The Curious Case of Benjamin Button destroyed my popcorn!
It’s true. ‘Benjamin Button left me a sobbing, emotional catastrophe due to the scene where Button's adoptive mother died. I looked to my lap to see the skyscraper-sized carton of popped corn saturated with tears and more closely resemblimg a bowl of morning porridge than a bucket of Butterkist. Thus my kernel snack, along with my claim to ‘never cry at films’, was gone forever.
But, in this moment, from within this crumbled heap of emotions that constituted me, escaped a question: why do films make us feel? One answer lies in something sinister but universal: the moment that breaks a person.
A moment that breaks a person can be anything. Whether it be the death of a loved one, a crippling illness, an event that ruins a career or infinite other things. It can be a shock or something that has been foreseen for a very long time. It can even be something that another person wouldn’t be phased by. The key to an event breaking someone is whether it is exactly the type of thing that taps into the individual’s worst fear. If it does, and it taps into this fear in exactly the right way – like a code to a padlock – then it’ll break that person and change them forever.
As mentioned in a previous post, Sympathy: Under A Story’s Spell, stories form an emotional connection to their audience by getting that audience to sympathise with a protagonist. And sympathy for a protagonist is usually caused by that protagonist experiencing a moment that breaks a person. The story will highlight that moment in life that brings someone to the brink of giving up, of wanting to cease to be. At worst, moments like these can push someone towards taking their own life; at best, they force someone to reshape their sense of self from the ground up. Stories use our fear of something like this happening to us, or our own experience of it happening, to draw compassion from us – the audience – to their protagonist. In this way, they make us feel for them.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a brilliant modern example of a story about the moment that broke someone. In this film, Mildred Hayes has lost her daughter in the most brutal, horrific way and lashes out at everyone around her – friends, family, the media and the police force investigating her child’s murder – in frustration due to the lack of a suspect being brought to justice. The lack of the perpetrator being found, alongside her daughter being murdered in such a manner, taps into Mildred’s fear that she wasn’t a good mother - that she couldn’t protect her child - and breaks her.
The moment that breaks Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards is particularly good at tapping into audience emotion because it’s so visceral. To lose a child, let alone in such violent circumstances, taps into a programmed, primal fear that most any person could identify with and feel sympathy for. The story only builds on this by having Mildred as such a relatable woman. Before her daughter is killed she is pissed off at the world for no reason; after her daughter is killed she is pissed off at the world with every reason. In the ‘before’ Mildred, we see ourselves reflected in her – getting frustrated by life’s daily irritations – and in the ‘after’ Mildred we realise that our current life isn’t actually that bad.
Moments that break a person are seen throughout stories because they are events that are universal and unlock fears that are universal. Hence they are easy for an audience to sympathise with. That is not to say that something that breaks someone will necessarily break everyone who experiences it, or break them in the same way, but rather state that the concept behind a moment unlocking a fear within you so strong it breaks you is an event we can all imagine. After all, we all have our deepest fears.
Throughout cinema, we can see just how universal these moments that break a person are. In Up and Finding Nemo, the same type of event manages to trigger the different worst fears within two separate characters:
Up – The moment the love of your life dies, tapping into your fear of being alone for the rest of your own life. In Up, Carl’s beloved wife dies. This breaks him, leaving him miserable through his inability to know how to live life on his own.
Finding Nemo – The moment the love of your life dies, tapping into your fear of inadequacy without them. In Finding Nemo, Marlin and his wife are attacked by a barracuda moments after spawning. This leaves his wife dead and all but one egg eaten, and Marlin a lone parent struggling to raise his only son.
As we can see from these two films, both characters experience the same harrowing kind of event in the death of a loved one, but it manages to break them in two separate ways. In one, it taps into the fear of loneliness; in the other, a fear of inadequacy. In both of these stories, it is the universal catastrophic nature of losing a loved one that “broke” these protagonists. Ie. It unlocked a fear that changed both characters’ lives forever.
Indeed, the universality behind the ability for a given event to unlock our greatest fear is what allows us to feel stories. Through seeing character’s having their greatest fears unlocked to break them, we gain sympathy for them because it highlights how easily we might meet the same fate. Even if the event that broke the character is not something we’ve experienced, or the fear the event unlocked is not one we have, through simply witnessing a character being broken, we realise our own precarious position: that the event that unlocks our own worst fear may never be too far away from occurring.
Ultimately sories make us feel because, whether we realise it or not, they terrify us. In them, we witness characters go through hell, and we realise similar fear-inducing events are only a stone’s throw away from happening in our own lives. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button so affected me because it is about a character who is forever alone and unable to fit into the world due to his reverse ageing. Isolation through being an outcast is a particularly strong fear of mine, and so the film was exactly placed to tap into a terror very close to me.
Hence, stories make us feel because they make us aware of our primal fears. They bring urgency to them by making us aware of just how close at any given moment we are to having them realised.
Like the protagonist in any story, the code that unlocks our primal fears may be only one digit away from being cracked.
Want to get involved in the discussion? Scroll down to leave a comment below!