When I present a list as random as this one, I typically use the introductory paragraph(s) to justify why you might want to read it, and how I came up with the idea in the first place. And the honest truth is, I have no idea where the basis for most of my lists come from. I get an idea and off it goes.
With that in mind, I can’t particularly pin point what caused me to rank 10 movie scenes in which people receive incredibly troubling news. Other than the fact that scenes like these usually lend themselves to gut wrenching acting. I hope you enjoy my picks, and to prove I’m not a heartless bastard who enjoys watching people (fictional or otherwise) suffer, I’m going to post the inverse of this list tomorrow.
For now, revel in the pain, and be sure to tell me some of your most memorable moments of cinematic despair in the comments. The possibilities are endless.
After Charles Foster Kane’s second wife (you know, the one who attempted suicide because Kane forced her into a singing career) leaves him, old Charlie boy embarks on what may be the best room-trashing scene in movie history. He slowly makes his way around his wife’s room and wrecks everything in sight. Furniture, decorations, expensive gifts, jewelry, clothes – nothing is spared. Nothing except his precious snow globe. Welles said he shot this scene once, and forced himself to “feel it,” physically injuring himself in the process. Whatever the method, it damn well worked. Watch the scene here.
Ingrid Thulin – Winter Light (1963)
What’s worse than hearing your lover describe how repulsive you are? That’s precisely what poor Märta Lundberg (Thulin) endures when her cold lover, Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) finally reveals all the reasons he despises her. Everything from her “clumsy hands” to her “timid displays of affection.” He says he tried to push her away calmly in the past, but because she wasn’t smart enough to pick up on it, he was forced to destroy their love for good, “Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities.”
Leave it to Ingmar Bergman to sling something so irreparably sharp. Watch the scene here.
Beatrice Straight – Network (1976)
This is easily one of the most lacerating break-up scenes of all time. After Max Schumacher (William Holden) tells his wife, Louise (Straight) that he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman, and has no intention of ending it, he leaves the ball in Louise’s court, to which she reacts as one might suspect.
“I’M YOUR WIFE, DAMNIT!” she screams. “If you can’t work up a winter passion for me, then the least I require is respect and allegiance!” Now that’s how you take bad news. Want to know how to win an Oscar for just six minutes on screen? Look no further. Watch the scene here.
Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Sophie’s Choice isn’t a very good movie, but the scene in which Meryl Streep is forced to make the titular choice is completely fucking devastating. It’s a beyond cruel predicament that, no matter what the helpless Sophie decides, will haunt her for the rest of her life. Will, and did.
You can watch the scene here if you wish, but just be warned. This is heavy shit.
Vincent Cassel – Irréversible (2002)
Drunkenly stumbling out of a party with his buddy, Cassel’s Marcus notices police officers dispersing a large crowd nearby. Curious, Marcus innocently asks a passerby what’s going on.
“Some whore got raped,” the man says.
Marcus looks down and the camera quickly zooms in on his horrified face as the sound of a rapid heartbeat fills the soundtrack. He begins repeating the name of his girlfriend over and over, but she’s gone – victimized every which way to near death. As a human being, it’s difficult for me to grasp the horror of that situation, but goddamn if Cassel doesn’t execute it with accurate terror. Because Irréversible is told in reverse chronological order, the audience shares Marcus’ presumed curiosity of just how bad the situation is. If he only knew.
Sean Penn – Mystic River (2003)
This entire list could be made up of scenes in which parents discover that their child has been murdered. There are so many different ways to play that situation, but few are more animalistic than Penn’s in Mystic River. Jimmy Markum’s tireless roaring of “IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?!” as a handful of police officers attempt to restrain him, has proved to be the most ferocious scene of Penn’s career.
A bit of interesting trivia: originally, director Clint Eastwood chose to have only three officers hold Penn down during the scene. Right before they shot, Penn quietly approached Eastwood and said that if he gave it his all, three wasn’t going to be nearly enough. So Clint brought on 12 additional actors, and directed them all to do whatever they could to pull Penn to the ground. If you’ve seen the movie, you know Penn doesn’t go down (and he actually broke a few of the cops’ ribs in the process). Method or not, that’s intensity. Watch the scene here.
The Passengers – United 93 (2006)
United 93 is a stellar cinematic effort for a number of reasons. One of the main ones, in my mind, is its depiction of how people react differently to the same situation. Some pretend everything’s going to be okay, others stand up and fight. Some call home, others cry for help. And some, like the couple I have pictured above, sit quietly and accept their fate. Titanic displayed this range of emotions as well, though, in my opinion, to a far less effective degree. Either way, it makes you ask: how would I respond? Watch the scene here.
William Hurt – Into the Wild (2007)
William Hurt is one of my all time favorite actors, and this brief, dialogue-free scene is my favorite moment of his career. Finally accepting that his free spirited son is never coming home, Walt McCandless walks idly down his suburban street, turns to make sure no one is looking, and collapses to the ground, silently wailing in pain. He clutches his pants, because he has nothing else to hold on to. Nothing. Kills me every time. That’s fucking acting right there. Watch (part of) the scene here.
Hanna Schygulla – The Edge of Heaven (2007)
I really need to talk about The Edge of Heaven more on this blog. It’s a tiny Turkish/German film about how ripples in human nature can affect people across the world. Some have called it a more accomplished Babel, which may not be far off (and I say that as a great admirer of Babel).
I risk giving away a major plot point in describing Schygulla’s perfect, devastating emotional breakdown in the film, but just know that Schygulla’s insurmountable grief, coupled with Fatih Akin’s restrained direction, makes for a grueling sequence of loss. Akin simply let’s the scene play out, void of cinematic flourishes. There is only pain filling the screen here.
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone (2012)
If you’ve seen Rust and Bone (side note: it’s now on DVD, so see Rust and Bone) then you may agree that we have no idea what drives Cotillard’s Stéphanie. From where does she derive pleasure or pain? We don’t know, because it’s quite possible she doesn’t know. It takes a random act of brutal violence to wake Stéphanie up. Watch this scene and you’ll know that she’s awake all right.