Dramatic Irony and Character Deaths

We explore the cinematic trope wherein a character dies at the beginning of the plot.
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By  · Published on August 20th, 2017

We explore the cinematic trope wherein a character dies at the beginning of the plot.

Oftentimes, a cinematic character’s death is the most dramatic and shocking event in the entire film. In most mainstream movies, when a character dies it is towards the end of the film, at a time when the narrative has established this person’s character traits and the audience has had ample time to get to know and love them. However, some movies flip this around and rearrange story order, by revealing a character’s death within the first few moments of the running time. These films tend to backtrack after revealing the death and show the events leading up to this person’s demise. This has a strange effect, however, as audiences know the character is doomed right from the beginning.

This is not a particularly common trope, but it has been employed in creative ways throughout cinema history. The way the death is portrayed, the other characters’ reactions and the way the events prior to the death are laid out all affect how the audience perceives the plot. Sometimes one’s perspective on a character will change multiple times throughout the film. This is an interesting plot device because it deviates from the classical Hollywood-style linear storytelling which most films employ. The plot events are rearranged and out of order, usually bookended by the same scene. The overall story is not put together chronologically, but rather, the events are presented out of order and it takes some extra brainpower if one wishes to put the events back in order. Of course, lots of films do this, but this trope is particularly fascinating because of the way it deals with death. Different films portray death and its effects differently, and the films I will discuss today all reside within different genres, with different styles and worldviews.

Other People (2016, dir. Chris Kelly)

Stylistically and narratively, Other People is a very simple film. The concept itself is one we are all familiar with — a young man has to return to his hometown to take care of his sick mother and be with his family. My colleague Fernando Andrés writes brilliantly about how this film takes a common narrative trope and turns it into something achingly beautiful and personal. Similarly, the way the plot events are organized also call attention to how thoughtful writer-director Chris Kelly was in telling this incredibly personal story.

The film opens with a family lying down in a dark room crying, as their mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon), has just passed away. From the beginning, the audience knows that she is going to die — however painful and morbid, this is the truth of what happened in Kelly’s own life, and the choice to reveal her fate immediately eliminates any false hope of a happy ending. The film then cuts back to a lively New Year’s Eve party, and it is revealed that David (Jesse Plemons) has returned home to California from New York City to stay with his family after finding out his mother has cancer. We also find out that David is gay, a fact which his father (Bradley Whitford) is uncomfortable with, which naturally deepens David’s sadness and frustration throughout the film.

One of the most heartbreaking elements of the film is seeing Joanne grow sicker and sicker. Our first glimpse of her is her tiny, lifeless body, but the film immediately transports us back to a time when she could dress herself up, wear makeup and jewelry, and looked relatively healthy. As she grows sicker and time passes by, she becomes paler and weaker, and her clothes become ill-fitting. She becomes extremely thin and loses her ability to speak. Kelly understands that cinema can visually portray these devastating changes over time, and this has an intense emotional impact. Once you have lost someone to cancer, it is impossible to forget the way the disease robbed them of their life right in front of your eyes. It is obvious that David, his father, and his sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) feel immense frustration and helplessness in the face of the physical toll this disease has on Joanne.

Vertical Entertainment

Of course, by opening the film with Joanne’s death, this eliminates the question of whether or not she will survive. Even though this does cast a dark shadow over the film, it is honest. Audiences will not spend the running time of the film wondering whether or not she survives, but will instead be able to feel deeply the pain this family goes through. The saddest thing is that the characters don’t really know she is going to die — they know there is a good chance, but nobody is ever truly prepared to lose a loved one. This is yet another truth about cancer which Kelly addresses head on. It’s messy and nothing is simple about losing a family member — it doesn’t automatically erase tensions between loved ones (David and his father; David and his boyfriend), and there are times when you feel like you are going crazy. I could deeply relate to David crying in the supermarket while trying to find medicine for his mother. Kelly does an incredible job of taking the audience through the roller coaster that is having a sick family member, without ever being sappy or manipulative.

At the time Kelly made the movie, it had been over a year since he had lost his mother. It makes sense that he would open the film with her death; he already knew she did not survive her illness. Cinema is a special medium because it can mimic the way our memories work — this is an artistic way for Kelly (or in the fictional world, David) to look back on the events leading up to his mother’s death. He remembers all the good, bad, messy, funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking things that happened along the way. That is what we do when we lose someone — we go over all the good and bad memories from the time before their death. This film is one of the best depictions of this, without explicitly being so. When the opening scene is repeated at the end of the film, and “Drops of Jupiter” by Train plays on the soundtrack (for the 100th time — another memory from that time period) there is a deep sadness and sense of finality, but it is also clear how much these characters loved their mother, and will always remember her and keep her close in their hearts.

Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)

Paramount Pictures

In contrast to the sweet sentimentalism of Kelly’s film, Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir is cynical from start to finish. Sunset Boulevard opens with a homicide squad racing down the Los Angeles streets towards a huge decrepit mansion on the eponymous road, where a man floats in a swimming pool, two shots in his back. The man is Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), and his voiceover narration reveals that he is the man floating in the pool. Wilder’s film is bitingly clever from the start, with the dead man narrating the story, detailing the six months leading up to his death. This is perhaps the most famous example of the dead-man-narrator trope, but of course, it was also employed in a similar manner by Sam Mendes in American Beauty (1999).

The way Gillis narrates the story sets the tone of the film — he is cynical, pessimistic, and self-deprecating. As this is a film noir, it is also highly stylized — the cinematography is full of shadows and dim lighting, everything in Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) mansion is excessive and ornate, and California takes on a dark, menacing quality. Wilder’s film, and Gillis’ story provide commentary on Hollywood, stardom, the excesses of wealth (Norma’s funeral for a chimpanzee and her huge old-fashioned cars), and the sad way that older women are marginalized by American society. The film is filled with cameos by one-time Hollywood greats — Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, and Buster Keaton appear, providing the sense that this is a film all about the vicious way Hollywood forgets about its stars as they grow older. As is common in film noir, the tone of the film is that of anxiety and fear — Gillis becomes an editor/co-writer for forgotten movie star Norma Desmond and watches with discomfort as she descends further into delusion and madness. Gillis essentially disappears from his social circle, spending all his time deep in the cold and lonely mansion, humoring Norma as she goes on and on about how wonderful and talented she is. It is a sad tale, but not one told with sentiment.

Paramount Pictures

Therefore when Norma finally kills Gillis in a jealous rage, it is unfortunate but not surprising. Norma’s violent tendencies are hinted at throughout the film — she turns to self-harm and suicide attempts when faced with hardship and rejection, and flies into fits of rage whenever Gillis questions her and her actions. This is not a film where anyone is innocent — Norma is narcissistic and manipulative, and Gillis and Norma’s chauffeur Max (Erich von Stroheim) are complicit in feeding Norma’s delusions, letting her think she is still a shining movie star with a great future ahead of her. Therefore when Gillis dies, it does not come across as tragic, but rather the inevitable end to this psychologically tense situation.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)

Twin Peaks is a unique example, as it is not just one film focused on a character’s death, but instead, it was a 30-episode television series prior to being turned into a movie. What sets Twin Peaks apart from the previous two examples is that it focuses on the time periods both before and after Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) death. The television series shows the effect Laura’s death has in the town of Twin Peaks and all the people in it, as well as the legal and supernatural consequences of her loss. After the series ended, Lynch went back to the world of Twin Peaks with a film focusing on the events leading up to Laura’s murder.

Twin Peaks is actually quite similar to Sunset Boulevard in terms of tone and style — as my brilliant colleague H. Perry Horton notes, Twin Peaks contains many elements of film noir. It is dark and stylish, focusing on crime (drugs, murder, prostitution) and filled with shadows and dim neon lights. Of course, Twin Peaks is also filled with the sunshine, coffee, cherry pie, and lots of absurd humor. Even Fire Walk With Me has moments of dark humor (“Wanna hear about our specials? We don’t have any.”), although it is incredibly tragic and horrifying. In its oblique Lynchian way, Twin Peaks focuses on the deep grief felt by both the characters after Laura dies, and Laura herself in the days leading up to her death — as James (James Marshall) points out in the show, it is as though Laura knew she was going to die, and wanted to die.

“And the angels wouldn’t help you…”/New Line Cinema

Throughout the television series, Laura is only ever seen as a corpse or as a ghostly figure within the Black Lodge. Of course, there are a few flashbacks and photographs of her, and her cousin Madeline is essentially her doppelganger, but Laura never appears alive in Twin Peaks. One of the most iconic images from the series is the first moment Laura is shown, pale and blue-lipped, dead and wrapped in plastic.

It is somewhat magical to see her living her life in Fire Walk With Me, however torturous it is for her. Sheryl Lee gives one of the most incredible performances of all time, showing the hardships Laura endured on a daily basis. She lives a double life, working hard in school and at her jobs during the day, and prostituting herself at nighttime. She takes cocaine and drinks alcohol throughout the day, and knows how to use her sexuality to manipulate those close to her (James, Bobby, Jacques, Leo, Harold). She is deep, deeply tortured by BOB (Frank Silva), who sexually assaults her nightly, and this becomes even more troubling when she finds out that BOB has been within her father Leland (Ray Wise) the entire time BOB has been assaulting her. All of these things were hinted at during the series, but the true horror of Laura’s life did not seem real until it was revealed to us on the big screen.

There is an incredible eeriness in seeing the last hours of Laura’s life portrayed onscreen. Everything outlined within the show — her mom (Grace Zabriskie) saying “goodnight, sweetheart”, her meeting with James and her jumping off his motorcycle, her second meeting with Jacques and Leo at the cabin — is finally presented to us. By the time Leland takes the girls to the abandoned train car and violently kills Laura, it is easy to be paralyzed by fear and sadness. This death is the center of everything to do with Twin Peaks — Laura is the haunting presence within both the series and the film. Even now, in the middle of season 3, her presence still haunts every episode. Leland wraps her in plastic and sends her body into the lake, and we all know where she is going to end up. The film is a circle, leading us to the beginning of the series while also referencing events which happened at the end of the series (Annie appears to Laura and mentions Cooper). This is perhaps the most thoroughly explored yet still mysterious death in the history of cinema.

The trope of the character who dies at the beginning of the plot can be employed in different ways — it could be tragic and emotional, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. One’s perspective on the character’s death will inevitably change over the course of the film, as the events leading up to it give us a sense of who this person was. In the case of Other People, we grow to love Joanne, a sweet and caring mother who tragically dies of cancer. On the other hand, Sunset Boulevard never really prompts us to sympathize much with Gillis, a selfish screenwriter who takes morbid fascination in Norma’s delusional mental state. Twin Peaks is more complex, showing the intricate tragedies within Laura’s life, and giving us a sense that this young woman did her best to stay alive despite horrific circumstances. This is always a fascinating plot device, and it is one which draws the audience in, keeping them enraptured wondering what the chain of events will be which inevitably lead to the character’s death.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.