I saw the film Collateral Beauty for the first time last night. It’s the most beautiful piece of art that I’ve discovered and easily the best film I’ve seen. The film confronts grief in a way I have never heard of before and I just need to write about it.
There are SPOILERS in this, so please close the tab now to avoid these. This piece is mainly for those who have watched the film and want to dig a little deeper into its depths.
Howard (played by Will Smith), opens the film by giving a presentation to his hard-working colleagues about the beauty of his advertising company and the values they work hard to convey to their customers. The main three themes the company focuses on portraying in their advertising campaigns are Love, Death and Time. He describes these three things as being the main things that people identify with. “We’re here to connect; Love, time, death. Now these three things connect every single human being on earth. We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death.”
Howard’s colleagues beam up at him; they are clearly so proud that he is their boss. The scene is full of colour, joy and pride; Howard looks youthful, proud, knowledgeable and excited to be in charge of the company.
The audience are then met with a ‘Three Years Later’ statement across the screen. Howard is withered, looks aged and exhausted. This is where the film changes significantly. We find out that Howard’s six year old daughter died and his company is in the process of failing as main relationships between clients were formed because of Howard; he was the driving force in the liaisons and relations. Howard stopped coming into meetings, refused help, stopped paying rent, barely ate, felt suicidal and only came into work to build structures of dominoes around his office.
The haunting, reflective song ‘Looking Too Closely’ by Fink played over the top of scenes showing Howard’s destructive attitude. The lyrics touched my eyes as tears slid down my cheeks; the choice of this song as part of the soundtrack for the film was perfect. The singer states, “You don’t want to hurt yourself by looking too closely.” This notion reflects how Howard feels about his daughter’s death. When asked her name, he refuses to say it. When asked what she died of, he refuses to say it. He attempts to attend grief support groups but walks away. Even after several years have passed, he cannot physically sign a company piece of paperwork to state that his daughter has died. In essence, Howard is too scared to look closely at the situation and admit that his little girl is gone. Instead, he’d rather conjure up anger within himself, be self destructive, lack any sort of relations, and spit anger at the abstract notions of Love, Time and Death that he used to so earnestly advertise.
The Symbol of Dominoes
The structures that Howard creates in his office are incredible. Claire (played by Kate Winslet), a colleague and devoted friend, comments on how the latest structure of dominoes took Howard five days to create. So, what do the dominoes represent?
We can look at the inclusion of dominoes in the film very literally. For example, we see Howard playing dominoes with his little girl. This is a very important reason for him then obsessively doing this; it’s a reminder of his daughter.
Another interpretation is that the dominoes represent life; from beginning to end. One domino (situation) leads to another. The dominoes can represent the chaos of Howard’s situation. I think chaos is the correct term here, as the scenes he creates in his office are pretty chaotic. The dominoes collide into one another, tearing off into separate lines and streams around the office; causing in eventual mess when they all fall. One situation leads to another; death, divorce, company failure, the effect on his workers etc.
Personifying Abstract Notions: Death, Love & Time
Howard’s dearest friends Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet) and Simon (Michael Pena) employ a private investigator to expose Howard’s poor mental state so that he would no longer have control over their failing company. They discover the Howard has been been sending hate mail to the three things his company used to focus on as a form of therapy. Critics have questioned the film for how unbelievable it is; I feel like they have missed the point of the film entirely. I would like to go into this a little deeper seeing as they are not.
Howard’s friends discover that Howard insults Death, calling it a ‘Paper Tiger’. A paper tiger is an English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎) and is a phrase that refers to something that seems threatening but is actually ineffectual and is therefore weak. He does a similar act to Time and when he writes to Love, he simply just writes, ‘Goodbye’. Howard is the initial instigator of personifying Love, Time and Death. He writes to them to help gather his thoughts.
They’re Not Actors!
We were then introduced to the actors who would then intervene in Howard’s life. For example, at work, Whit is drawn to a lady wearing a red cap who is an actress in a queue waiting for an audition at the advertising company, wearing a stand out red hat. Whit is drawn to her; she changes the script for how love is going to represented in the advert. Whit is thrilled when he hears how the script could be changed to convey love better. Once this happens, she leaves and does not audition. This was the first indication that she was not an actress, but in fact Love personified. Love wanted to do the right thing; Love wanted to help. She did not need to audition; but to change the way love was being shown.
Still under the disguise of being actors, Love then leads Whit to meet Death and Time (disguised as actors) to a small, run-down theatre. Whit, Claire and Simon comes up with the idea of employing the three actors to play Love, Death and Time in Howard’s life.
What I particularly loved about this aspect of the film was that Love, Death and Time were acting; acting as if there were actors. Deep. I noticed that they were actually Love, Death and Time when observing the way they were talking in front of Whit, Claire and Simon, when they were just meant to be actors. For example, Time (disguised as Raffi) asked, “When are we going to get paid?” which made me chuckle as it hinted at his time-frame mentality. Love (disguised as Aimee) refused to partake further in the process of humiliating Howard; bursting into tears at the idea which shows Love’s compasssion. Death (disguised as Bridgette) simply took over, showing death to be dominating and appearing to be an all-knowing force (as she was from the moment she went on-screen) saying that it didn’t matter if Aimee stopped playing Love as Death could do it. She commented on how “Death understands Love too, you know” which is also a really interesting concept; can you have love without death?
Can other people see Love, Death and Time?
I think that Howard can see them. Whit, Claire and Simon can too. I don’t think anyone else could though. Love, Death and Time needed to work in those four main characters in that moment; no one else.
Bridgette (Death) asks Whit, Claire and Simon what are the guidelines in their acting? Who can see them? They eventually settle that Love, Death and Time can appear to whomever they choose and if the person chooses to see them too. Something along those lines anyway.
Howard, Whit, Claire and Simon choose to see Love, Death and Time in their own lives due their different circumstances; Howard needs all three to deal with his grief, Love had unfinished business with Whit regarding relations with his daughter, Time helps Claire in her wonder if she is too late to be a mother and Death comforts Simon in his cancer returning.
I’m not sure if the private investigator can see Death, Love or Time when she is filming them. That’s up for debate. I like to think that she couldn’t; but just wanted to get paid so went along with everything, happy to know that she didn’t have to engage in the long task of digitally editing out the so-called personifications of Death, Love or Time in the videos she took of Howard talking to them.
Characterisation and Quotes
Looking at the three personifications, it’s really interesting to see how they chose to convey their characters. The director obviously decided that Death needed to be the eldest; if Death was cast as a young actor, there wouldn’t have been the credibility and depth there that Helen Mirren carried with her. I loved how Death was actually colourful; in a bold blue coat and feather boa. Death carried a strange air of sophistication; particular when she met Howard on the park bench. A quote that stuck with me from Death is when she said something along the lines of, ‘Things only die if you interpret them that way’ meaning that something doesn’t have to die if the lasting impact of them stays with you.
Time was played by a young lad, symbolising hope and opportunity for the future. The director chose to show Time residing in the suburbs. This was particularly interesting; was this a hint that more time needs to be dedicated to undeveloped districts? Time is constantly frustrated; he was rarely upbeat, particularly when talking with Howard. He said to Howard, “Remember me? I’m time. You wrote me because you need me. I’m a gift, and you’re wasting it!” Claire delivers his payment to him at the end of the film and is relieved that she managed to carry the money through the ‘unsafe’ town safely. Claire says to him, “What are you going to do with the money? Go to acting school!” Time ends with an ironic line, “Nah, I’m going to spend it on designer drugs.” This means that he could spend it on something wisely, but chooses to waste it according to the culture; reiterating that people are constantly wasting the precious time and opportunities that are given to them as a gift.
Love was particularly interesting. She had several dimensions to her character; she was helpful, demanding, compassionate, strong willed, joyful and emotional. When in communication with Howard, Love (Aimee) said the following:
Aimee: Love is the reason for everything.
Howard: I felt you everyday when she laughed and you broke my heart!
Aimee: I was there in her laugh, but I’m also here now in your pain.
She also noted:
“I’m love. I’m the fabric of life. Don’t try and live without me, Howard.”
I loved the wording that ‘love is the fabric of life’; meaning that it sows us all together; we wear love; we need to clothe ourselves in it.
The Importance of Confronting and Being a Stranger
Madeleine: [to Howard] You need to talk to them, Howard. Challenge them, just engage.
The most beautiful aspect of the film was the surprise element of Madeleine, the lady from the grief support group, being Howard’s divorced wife. She says the above quote directly to Howard; telling him to engage with Love, Death and Time. She noticed a change in him; a longing to get better. This is why the three appear throughout the film; we are being taught that to get better, you need to challenge your thoughts.
Madeleine: Was it the holidays? Howard Inlet: No, it wasn’t that. Madeleine: Then why did you decide to come in tonight? Howard Inlet: Um, I’m trying to fix my mind.
It was so interesting that the pair chose to literally see the other as a strangers. For example, when they divorced, Howard sent Madeleine a card saying, ‘…if only we were strangers again…’ The audience were unaware of any past between the pair of them and it also meant that in some way, they had a fresh start. This is particularly shown when Madeleine asks Howard questions about his divorce, and the mention that Madeleine was, in actual fact, still in love with the man she had to divorce due to grief.
The Term ‘Collateral Beauty’
Madeleine: [to Howard] You’ve been given a gift, this profound connection to everything. Just look for it, and I promise you it’s there, the collateral beauty.
So, what does Collateral Beauty mean? Collateral is the repayment of something, therefore meaning that even when bad things happen, look for the beauty that you will be repaid. There is always beauty; you need to look for it.
It was such a beautiful moment to see that Death actually appeared to Howard’s wife just before their daughter died. Death was present to deliver a beautiful, long lasting phrase as a reminder to look for hope in the future.
Constantly look for the collateral beauty; look for it.
I cannot wait to see this film again; I may need to write down more quotes so I that I can take them away and ponder over them once more.
I hope I have supplied some interesting analysis and moments; just like Howard’s letters, this was therapy for me.