surprisingly overcome the dangers he met while walking in a tunnel full of cars.
UNKLE Thom Yorke – Rabbit In Your Headlights music video – Shot by shot analysis
00:00 A hand honks fiercely inside a car, under the rain. The music starts.
Point of view: the telling begins in the first person view, in the shoes of some angry driver.
Theme: we cannot know it yet, but this horn introduces the fundamental theme of the risk of death (horns are of course, used for warning people of impending danger).
00:07 A camera shot shows cars driving in a tunnel in the direction of the camera.
Point of view: it becomes omniscient and will stay so on average, despite frequent changes back to the first person view.
00:08 A pedestrian is walking in the middle of this tunnel road, seen from afar and from behind. He is dressed in a blue-grey coat. People honk their horns over the instrumental music playing in the soundtrack.
Characterization: this pedestrian will soon become the Hero of this plot.
Horn: pattern repetition of the imminent danger.
00:15 The pedestrian is now seen from the front, walking in one of the lanes of the road. Some cars are quickly getting closer to him.
Point of view: the frequent changes (already three in 15 seconds) of the type of narration (first person view = personalized or omniscient = depersonalized), create a feeling of emergency, speed, and dynamism.
Characterization: the video dramatizes the very progressive revelation of the Hero’s identity by delivering it bit by bit, one element after the other: from the back, from the front, then closer…
World: the side of the road the cars are driving on (the left) allows the audience to deduce that the action takes place in a country where this is the law, like the UK or Australia. Since Radiohead is an English band, we can assume the video takes place somewhere in England.
Theme: the latent conflict between the car’s force and speed and the pedestrian’s vulnerability confirms and intensifies the impression of imminent danger created by the violent honking (effect of repetition).
00:20 The pedestrian is seen from the exterior mirror of a car which has just overtaken him and driven off, while the song is starting: “I’m a rabbit in your headlights…”
Point of view: we are briefly back to a first person view – which is strangely depersonalized (since we do not know who is attending the action).
The synchronization between this point of action and the lyrics that say, “I’m a rabbit in your headlights…” blends with irony. The man is really like a rabbit in the car’s headlights…
00:24 This pedestrian is shot for the first time close up and from the front, so we now discover his face. He is busy speaking alone, looking straight ahead of himself. Partly because of the music, we cannot hear nor understand what he is saying. He murmurs, then speaks louder, then shouts a few words that echo in the tunnel. The language he is speaking does not sound like proper English.
Point of view: the progressive revelation of the Hero’s identity continues.
Characterization: the fact that the Hero is talking to himself (or to some imaginary friend?) out loud and in a language that we cannot understand makes him appear mad-like. The crescendo in his gibberish – murmur, words, shouts – makes it even more dramatic.
World: the strange, English-like language used by the Hero represents a new indication of the fact that the action probably takes place in England.
00:37 The walker continues his way in the middle of the road. Some cars approach. The man is still speaking out loud to himself and in his delirium, he even plays out a few weird fighting moves.
Point of view: the progressive revelation of the Hero’s identity goes on.
Characterization: the undetermined aspect of the Hero’s walk, then his boxing movements, implicitly show that he has a goal and is ready to fight. This goal will never be revealed however, which generates an effect of information distribution asymmetry, a sensation of mystery, of growing dramatic tension: where is he going in spite of the obvious danger? Who or what is he actually fighting?
Theme: pattern repetition of the imminent danger represented by the cars which threaten the Hero’s safety.
00:50 He screams again.
Characterization: new indication of the Hero’s madness.
00:52 Behind shot. A car approaches the man from the back and hits him, then carelessly continues on its way. The man falls on the road. Some headlights already show that another car is coming in his direction.
Structure: this first accident is the catalyst of the plot. It confirms the set of characters we already had in mind: the Hero is this mad and vulnerable pedestrian and his Antagonists are these cars which threaten him from everywhere, without him being able to protect himself or hide. The dramatic question appears clearly yet implicitly: will the Hero be able to get out of this tunnel alive?
Point of view: this time, the aimed effect is different: for the first time the camera, instead of revealing to us the action and the Hero, hides it to us, so as to make the conflict more dramatic and to make us feel worried about the Hero. Is he injured? Dead perhaps?
Theme and genre: the headlights, present with a worrying insistence, still contribute to making links between the video and the song’s lyrics. The double figure of speech, a metonymy (the part instead of the entirety) and a personification (the headlights look like the blinding eyes of the cars). The use of these figures of speech prove that the video is a metaphorical, symbolic, philosophic and poetic fable and not just a story flatly anchored in realism.
00:55 Several very short shots show the pedestrian laying on the road, seemingly dead. Some headlights approach him very closely but the car avoids him. The pedestrian opens his eyes, blinks and stands back up. Some other headlights are coming from behind him but still the cars avoid hitting him. He goes on walking as if nothing ever happened and without even watching if a car is coming in his direction or not.
Point of view and rhythm: the acceleration of the frequency of changes in point of view, make the action more dramatic and reinforces the emotional effect of panic felt by the audience.
Theme: same remark as before about the headlights as “eyes” of the cars.
Drama effect: the pattern of the risk of a car accident is a false track – the video lets us believe that a new accident is coming but it is avoided twice in a row. Here again, it helps in dramatizing (imagine the same sequence of action, without these “almost-accidents”: the tension would be weaker).
01:13 Front-facing shot of the pedestrian, walking. Cars approaching. The man mutters continuously.
01:17 Front-facing shot of the pedestrian seen from a car which overtakes him, then a shot of a passenger who observes him with a scared look.
01:20 Shot of the pedestrian seen from the side then from the front, walking, making kind of weird, confused, and unintelligible accusations in a raging and categorical tone, while gesturing as if he was in an intense debate, whereas he is just alone.
Point of view and characterization: the action plays out again on dramatic elements we already know: speed, panic, danger, madness, personalization/depersonalization.
01:40 Shot of the man seen in side profile with white headlights approaching at the right of the screen. A car enters the frame one moment later and hits the man hard to the front. A camera shot from the car that just hit him, shows him flying and falling back several meters away from the impact point.
Point of view and information distribution asymmetry: notice how, in the most dramatic moment, the framing and montage willingly contribute to dissimulate the most important part of the action, so as to let us worry again about the Hero, losing him from sight, making us unable to check whether he is dead or alive.
Structure: this pattern repetition of the accident (this is the second, the first one was the point at which the plot really started – remember the catalyst) looks like an obsession. We can remark that this storyline works in certain jokes, in some fairytales or cartoons: the Hero is confronted once, twice, then three times with the same action, failing the two first times before succeeding at the third try. Will it happen this way? Will the man finally win one of his confrontations with the cars??
01:43 Shot of the car’s driver, whose head is turned towards the pedestrian we cannot see. This driver seems totally indifferent to what he is looking at. He continues driving without caring, while another car is getting closer to the man, its headlights dazzling the entire screen. This car avoids hitting him at the last moment.
Point of view and effect of information distribution: in this scene, the viewer does not know at first what is happening to the Hero, but he knows that the driver knows and that the Hero obviously knows it too since he is the victim of it. Once again, the fact that the most important information is hidden helps dramatize the action.
01:50 Shot of the pedestrian: lying on the ground, eyes fully open, he mutters.
Effect of information distribution: the tension built by all the action previously seen (Is the Hero dead? Did the car kill him?) is suddenly resolved by the fact that the Hero is still alive.
01:56 He gets up painfully. Headlights illuminate him. Two cars avoid hitting him.
Characterization and genre: this time, the fact that the Hero could survive such a shock becomes really fascinating, unrealistic, and gives a touch of fantasy to the story. Indeed in normal conditions, a pedestrian could never get up after two such major blows, which allows the viewer to suppose that a mysterious force enables the Hero to bear or ignore pain, since it is actually impossible not to have broken bones and sore muscles after having been hit by two cars. This enigma makes the viewer even more fascinated and involved in the plot as well as greedy to know the final explanation of the story.
02:09 A Mercedes gets closer to the pedestrian from behind, slowing down to drive at his side. The driver asks him in English: “Hey man, where are you going?”. The pedestrian does not pay him any attention, does not even look at him and continues to speak to himself. The driver repeats his question in vain. The driver abandons the man and, accelerating brutally, drives off within seconds. The pedestrian is still speaking to himself, as if nothing had happened.
Characters’ schema: for the first time, this scene shows something other than a pure confrontation between the Hero and the cars (Antagonists). As this kind driver tries to establish contact after having avoided an accident, we can see him as a potential Helper of the Hero who could assist the Hero in getting out of the tunnel without further injury. Since the Hero totally ignores the driver’s help proposition however, the potential modification of the set of characters ends up being a false track.
Information distribution: here again an effect of thematic repetition strengthens the mysterious aspect of the Hero’s speech and leaves many questions unresolved: What is the Hero speaking about? To whom is he speaking? Why is it important?
02:35 Shot of the pedestrian from the back. An SUV hits him hard in the front of his body. The man is thrown in the air, falls on the road, but gets up immediately. Looking dizzy and a bit lost, he continues on his way and carries on with his speech. He looks and sounds mad, like being in a mystical crisis; for some words he closes his eyes as if he was praying or viewing scenes from another world. He suddenly holds his head with two hands as if to protect himself, while shouting something we cannot understand. He seems to be fighting. Cars overtake him.
Theme, genre and characterization: this third accident is a new false track which leaves the Hero unharmed and unruffled, confirming that the Hero has something supernatural. The theme of mystical delusions reaches here a kind of culminating point, still as inexplicable as before, thus mysterious, thus fascinating.
03:10 A car brakes to avoid the man but it hits him. We can see him roll onto the ground.
03:15 Shot of the entire tunnel, cars are coming. The pedestrian is not visible. Two seconds later, we see him standing up as the camera focuses on him. He goes on walking.
Point of view and information distribution: same false track as we commented on before (a fourth violent accident and the Hero survives it without efforts or consequences).
03:28 A car hits him from behind. He falls. Another one drives over his legs. He gets up painfully, like he has no power in his legs. Three cars manage to avoid him. He speaks to himself and walks.
Characterization and theme: the situation becomes nearly absurd, it is the fifth accident in 3 minutes (the number is even double the amount of time) and yet the situation still does not evolve. The Hero was able to bear an incredible series of heavy traumas and the dramatic tension accumulated along these events, stays here; latent, huge, unresolved. It is the technical end of Act II.
03:44 The man suddenly unzips his hoodie and coat, taking them off and abandoning them carelessly on the road. Bare chest, athletic, covered with scratches and bruises but without any deep wounds, he walks and speaks even more vividly. He seems to be fighting again. The music reaches a maximum of intensity then falls back to normal.
Structure: Act III starts with this obvious crisis and a spectacular change in the Hero‘s attitude: this sudden half-nakedness confirms that all the violence suffered has left him almost, and very surprisingly, untouched.
Media effect: the synchronization between the action on screen and the music reaching its peak then calming down prepares us psychologically for the coming resolution.
04:14 The man suddenly stops walking and stands. A car drives over his abandoned coat.
Structure: the standstill of the Hero creates a very strong suspense – an expectation from the viewer, because it is the first time he stops moving forward and because he seems to be getting prepared for something that is coming, which intrigues us even more and makes the dramatic tension rise. The car which drives over his coat looks like a metaphor: the Antagonist cannot threaten the living body of the Hero any more, it can just barely touch his dead skin.
04:20 Two quick blurry shots, then the pedestrian is seen from a car which is driving at full speed in his direction. He stands still, spreading his arms in a cross like in the crucification of Jesus. The next shot shows the car striking him from behind, but this time, he does not fall at all. The impact makes the car explode against the body of the man, who barely flinches. Some smoke and debris fill up the screen. The car disappears in the smoke which finally engulfs even the chest and head of the steady man. The music, decrescendo, goes back to silence.
Point of view: coming back to a first person view also contributes to dramatizing the action, as in the beginning and later on.
Structure: this scene develops the peak of the crisis, which is the climax, and gives the final result of the plot; the answer to its dramatic question. The balance of forces ends up – unexpectedly – in favor of the Hero and the accumulated tensions explode in the fantastic shock between the Hero and his Antagonist. So YES, the Hero did survive. YES, the Hero is finally stronger than all those solid and violent cars. YES, the Hero probably had a goal, his final victory, which is perhaps the reason why he did not accept to be helped by the Mercedes’ driver. YES, the Hero had indeed a nearly divine nature. But this awesome and upsetting conclusion also leaves many questions unanswered (or not rationally): Who was he speaking to and what was he saying? Was he a kind of God, immortal and incomprehensible? What happens after the end of the video? Is the Hero still alive, or dead? Why did he wait so long to resist and explode one of the cars which hit him? All of this we will never know so half of the story will stay forever mysterious.
04:55 The smoke has totally invaded the screen. Fade to black.
Theme: after the triumph of the Hero, this disappearance, this return to nothingness (as in the video of No Surprises), has something deeply worrying, ambivalent, ambiguous. Why would we triumph, annihilating the enemy, if it is to disappear completely straight afterwards, leaving nothing but smoke behind?
An allegory of human life
As in the two other Radiohead music videos we previously analyzed, No Surprises and Karma Police, this story is not about what it seems to show on screen: its real meaning is to be found beyond the visible, in the philosophical interpretation of the told events.
This story functions in a totally allegoric and symbolic way: it uses a very realistic, ordinary situation – a pedestrian walking in a tunnel – to actually tell us the tragic epic of human life seen through the crossing of a stressful, dangerous and inescapable tunnel; a metaphor of our existence.
As in No Surprises and Karma Police, the basic goal of the main character consists in surviving; the fundamental and universal sides to this goal guarantee a maximum of identification power from the viewer to the story and its Hero.
Caught in a hostile world, the mad but incredibly resisting Hero will, as in No Surprises, finally have an ambiguous triumph before going back to nothingness, as if human life could not be more than a series of pains and proofs; a survival game before a certain death. It is a pessimistic and fascinating message which illustrates the tragedy of human condition.
And as in Karma Police, the dramatic tension of the story mainly resides in the fact that many essential pieces of information necessary for the understanding of the plot are never given to us:
- Who is this pedestrian?
- Why is he walking alone in this tunnel in the middle of the road?
- Why is he mad? How did he become mad?
- What did he say? Who was he speaking to?
- Why doesn’t he protect himself?
- Why doesn’t he accept help?
- Why isn’t he injured when he is hit by a car?
All of this, we will never know.
Shakespeare wrote that “Life… is a tale told by an idiot”… So are Radiohead’s music videos – except that this idiot is also a genius of scriptwriting 🙂
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