How Films Depict the Complex Processes of Grief

Grief has its own way of showing itself. You might not cry at the funeral but someday you’ll find yourself sobbing uncontrollably to a song you remember singing along with the person you lost. In our society, various stages of grief have become so familiar that it almost qualifies as a cliché. People expect you to show a flurry of passion: tears, cursing to God, or moving speeches. Each of these methods is accepted as normal except internalising the pain.

When you least expect it, it’s an alarming feeling to have a movie catch you off-guard so easily. Movies like Manchester by the Sea, In the Fade and Demolition remind people who struggle with a complicated grieving process that they’re not alone on this road.  

Led by the extraordinary performances of Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea becomes a striking film showing the unappealing face of grief. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a distant man who solely passes by life as a daytime plumber and a nighttime alcoholic. He shuts out every person who tries to talk with him and quietly murmurs if he feels a need to talk; he is truly a lost man buried underneath his dark, catastrophic past.

Upon hearing news of his brother’s death, his numbness in the hospital − even after seeing his brother in the morgue − gives a hint to his character. When he gives news to his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he doesn’t look like a kid who had recently lost a father. He invites some friends over and argues about the merits of Star Trek, juggles two girlfriends at the same time and devotes his time to the terrible rock band he’s in. His built-up grief spills out suddenly at random places like at an awkward dinner or by the freezer which leaves Lee − now Patrick’s guardian − in a complete shock because he’s used to hiding his emotions. Lee struggles with communicating with Patrick because they both respond differently when it comes to grieving. Trying to catch up with the pace of Patrick’s routine, Lee also struggles with the reopening of an old scar. The reason why people whisper ‘That’s the Lee Chandlerwhen they see him around is shown with flashbacks of a tragic incident from his past which still haunts him.

When confronted by his ex-wife (Michelle Williams), who is ready to forgive him for what happened before, he tells her that he’s fine. As she begins to burst into tears, he continues to repeat that he’s fine even though the words become choked by his own tears too. He prefers to stay mute about their past or her new family because it’s too hard for him to put his feelings into words and he isn’t ready to set himself completely free from his past. For the very first time, it isn’t about closure that needs to be done to ease the pain, it is silence that speaks louder than the words. In the movie’s final act, we see a grieving process in Patrick that plays out naturally − there’s an end in sight even though he is still struggling to live with the absence of his father. However, it is still as complicated as ever with Lee but at least, he finds joy in parenting Patrick even if it’s for a short term and is, in fact, ready to let somebody be in his life again.

In Fatih Akın’s hit In the Fade, after losing her husband and son in a bombing planted by neo- Nazis, Katja’s (Diane Kruger) whole existence collapses. Because she devoted her life to her family, she’s now left with nothing but to wallow in her grief. She deals with the police who won’t take her seriously because of her past drug use and her husband’s Kurdish parents who want to take his body back to Turkey and bury him traditionally. Then she goes back to dipping into the drugs to ease her pain.

She finds a little bit of hope when the criminals are brought to trial, but it doesn’t last long. It’s obvious that the neo-Nazi couple she’s dealing with come from a powerful background and won’t let neither themselves nor the group they’re involved in get exposed. The trial scenes show Katja suffering as she listens to the medical examiner detailing the horrifying ways her son was mutilated in the explosion or as she sees the neo-Nazi couple happily hug each other the moment they were found not guilty of the accused crimes. Dwelling in her sorrow is unbearable but moving on might be worse. The story takes a turn from being about a grieving mother to a woman who seeks revenge after injustice had been done to her family. She follows the couple to an isolated place in Greece where she finds herself recalling the happy moments she shared with her family in the same place. Sharing her sorrow, pain and anger throughout the entire time, we understand why she finds a not-so-quiet resolve in an emotional outburst in the last minutes of the film.      

Demolition, on the other hand, is about defying the social norms and expectations of the grieving process. Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a repressed young investment banker, realises that upon his wife Julia’s (Heather Lind) death, he feels almost nothing. He ditches the funeral reception to write a complaint letter to the vending machine company whose hospital unit failed to give him the M&Ms for which he paid. “Dear Champion Vending Company. I put five quarters in your machine and proceeded to push B2 which should have given me Peanut M&M’s. Regrettably, it did not. I found this upsetting as I was very hungry. And also, my wife had died 10 minutes earlier. I’m not saying that was your fault. I just want to be thorough.”

The now-deceased wife’s father (Chris Cooper) believes that Davis is not mourning right so he makes him take a break from his job (of which he is the employer). He tries to comfort him with ridiculous advice: “Repairing the human heart is like repairing an automobile, you have to take everything apart, examine everything, then you can put it all back together”. But Davis takes this metaphor quite literally, so he decides to pay attention to everything around him and starts to literally destroy things. He begins with smaller objects like clocks, refrigerators, bathroom stalls; he takes the whole thing apart and then leaves its pieces on the floor. At the same time, he finds company in the customer service representative woman named Karen (Naomi Watts) who is as baffling as him and he gets involved in her life and her son, Chris, a 15-year-old who struggles with labelling his sexuality. Like Davis, Chris feels a need to destroy himself in order to see what’s underneath so he can find his true self to put himself back together properly.

Gyllenhaal puts an outstanding performance as he manages to dance in the streets of NYC − jumping over poles and locking his knees and twisting his hips, showing his characters emotional numbness after trying everything to feel something, anything inside. When he moves on to full demolition (meaning tearing the whole house down) it’s hard to tell if he’s going downhill or if he’s on the road to recovery but it is at least a sign that a new beginning is waiting for him ahead.

Grief can be tricky and bizarre no matter whether you’re going through a normal or a complicated process. It might haunt you every waking hour or it can make you feel like a traitor for not feeling the way you think you’re supposed to do. It leaves you with questions that needs to be answered in order to survive the aching pain. When it’s not easy to find the answers you’re looking for, you choose to go on different paths, even if it means a significant change in lifestyle. Sometimes movies are the powerful tools you need to solve the mystery of yourself. If you give yourself a chance, they can even heal you. By that time, they also remind you that it is perfectly okay to admit you’re not okay.

by Deren Akin

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