“You watch too many films
Too many films are real.”
– “For Real,” Tricky
In 2002 Entertainment Weekly named The Lion King‘s (1994) Mufasa as the “Best Onscreen Death.” This mention was tongue-in-cheek but I’d argue that Mufasa’s death was pretty damn epic, especially for a kid’s movie. Then again, it was a kid’s movie based on The Bible and Hamlet (weird, right?), so epic is as epic does. Nevertheless it had a huge effect on me as a ten-year-old. The title of “Best Onscreen Death” made a lot of sense to me since it was so traumatic.
Death is a huge subject. So why tackle it in the movies? I honestly believe our personal lives shape our thoughts and feelings about death before anything else. But then there’s media, which is inescapable. We see death all the time: on television, in movies, during video games, etc. Whether we like it or not this becomes a part of our subconscious and influences what we expect death should be like. The thing is what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily true. It’s entertainment. We forget this all the time.
Every now and then a film comes along that reminds us just how cruel and unexpected death can really be. It shocks us, angers us, or- and this is the kicker- causes us to cry in front of our family, friends, or complete strangers. Some viewers can’t accept this when it happens. For example, a scene from The Killer Inside Me (2010) featured Kate Hudson being beaten to death. This provoked debate on the film’s IMDB message board when a user asked, “Since when does a few kicks and punches kill someone?” This just comes to show how desensitized we can get. Conversely, once death gets “real” other viewers get completely bent out of shape, attacking the actors and director who staged it. This isn’t healthy either.
Director Michael Haneke once noted, “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth.” This applies when a film reacquaints us with the reality of violent actions. These moments are rare but their disruptions are necessary. Film is like a collective dream we’re watching in the dark- more of what we want to see than what we actually experience. Events have order. Words are perfect. Sex is clean. And above all, death is simple.
Sometimes we need to be shaken awake from the collective dream. Few films succeed in doing this.
Here are seven deaths that shocked me, upset me, made me think or just plain haunted me for extended periods of time. The following list was hard to put into order. Factors included just how shocking the death was, how violent it was, how much I felt for the character and how long it effected me.
Spoilers ahead, of course. Proceed with caution.
(UPDATE – June, 5, 2011):
Honorable Mention: Food Service Girl in The Rules Of Attraction (2002)
Here’s a case of “How Could I Forget?”
This striking yet anonymous performance in Roger Avary’s The Rules Of Attraction (2002) was accomplished by a complete unknown (in fact, by someone with little to no interest in acting). The girl is Theresa Wayman, now better known as one of the guitarists for indie rock band Warpaint. While Avary was in pre-production for the film he met Wayman by complete chance. It was kismet, and Wayman went on to deliver the most haunting and memorable scene in the film.
The character of Food Service Girl has little to no lines and hardly any screen time before she commits suicide in the third act. The scene seemingly comes out of nowhere- a girl the audience hardly knows fills a bathtub, slips into the water, cuts her wrists and bleeds out to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” Despite its simplicity the scene was intense, with viewers admitting they got light-headed, nauseous and short of breath (myself included, and I consider myself pretty hardened). This is quite incredible since the camera lingers only on Wayman’s face, a face one critic compared to Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). She winces, gapes and hyper-ventilates while bleeding to death, the image slowly beginning to spin and the soundtrack stretching into an echoing mess.
The nameless girl dies, and later on viewers learn they have been staring at her quite a bit throughout the movie. It’s just that none of the characters have noticed her… and neither have we. She is a background character, out of focus or bisected by something in the frame. But she’s there, shown in flashback as proof. Her isolation and longing for Attraction‘s lead character, Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), may have driven her to death, but ultimately we all feel responsible for it.
Sadly, that’s just like a real suicide.
7) Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Before Inglourious Basterds capsizes and plunges into complete bloodshed we are forced to look one-on-one brutality in the face- literally. Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) strangling of Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is one of the most shocking and realistic murder scenes in my recent memory. It not only establishes that none of characters are safe but pounded into my head what strangulation means. It takes enormous strength, concentration, patience and (in this case) a huge reserve of untapped rage, all while staring directly into the face of the victim. The scene plays out in almost real time and we watch the actual eye-bulging, sweating, shaking and straining of a woman dying in front of us. Her surprise and terror eventually fades into the shocked blankness of a corpse.
It was later revealed that aspects of the scene were real. Kruger had consented to be strangled in the scene and the hands doing so were not Waltz’s, but the director’s. The realism, although unnecessary, was extraordinarily effective.
(P.S. Strangely enough, Waltz had his second strangling scene in Water For Elephants this spring. The similarities between the two scenes are uncanny, the only difference being Robert Pattinson and an elephant watching it go down.)
6) Elena Pingot in Fat Girl (2000)
The end of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (French title: À ma sœur!) has one of the biggest sucker punch endings ever, not to say it was very controversial or seen by many people. The story is simple enough, following two sisters on a summer vacation with their parents: Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), overweight, plain and cynical; and Elena (Roxane Mesquida), thin, beautiful and romantic. Like all of Breillat’s films the story is a thesis on female desire punctuated by some explicit sex scenes. When Elena hooks up with college student Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) the audience witnesses the seduction, manipulation and physical pain Elena endures for her “first love.” This, like everything in the film, is viewed through Anaïs’s clinical gaze.
If anything Fat Girl isn’t an emotional film, which is strange since the end packs a hell of a wallop. Anaïs, Elena and their mother are brutally attacked by a stranger while sleeping at a rest stop on their way home (the father, as usual, is absent). This is random and disturbing enough but it seems that Anaïs’s frustration and sexual angst wills it into existence. Out of nowhere a crazed maniac smashes the windshield of the family car while Elena and her mother are sleeping. Anaïs watches. The man smashes Elena’s skull with a single, bloody blow. Anaïs watches… and eats. More mayhem ensues and Anaïs is the only one who survives the night. Despite this she is indifferent and evasive when the police arrive.
What is shocking about Elena’s death is not only its swiftness (“Wait- what? Did that just happen?”) but how undeserved and senseless it is. The burgeoning sexuality and hope in this young girl- a driving force in the film- is crushed within a split second. The fact that she’s just suffered heartbreak and sexual humiliation only adds salt to the wound. Everything she has learned and felt is over. She is no more. Whether this is due to Anaïs’s subconscious desires or Breillat’s deus ex machina plotting is up for debate.
Either way, the scene left me dumbfounded. I rewound Elena’s death-blow several times, making sure I wasn’t hallucinating, then said to no one in particular, “What was that? What the hell did I just see?!”
5) Baleia in Vidas Secas (1971)
How did a dog make this list? Well, in my opinion Baleia is no ordinary dog. She is a central character in Vidas Secas and not just a pet that emotionally effects her owners (yes, I’m referring to Marley & Me). Baleia is her own sharply drawn and autonomous character: smart, compassionate, likable and the source of the little (if any) humor in this otherwise bleak and soul-crushing film. It has been noted by critics that out of all the characters in the story, this “little bitch” is more human than the rest put together.
Vidas Secas is also notable in the way it treats Baleia’s character and, in particular, her death. It is the only film I’ve seen that takes on the subjective view of a dying animal. You feel everything she does- surprise, disorientation and agony- and it’s gut-wrenching.
The circumstances leading to her death are just as hard to watch. The film follows an impoverished Brazilian family who are constantly transient, starving and losing out. Due to these circumstances the long-suffering patriarch, Fabiano (Átila Iório), has the difficult task of disposing of their dog. They can no longer keep her. In a lengthy sequence he pursues the unsuspecting animal toward the brush while his children hide in the house, sobbing and wailing. The tension runs high. Fabiano seems unsure. Baleia, for one thing, still trusts her master but nervously evades him, panting and helpless. Finally Fabiano raises his rifle at her and fires.
As an audience we see nothing, only some of the dog’s spasms in close-up. However as a sound experience Baleia’s pain is unbearable. Her pitiful yelps go on for quite some time before we see the whole picture. The limping, bleeding dog is wandering away, trying to find a peaceful place to die. She is quieter now. She finds some shade under the family wagon, whimpering.
Then something strange and touching happens. Baleia’s movements slow down. As she lays there she begins to look peaceful. With longing she looks around her: at the house she lived in, the animals she used to chase, then into the sun that is bearing down on her, filling the frame with light. She understands what is happening. Her eyes close. Baleia briefly dreams of happier days, following her master on a horse at the ranch. The camera cuts back to Baleia. She is dead.
This short, almost spiritual scene almost makes you forget you’re watching a dog that weighs about fifteen pounds. It contains skillful editing and some of the greatest animal acting I’ve ever seen. It was so good, in fact, that when the film debuted at Cannes some people believed the death was real. Rest assured- it wasn’t.
It will still make you a “little bitch” though, because you will cry like one.
4) Tie: Bess McNeill in Breaking The Waves (1996) and Selma Ježkova in Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Today it is known that Lars von Trier has a reputation for torturing his female characters as well as the actresses who play them. However, no one knew this when Breaking The Waves debuted at Cannes. Attendees were shocked (it was reported that a female journalist ran to the bathroom in tears) yet critics insisted it was a game-changer in the art of filmmaking. When Dancer In The Dark debuted several years later the emotional response was just as great. Since then I have run into several people who have said: “I don’t cry at movies, but there’s this one that got me- Dancer In The Dark.”
Both films are part of von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy, positing the theory that to be good in heart and giving of yourself will only lead to exploitation, punishment and destruction. The heroines of these films, Bess (Emily Watson) and Selma (Björk), suffer at the hands of the societies they live in and die horrible deaths. Their innocence and trusting natures are their downfalls.
Bess is viciously beaten and dies of internal injuries on an operating table. The death scene is unflinchingly realistic because it’s hard to tell exactly when Bess dies. There is a moment where her nurse sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), refuses to accept it has happened. This is easy to understand for two reasons: 1) Bess has been carrying the whole film, and 2) characters as sweet and bighearted as Bess don’t die this way.
There are a few seconds where you think Bess might still be in there, just like Dodo does. But she isn’t. She is gone.
What follows are Dodo’s grief-stricken cries as she realizes this. It hits her like a ton of bricks, just like it is hitting the audience. Here Cartlidge’s performance becomes so true to life it tapped into my own experiences with death. I thought, “She got it right. This is how people react when someone dies in front of them.” It is the most realistic reaction to a death I have ever seen.
On the other hand, Selma’s death is much longer and hard to stomach. Yes, she dies instantly, but I would say Dancer In The Dark is the longest death scene I’ve ever watched. We all know Selma is going to die and to a certain degree when she will die. My problem (as well as many other’s) is that it is being allowed to happen. She is being punished for something that isn’t her fault, something she was coerced into doing because she was helpless and didn’t have a choice.
Her punishment? Death by hanging (which is still used as an execution method in the U.S., by the way). For over an hour this inevitability lies on the horizon. We expect it. We dread it. When it finally happens it is unbearable. Björk’s plays the scene so well it is unshakably real, as if she were really going to killed in front of us. Every moment is filled with anguish because there is no going back.
Selma’s death is an end to such dragged-out suffering that there is nothing to feel once it’s over (I would liken it to Requiem For A Dream). I’m sure every audience subjected to it was exhausted when filing out of the theater.
Of course both films received serious criticism. There were accusations that they were misogynist, an argument that continued with other von Trier films: Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Antichrist (2009). However, the director counterattacked: “The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit. Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.” He added: “I don’t see my film characters as either male or female. It’s just that they assume a female appearance… They are part of me. But I’m not a woman. I’m not a woman! Let’s make that very clear! Oh, I don’t know, maybe I am. I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.”
Hmm. Food for thought.
3) William Costigan in The Departed (2006)
I wouldn’t be surprised if this death appeared on anyone else’s list. The death of William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) may be one of the biggest “fuck yous” in cinema history. It is instantaneous, cruel, and has no dignity. What’s worse, the death was a double shock since it was portrayed by an actor I had already seen die several times. You would figure I would be used to seeing that happen. Turns out I wasn’t.
In a dissection of the film writer and activist Michael Patrick MacDonald noted that The Departed nailed South Boston’s “culture of death.” He’s right. The claustrophobia, anxiety and exhaustion of this environment are nearly suffocating. What’s more, all of these emotions are experienced through Costigan’s character. I would say they define him. They are so intense, in fact, that I felt like I was living in his body more than watching a film.
Because of this it’s impossible not to feel for his character. The shit is kicked out of him from all sides. The physical and psychological pain he endures is beyond imagination. So, to see him get carelessly shot in the head… well, for my part it didn’t go over too well. I was in disbelief. I mean, who wasn’t? Even Matt Damon was shocked.
A friend of mine insisted that we had watched the movie together and when Costigan died I stood up, stormed out, then broke a lamp or something (maybe it was someone else, still- pretty funny). In reality I was miles away and saw the movie by myself. My reaction was quieter and more like Damon’s (see above). Then I felt absolutely crushed and upset. I hated the way the elevator doors kept closing on his lifeless body. Even more, I hated how the scene continued without him.
The movie ended but I couldn’t believe how Martin Scorsese had managed to pull such a fast one on me. It was like he had punched me in the face (or maybe shot me in the head at an inopportune moment).
2) Cecelia Shepard in Zodiac (2007)
When I saw Zodiac (2007) I was in a fragile state of mind. That might have intensified things. But then again, all of the deaths in this film actually happened. Also, their recreations are painstakingly accurate.
The film follows the murders and ongoing criminal investigation of the Zodiac Killer. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s this serial murderer terrorized northern California, claiming up to 12 victims. Only 7 were officially confirmed. He was never caught.
Out of all of the murder scenes (there are four in all) the Napa Valley killings are the most visceral. Two victims, Bryan Calvin Hartnell (Patrick Scott Lewis) and Cecelia Shepard (Pell James) are having a picnic near Lake Berryessa. Suddenly a man in a black executioner’s hood approaches them. He claims that he is an escaped convict and is going to steal their car. However, after hog-tying them he stabs them repeatedly. It is later revealed that Hartnell survives the attacks. Shepard dies two days later.
The agonizing aspect of this scene is Pell James as Shepard. She infuses her three-minute scene with such rawness and fear that it made the blood drain from my head. As she witnesses Hartnell getting stabbed next to her the sounds that come out of her are indescribable. I couldn’t get them out of my head for days. Then she is stabbed and lets out more blood-curdling, helpless screams.
I never want to see this scene again. You couldn’t pay me to watch it. In fact, I don’t even want to write about it anymore.
1) Jerome in The Pillow Book (1996)
This one is the most personal and perhaps the most persistent. It was also the first. I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the death of Jerome (Ewan McGregor) when I saw The Pillow Book nine years ago. Sure, it was a Peter Greenaway film, a work from a director described as “sensual” and “perverse.” I understand that a little more now, but still… I don’t think there’s a screen death that will ever match this one.
The death itself isn’t incredibly consequential. Following some bad advice Jerome fakes an overdose to scare his estranged girlfriend, Nagiko (Vivian Wu). Problem is the person who gave him the advice is incredibly jealous and wants Nagiko for himself. He makes sure to give Jerome pills that will really do him in.
This goes down without a hitch. Jerome breaks into Nagiko’s apartment, strips off his clothes, takes the pills and loses consciousness. By the time Nagiko arrives he is dead and this completely devastates her. She writes calligraphy all over his body (a recurring ritual in the film) and falls into a deep depression. In the meantime Jerome is interred at a Hong Kong cemetery, never to be seen again.
Or is he? After this things get unfathomably bizarre. One of Jerome’s previous lovers, The Publisher (Yoshi Oida), exhumes Jerome’s body from his grave. With a team of surgeons he skins the body completely, turning his flesh into a book for his “personal use.” The rest of Jerome is thrown away.
The sequence ends with a shot of The Publisher receiving the pages and proceeding to lick and rub them all over his body. For me this was absolutely sickening. It was the complete devaluation of a person, turning him into an object. The poor bastard might as well have been murdered twice.
Now, I have to admit I’m a bit biased. I think Ewan McGregor is a really cool guy and that may be why I didn’t enjoy watching Jerome’s desecration. Still, I don’t think any human being deserves to be dug up and turned into a fetish toy. There’s a line that has definitely been crossed here.
Of course, Greenaway doesn’t leave this story unresolved. Nagiko discovers this and sets out to recover Jerome’s body (well, what’s left of it) and exact revenge.
Let me tell you, that still didn’t make me feel better. The damage had already been done. And, like all the other examples listed here, I couldn’t forget.