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Revisited: Notable Cinematic Self-Offings

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By Andrea Meyer, Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: “Last Days,” Fine Line Features, 2005]

When we first ran this piece over two years ago, we debated whether or not it was in poor taste to dwell on such a topic. Now, following the media frenzy provoked by Owen Wilson’s reported attempt at taking his own life, we feel…well, not quite justified, but at least far from alone in our fixation, and so we thought we’d take a look back at some of our choices.

This week, Gus Van Sant tops off the trilogy of films he’s devoted to the deaths of the young and lovely. While “Gerry” meandered, in narrative form and spirit, in the desert with its two doomed hikers, and “Elephant” took sidelong glances at the motivations behind a Columbine-like high school shooting, “Last Days” is something stranger and more focused: a near-mystical look at a Kurt Cobain-like rock star as he drifts closer and closer to his inevitable suicide.

“Last Days” is hardly the first film to bask in the dramatic potential of people offing themselves. Movies have always luxuriated in dramatic deaths, and none so much as the well-scripted suicide, which has punctuated endings, come shockingly out of nowhere to yank a plot down an unexpected path, or happened before a film even began, precipitating the events we actually see. Morbid types that we are here at IFC News, we decided to look at some of the most memorable self-offings, attempted and otherwise, that have been committed to celluloid.

Heathers (1989)

No film, save “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” has ever managed to say “school is hell” with quite the bite of Michael Lehmann’s black-on-black comedy. It’s possible that no film ever will again, at least not in the now verboten territory “Heathers” treads. (A student wiring the bleachers under a pep rally with bombs? Hah!) The scene in which the abused, overweight Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock throws herself in front of a car — only to survive, crippled, and worse, be forced to return to school — is a bleak tour de force of comic misery, but nothing compares with Christian Slater’s goodbye. His plot to off everyone under the guise of mass suicide thwarted by his girlfriend (Winona Ryder), he stands on the steps with arms outspread and reveals that he’s wearing a personal stash of dynamite. And as the timer ticks down…well, let’s just say it remains the best cigarette lighting we’ve ever on screen. —Alison Willmore

The Dreamlife Of Angels (1998)

Two penniless 20-year-olds, Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez) and Marie (Natacha Régnier), become fast friends when they meet at a Lille sweatshop. French filmmaker Erick Zonca’s camera follows them, documentary-style, as they move in together and struggle to find a life that will sustain them, Marie eventually falling in love with a rich jerk who drives her to amorous self-effacement. This hard-hitting movie gives us two angels, one open to everything life has to offer — pain, joy, absurdity and sorrow — and the other constantly baffled by those same forces. When one of them gives up hope, it feels as though your heart has cracked. But then Zonca instructs you to mend it right up again and keep trudging through another day. —Andrea Meyer.

The Big Heat (1953)

In just about all the films we’re discussing (including the other four I’ve picked), suicide is a climactic act. Suicide is dramatic and intensely emotional, exactly what a good climax should be. In “The Big Heat,” on the other hand, the suicide happens before the film, as the incident that incites the action, and so the film deals instead with the event’s impact on others rather than on the act itself. Detective Dave Bannion (played by the solid-if-stolid Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of a police sergeant who, it turns out, was on the mob’s payroll. Bannion is a good cop; possibly, director Fritz Lang implies, a little too good. He pushes too hard, and so his enemies push back, killing Bannion’s wife in an explosion meant for him. “The Big Heat,” one of the best (and coolest, smartest, edgiest) film noirs ever made, subtly comments on the repercussions of suicide, which in this case are as responsible for Bannion’s wife’s death as Bannion is, if a little less directly. Throughout the film, Lang repeatedly asks: Is it morally appropriate to do right when doing right can result in more wrong? —Matt Singer

Oldboy (2003)

“Oldboy” starts off a great movie, though it ends up just an okay one. The first half-hour crackles with life, as vibrant and fresh as “Pulp Fiction” felt a decade ago — it’s no wonder Quentin Tarantino swooned all over the film at Cannes last year. As Oh Dae-su, shattered and far from sane after years in captive solitude, wakes to find himself on a rooftop, free for the first time in 15 years, he comes across a man preparing to jump. Given what’s come before, we have no idea what to expect from this encounter, but it’s funny and perfect, and ends with our hero walking out of the building and not looking back as the man decides to jump after all. His smile is deserved — after all, who would choose death? After 15 years, given an unfaltering purpose, he’s ready to devour life with both hands. —AW

Bad Timing (1980)

In Nicholas Roeg’s elusive love story, Milena (Theresa Russell), is brought into a Vienna hospital following her attempt to overdose on pills. Trying to determine whether there’s been foul play, a suspicious cop (Harvey Keitel) interrogates her reticent lover, Alex (Art Garfunkel), and what emerges in flashback is the history of an overwhelming passion between people who can’t live with or without each other. In its twisted conclusion, we learn that the violent act that seemed to be a cry for attention on Milena’s part might be as much an attempt on Alex’s part to finally have her — wholly, without friction, game-playing or tears, all to himself. —A.M.

Boogie Nights (1997)

In the mesmerizing scene that leads to one of the most unflinchingly brutal onscreen suicides in history, William H. Macy’s Little Bill wanders through a bustling house party on New Year’s Eve 1980. He’s looking for his wife, who has spent the better portion of the previous 90 minutes brazenly screwing everyone in the movie but him. When Billy finally finds her with yet another nameless dude, he calmly walks out to his car, finds and loads his gun, walks back in, shoots her, turns to the camera, flashes a pathetic smile, places the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Director Paul Thomas Anderson stages the scene for maximum shock value, and doesn’t cut for almost three minutes as Macy enters the party, exits and enters again (the one cut in the entire sequence, just after he kills his wife, is only used to allow for the placement of the makeup effects that provide the illusion that Macy is really blowing his brains out). The suicide scene recalls the film’s jubilant introduction but, coming just at the start of the ensemble’s collective downward spiral through the 1980s, suggests that the party is most certainly over. One interesting tidbit; the interview between Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves and Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler immediately after the suicide begins with a pointed question about accusations of violence against women, as if “Boogie Nights” director Paul Thomas Anderson is already fielding questions about the previous scene before the movie has even ended. —M.S.

The Piano (1993)

I was really too young to fully appreciate Jane Campion’s dark romance, all sharp edges and clutching hands, when I first saw it in the theater. It says something that the final moments of the film stand out in my mind more than all of the Harvey Keitel nudity Campion saw fit to subject us to. Out on rough seas, trying to take Ada McGrath’s other great love, her piano, to a ship and a presumed happy ending, the crew is forced to choose between dumping the unwieldy instrument or all going down. As the piano sinks to its final home, Ada, as if she had no other choice, sticks her foot into a loop in the rope unspooling after it, and abruptly gets pulled into the water. “What a death! What a chance! What a surprise!” as she says later, looking back, having chosen life. —A.W.

Harold and Maude (1971)

Hal Ashby’s black comedy has taken on the status of cult film beloved by loners, cynics and the more sentimental of cinephiles. Bud Cort plays a rich teenager who spends his days faking his own suicide and whose bleak existence turns rosy when he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an energetic 80-year-old who attends funerals for the fun of it. The movie shocks because the sexual relationship at its core matches a misfit boy with a vibrant octogenarian, but its story is one we’ve heard before: A depressed man meets a woman who teaches him to love life and then dies, leaving him sad and lonely but strangely full — of the joy his lover has given him. —A.M.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

“I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” And immediately after that, Richie Tenenbaum slashes his wrists. Inexplicable and powerful, a summing up of the quiet undercurrent of unhappiness running through the film. Luke Wilson, doe-eyed and square-jawed, faces the camera as he shaves off his beard and Björn Borg hairstyle and emerges from the caricature to become a human being of flesh and blood, which he proceeds to shed all over the borrowed bathroom floor. And set to Elliott Smith, nonetheless. —A.W.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey, not Liev Schreiber’s faded carbon-copy in last year’s rehash) is one of the great tragic figures of the movies. Manipulated by forces beyond his control (like, for instance, his harpy of a mother, played by Angela Lansbury), he is made to assassinate the enemies of a group of subversive Communists hiding, rather deviously, as the most hawkish anti-Communists in the country. Harvey, impossibly soulful as a soulless killer, plays Shaw as a jerk and a coward, daring us to hate him. But we can’t, not when he begins to understand his problem and, with the help of Frank Sinatra’s Ben Marco, fight back. His suicide, after breaking his programming, is the most distressing I can think of in the movies: after he finally regains his free will, he uses it one last time to end his own misery. —M.S.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Ken Kesey’s novel, adapted for screen by Milos Forman, takes on institutions and the ways they can smother the spark out of anyone with a little fire in them. Blazing boldly is McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who lands in the loony bin after playing crazy to avoid doing time backfires, and tries to revolutionize the place. Determined to stamp out his rebellious fervor is the demonically rigid Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). In the devastating scene that provokes the film’s final fireworks, Billy (Brad Dourif), a terrified, childlike stutterer who flourishes under McMurphy’s prodding, regresses tragically when Ratched venomously extinguishes any last glimmer of sanity in him. —A.M.

Solaris (1972)

Psychologist Kris Kelvin’s wife, Hari, kills herself before Tarkovsky’s enigmatic sci-fi magnum opus begins, but the impact of her act ripples across the film, particularly once Hari begins reappearing, conjured by the alien presence Kelvin and other scientists have set out to study. The Hari that Kelvin sees is one constructed entirely of his memories of her, one that has none of her own, and yet, as she begins to understand who she is, one that commits suicide again. But this new Hari, this Guest Hari, can’t die, just as Kelvin cannot strip the guilt he feels over abandoning the old Hari from his mind. And so we see her resurrected, jerking back to life to join her husband once again in a scene that is great and terrible. Tarkovsky’s film is about many things, and writing this makes me want to rewatch it for all of the themes I’ve forgotten, but it has always been most of all, for me, about the ultimate isolation that is human consciousness. Other people, despite all of the experience we share with them, remain at their depths as unknowable as “Solaris'” shimmering alien sea. —A.W.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Okay, yes, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) claims he cannot “self-terminate” and so Linda Hamilton lowers him into the vat of smelting metal that will destroy him. And even if the Terminator had leapt into the death bath while squealing “My what a lovely tea party!” can a robot technically commit suicide? After all, in the near-future, Terminators, even the bulky Austrian kind, are widely available at all Ace Hardware locations. Whatever, there’s no denying the awe-inspiring drama of the last moments of the sacrificial cyborg who saved us all from the sinister polymorphous clutches of Robert Patrick. In that shining moment where Arnold slipped under the molten goo and shoved a triumphant thumb into the air, we are too overcome by grief to realize that “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” was always just a $30 million paycheck away. Arnold, you had me at “self-terminate.” —M.S.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

In Ridley Scott’s adored girls-on-the-road flick, Thelma (Geena Davis), the wife of an obnoxious bore, and her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon) leave their humdrum lives behind for a weekend jaunt. When Louise shoots a man attempting to rape Thelma in a parking lot, they head for Mexico instead, becoming fugitives tracked by a swarm of policemen led by kind cop Harvey Keitel. As tension increases and the girls grow tanner and more self-assured, they hone in on what they want and what they can’t go back to. And when they drive off a cliff in the end, surrounded by wailing sirens and Keitel’s devastated protest bouncing off canyon walls, the act does not seem self-destructive. It’s an escape, a triumph, a celebration of life lived without compromise. Their high-speed leap is as ecstatic as suicide gets. —A.M.

Vertigo (1958)

It is one of the supreme masterpieces of cinema from the man who is arguably the medium’s greatest artist. It is about an obsessive necrophiliac. James Stewart is Scottie, a former policeman turned private detective, hired to follow a rich old friend’s crazy/beautiful wife, Kim Novak’s Madeleine. Scottie and Madeleine begin an affair, but he can’t seem to stop her strange hallucinations. Eventually Madeleine is compelled to commit suicide by jumping from the clock tower of a Spanish mission, and Scottie, gripped by uncontrollable vertigo, is powerless to stop her. Scottie, and the audience, is devastated by the suicide — it’s rare that a Hollywood movie hero is allowed to fail so utterly — but it only gets worse when he finds a woman who resembles Madeleine and sets out to remake her in the first woman’s image, changing her hair, clothes and makeup until she is the spitting image of Madeleine. Only Alfred Hitchcock could make such compelling mainstream fare out of such icky sexual deviancy. As Scottie grows more consumed with replacing Madeleine, “Vertigo” grows darker and more disturbed, building to a shocking revelation and another confrontation in the Spanish clock tower. This time Scottie conquers his vertigo at an even greater cost than before and the final image, Jimmy Stewart standing at the tower’s edge, looking down into a metaphorical abyss, is as hopeless and beautiful as movies get. —M.S.

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