I’m not really a Final Destination kind of guy but with stock dwindling at my favourite video store just two weeks before it closes, I settled on a movie that my friend had been trying to get me to watch for months. Final Destination 2- so far left on the shelves by eager shoppers looking to take advantage of the store’s Everything Must Go policy- has a death scene that apparently I just had to watch.
Watching the movie, I couldn’t be sure which scene she meant. There were a lot. Could it be the lottery winner who slipped on some spaghetti and got his head smashed in by a falling fire escape? Or the grieving mother who was decaptiated when she got her head caught in an elevator door? Turns out I should have been watching for the teenager who was crushed to death by something- what esxactly I can’t be sure, things happen fast in this movie- while chasing away some pigeons. Apparently, if you watch closely, he explodes long before anything falls on him. How does she know? She’s watched it in slow motion. Several times.
While I may not have even been temptedc to check the tape on that one, it got me thinking of my favourite on-screen passings. After all, we just saw some real beauts in Mad Max: Fury Road on Friday. Here’s my attempt at a Top Ten. I left out a lot out, I know. How about you? What are some of your favourite scenes that I might have missed?
10. Count Laszlo de Almásy The English Patient (1996)
One of the movies that I am most likely to meditate on the finality of death after watching. Once we’re gone, everything we’ve felt, everything we’ve feared, everything we’ve loved die with us. It’s painful to watch Ralph Fiennes suffer from his burns throughout the movie and when Juliette Binoche’s Hana agrees to help him end his agony once and for all, I could almost feel his last breath. Even though, technically, the scene ends before Laszlo does. Before this act of mercy, Hana reads him this.
“We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we’ve hidden in like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. We’re the real counttries. Not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men”.
9. Phil Groundhog Day (1993)
Condemned to live a bad day over and over until he gets it right, Phil (Bill Murray) uses this opportunity to try new things without having to wake up with any consequences. He makes a move on the girl he likes and punches the guy he doesn’t. He runs around town playing hero. He even gives dying a try. His suicidal phase is one of the funniest and darkest parts of the movie. (I haven’t seen the movie in awhile so I can’t remember if it’s made clear to us whether Phil is counting on waking up the next morning or hoping not to).
Before my favourite of said suicide “attempts”, Phil calmly walks into the lobby ignoring the pleasantries of the hotel staff and steals their toaster. Phil calmly prepares himself a nice hot bath and takes the toaster in with him. This scene would also make my list of Top Ten Reasons I Love Bill Murray.
8. Captain Frye The Rock (1996)
Ed Harris’ General Hummell is a madman but he really does think he’s doing the right thing. It’s the mercenaries he brings with him to sieze Alcatraz Island that make me nervous, especially Captain Frye. Played with his usual sneer by character actor Gregory Sporleder, there’s just something not quite right about this guy. He always seems to be wishing he was pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs.
A lot of these guys die for their cause in spectacular fashion but director Michael Bay saves the best for last when chemistry geek/action hero Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) shoves a vial of sarin gas in his mouth and smashes it with his fist. Neither Bay or Cage have gotten much right since but they did good here. This guy had it coming.
7. Sydney Barringer Magnolia (1999)
P. T. Anderson gets our attention right from the start and manages to hold it for Magnolia’s entire three-hour running time. Seventeen year-old Sydney Barringer jumps from the roof of his nine-story apartment building only to have his suicide attempt interrupted both by a safety net installed by some window washers and by a shotgun blast from a sixth floor window that killed him instantly. His unsuccessful suicide became a successful homicide when his own mother accidentally fired a shot while threatening his father during a heated argument.
Anderson didn’t come up with this story on his own. It’s an adaptation of a sort of urban legend that had been circulating for years but it sets up the strange events that follow perfectly.
6. Guy in elevator Drive (2011)
Ryan Gosling is a charmer. He swept Rachel McAdams off her feet both on and off screen and even taught Steve Carrell how to be a smooth talker. Just don’t get on his bad side. This guy’s not fucking around. He understands the golden rule of action movies. When someone’s giving you trouble, sometimes you’ve just got to stomp on their face until they’re dead. He doesn’t carry a gun much in Drive but why would he? He’s got his boot.
5. Edward Bloom Big Fish (2003)
The deathbed scene in The English Patient inspires me to meditate on death. Big Fish inspires me to reflect on life. Will Bloom (Billy Crodup) finally understands the value of myth and the key to good storytelling while seeing his father (Albert Finney) through his final moments. For most of his adult life, Will stubbornly told stories with “all of the facts, none of the flavour” but, when his father asks him to tell him “how he goes”, Will ad-libs a fantastical story fit for Ed’s remarkable life- one that undoubtedly touched so many others, even if the details are a little embellished. I still get chills when I watch it.
4. Cecilia Shepard Zodiac (2007)
I feel crass talking about an on-screen depiction of something that actually happened in the same post as the twisted thrills of Drive but there aren’t many scenes in 21st century American film that are more effective. All the recreations of the Zodiac killings in this movie are almost impossible to watch without some temptation to look away but this one at the beach is the most chilling. I felt a wave of anxiety every time I found myself anywhere secluded for weeks after watching this movie. The Zodiac killer was never caught or named but this faceless killer- now probably long gone- still haunts me.
3. Elle Driver Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
I only allowed myself one Quentin Tarantino entry on this post and I could have easily done one just on the Top Ten Tarantino Death Scenes. He’s the guy that knows how to do it, whose mind seems to take him to to places most of us wouldn’t dare. Daryl Hannah’s Elle puts up quite a fight against the Bride but the fight’s pretty much over when Uma Thurman’s antihero plucks out her only good eye. Adding insult to injury beyond anything I can imagine, poor Elle hears a sound that can only be Uma crushing it beneath her feet. Good and pissed but with nothing much she can do about it, Elle thrashes about unitl a poisonous Black Mamba finishes her off.
Elle Driver was an assassin and a bit of a sadist but I can’t help but feel just a little bad. What a way to go.
2. Spider Goodfellas (1990)
Everyone has a favourite scene here and I could have probably done a Top Ten just on this one movie but Spider (Michael Imperioli) really gets a raw deal. After finally being able to get back to work after being shot in the foot by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), the poor waiter finally stands up for himself and tells Tommy to fuck off. Tommy’s gangster buddy love it and tease Tommy until he loses it and empties his clip into the poor guy, shocking his buddies. “What the fuck, Tommy? We were just kidding around”.
Tommy’s a funny guy (yes, sort of like a clown) and I sure did miss him after he gets whacked. But he really was a mad dog. It’s probably for the best that he never got made.
1. Lester Burnham American Beauty (1999)
This also made my list of Movie Moments That Took My Breath Away. Lester makes it very clear from the start that he won’t survive the movie and the final moments are filled with tension as we wait for something to happen. Writer Alan Ball presents us with three suspects and we’re not sure until after the killing shot is fired who murdered Lester Burnham.
The murder is beside the point anyway. The tragedy is that Lester dies in pretty much the instant that he finds inner peace. His life flashes before his eyes as he reflects on all the beauty in the world. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry. You will someday”.