Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on the Movie "Collateral Beauty"

The movie, “Collateral Beauty,” deals with vitally important themes. For me, it fell short in many ways. There were moving moments, to be sure. The all-star cast made good attempts, but they distracted me. I kept seeing them as the movie stars they are and not as real characters in a difficult story.

The film centers on an advertising executive, played by Will Smith, who three years earlier lost his young daughter to a fatal illness. His grief has crippled him and he is lost in bitterness and silent rage. He spends his days building colorful, elaborate domino mazes that he then collapses. It’s an obvious metaphor of his life and the shattering of his spirit and soul.

He created his ad company on the basis of three imperatives: Time, Love, and Death. These, he told his colleagues and employees, are what connect us to all things fundamental to our well-being. He wanted his ad agency to reflect these themes in all aspects of its work. And yet, in his tormenting loss, he sees these now as enemies, as forces against him. Time has lost its meaning. Love did not protect but betrayed him. And Death robbed him of his child.

The movie wants you to see how devastating the loss of a child can be. And that’s a worthy goal. And yet, Smith’s character seems almost a caricature, a highly successful man loved and admired by his staff, who basically ignores all of them and allows his company to suffer disastrously without his leadership. He’s no longer a person. He’s just indignant grief.

His team of executives, played by Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Peña, devise a plan to save the company and, in a sort of perplexing way, save Howard, who is the grieving boss, from his despair. They hire people to play Time (Jacob Latimore), Love (Keira Knightley) and Death (Helen Mirren). Since Howard has written notes to these entities, blaming them for his loss, the three executives believe he can be proven incompetent if everything goes according to their plan.

I thought this part of the movie, dealing with time, love, and death would be moving and instructive, but for me it seemed to trivialize the deep sadness that comes from losing a child. Howard’s friends seemed more concerned about the company than about him. Though all apparently caring and capable people, they appeared hopeless against Howard’s grief. All they could think of was showing him to be insane, talking to imaginary people, so the major stakeholders of the company would allow them the right to take it over. They had no plan for Howard after that.

In what I thought was one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Howard is talking to a grief counselor (Naomie Harris), who asks why he came to her group meeting. Howard says, “I’m trying to fix my mind.” And the counselor says, “You lost your child; it will never be fixed.”

That is truly the reality of this kind of trauma. 

I wanted Howard’s loss to be more realistically explored. I wanted there to be a deeper mystery to his grief, not just rage and indifference to others. In my years as a minister, I was with families who lost babies, toddlers, grade schoolers, teens, and young adults. Some of them died from fatal diseases; some from car accidents; some from sports injuries; and some from suicide. Nothing is more profoundly catastrophic and heartbreaking than one of these deaths. And they cannot be dealt with in any superficial way if they are to be fully grasped and fully mourned.

There is an old saying, “Life breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Perhaps that is the lesson death wants us to learn; even the death of a child.

For Howard, we see at the end, that the grief counselor was his ex-wife who had never stopped loving him. She had taken her grief into a group setting with others who had lost a child. She wanted in some way to move out of her sorrow and find healing. It was her love and her truth that finally enabled Howard to accept his loss and live beyond it.

That is how people damaged by grief find their way. It is always because of someone’s stubborn, invincible love.

©2016 Timothy Moody

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