The films of 2016 asked big questions about how we mourn.
There’s a moment near the center of Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” when an estranged mother and father stand together in a lonely house and say nothing much. Until now, the movie’s main concern has been the uncanny urgency of Roy — who has, technically, kidnapped his son Alton from the cult leader who recently adopted him — as he races toward parts unknown, for reasons unknown, before it’s too late. The brief stop at Sarah’s house is ostensibly a chance for her to say goodbye.
Because this is a movie and the mother is played by Kirsten Dunst, we know this won’t actually be the only time we see her. This moment of silence, therefore, isn’t about these two characters parting from one another. It’s two parents acknowledging that their child is in his last days, and trying to accept that he’ll be leaving the world. That urgency, which until now has suggested a conspiracy thriller, now takes on a sense of freefall; they aren’t sure where to go because they aren’t sure how long it will matter.
And in that little moment where nothing much is said, the audience — who, until now, have been observing events at a remove that the movie carefully maintained — understand everything. The child’s strange superpowers need no further explanation; the parents’ guilt at having tried to distance themselves from this inevitability requires no dialogue to justify it.
It’s a moment that understands the clarifying power of grief. It’s a movie that knows we need nothing else to recognize mourning when we see it.
Movies have always had a particular, peculiar relationship with the audience. For the length of a movie, we agree to sit alone in the dark and ache with someone else’s story: as visceral an experience as cinema can provide. We agree to forget their feelings aren’t real, so long as ours can be. And the suspended-animation nature of film means that same feeling will be available to us forever, just like the first time. Movies are both immediate and immortal; they can prompt us to feel as many times as we’re willing to be prompted.
In some ways, grief is like this, too. A rote action or a passing observation is swallowed all at once by a memory of the person it reminds us of: acute grief that disrupts our muscle memory in the middle of making a cup of tea or stops us in our tracks on a sidewalk because of a wide-brim hat. The ongoing pressure of loss may fade with time; these moments never really do. They’ve got all the replay power of a favorite movie scene.
It seems like a lot of movies are grieving these days. Granted, that’s a broad umbrella, and to a degree it leans on some unspoken assumptions about the world outside the screen. These are volatile times, and grief can be a manifestation of a longing for order; we’re nearing the end of a generation, and grief is a way to acknowledge the loss.
This understood grief is so deeply shared we don’t really feel it — we just see movies about things that seem like the past but never really are. Historical drama “Denial” is paced like a courtroom thriller but is at its center concerned with processing the Holocaust by demanding it be recognized. “Jackie” takes an American legend and drills down into the woman who sees into the future enough to know this is a grief the nation will ask her to carry forever.
But in stories, grief isn’t a trend so much as a driving force. Grief powers a narrative; it draws from a potent combination of anger, love, and regret, and provides no end of motivation.
In 2014, for instance, “John Wick” needed nothing else to send its hero to work, in the footsteps of a hundred other widowers who processed their losses through retribution. That was nothing unusual for a story so Gothic at heart; such tales trade in the examination of loss so wholeheartedly that every story becomes a ghost story.
The 2015 romance “Crimson Peak” is something of a revenge tale on behalf of the Gothics of yore; its ghosts are a parade of women exploited by a Byronic hero and trying to alert his newest victim before it’s too late. However, even a film as self-conscious as this one has one distinctly modern moment. Early on, heroine Edith is confronted with the body of her father; when the doctors try to move him she startles as if shaken awake from a dream and scolds them not to touch him, her voice cracking. “He’s turning sixty next week,” she says. “He’s afraid of looking his age, you see. That’s why he dresses so well.” The rest of the film is as stagey and broad as a penny dreadful; in this scene, her undignified protectiveness and half-dogged, half-bewildered use of the present tense are as jarring as a sudden memory of one gone. It’s not of a piece with the rest of the movie’s obsession with the unfinished business of grief; it’s a much more vulnerable moment of mourning.
Maybe that’s a line of separation between a season of films grappling with dark times and a season of movies about dealing with death close to home. What felt different about this past year was not how many films were explicitly interested in grief, but how many of them were concerned with the rituals and rhythms of mourning — the business of getting on.
The obvious contender for that classification this year is “Manchester by the Sea,” a movie about a small community trying to manage the delicate and sometimes bizarrely funny business of mourning one of its members.
Lee and his nephew Patrick struggle to accept the death of Patrick’s father Joe, and wherever they go, well-meaning community members reach out in familiar, slightly stilted rhythms. A lawyer starts to lose his temper and then pauses, abashed; new acquaintances maintain a tight-lipped sympathetic smile a beat too long; Patrick’s friends come to his house and talk too loudly about science fiction to stave off any tearful silences.
The movie is about the ways life goes on, but it also feels like reassurance. Grief is so private a thing that those going through it can barely understand it; no wonder so few of us know quite what to do in the face of someone else’s mourning.
It’s a sentiment echoed in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” Taika Waititi’s film about preteen Ricky and his reluctant foster father Hec. It’s another story in which, at first, the deepest connection between them is who they’ve lost: Hec’s wife Bella. But Hec has served time and is adrift without Bella, and Ricky refuses to go back into foster care, so the pair take to the woods.
Some of what follows is broadly comic, but it’s also a literal expression of a mourner’s desire to pull back from the world and come to terms with loss in their own time. Sure, Hec and Ricky have slapstick run-ins, but they also begin their own tentative relationship by finding out about one another what Bella saw in them. It’s a two-person wake that begins as a shared loss and grows into something more optimistic; “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” understands the business, and the benefits, of getting on.
Of course, when it comes to a test of mourning, this year’s Oscar dark horse “Arrival” might have everybody beat, as it uses that cinematic shorthand of grief-as-plot-motivation to ask fundamental questions.
[SPOILER ALERT: This paragraph addresses the central plot twist of Arrival.] When we first meet linguist Louise Banks, she’s with her daughter — first playing, then comforting her through cancer. Afterwards, as she’s called by the government to communicate with an alien species that’s taken up residence in hovering monoliths worldwide, we look for signs of grief in her solitude. There aren’t any, which seems at first the scorched-earth approach of someone so overwhelmed with grief that she’s trying to suppress painful memories. But as she learns the written language of these aliens, she’s startled to find herself dreaming of her daughter — because her daughter has yet to exist. Understanding the alien language, it seems, alters a person’s perception of time. The choice facing Louise is whether to have a child she knows she’ll have to mourn.
In reality, that question sits waiting at the beginning of any prospective relationship. But it’s rarely so conscious as “Arrival” makes it.
Not every movie about mourning manages to sustain itself; too specific and it might fail to reach us, too broad and it passes us by. (The ache of that hallway understanding in “Midnight Special” eventually builds to a mawkish science-fiction lunge for heaven. It’s a disappointingly simplistic ending for a movie with such an understanding of the strange impossibilities of mourning.) But they can also be a comfort; they’re tidy stories about a deeply untidy process, they offer the same moments to us again and again unchanged, and they ask questions of their characters — and of us.
Since loss is inevitable, when does mourning begin: the moment you love someone? Do these moments of sudden remembrance mean I’m forgetting someone I shouldn’t? Or is this just how grieving goes?
They don’t answer those questions, of course. That’s just as well; stories that definitively answer their own questions about something as uncertain as mourning tend to seem either insultingly treacly or impossibly grim. Movies — well, movies just make us feel a little less alone as we ask them.
Genevieve Valentine’s most recent novels are the Persona series and The Girls at the Kingfisher Club; she has written comic books including Catwoman for DC Comics and Xena: Warrior Princess for Dynamite. Her nonfiction and reviews have appeared at NPR.org, The AV Club, io9, and The New York Times, and she is one of the coauthors of the Quirk pop-culture book Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture.