Ye be warned! Spoilers ahead!
All right, so here’s the promised comparison between the respective endings of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ and ‘Gran Torino’. Let’s start with the similarities:
- Both endings involve the death of the protagonist
- Both end with loved ones visibly affected by the protagonist
- Both deaths are set up as inevitable
And that, unfortunately, is about all the comparison I can think of. It’s no secret that I liked ‘Gran Torino’ better than ‘Benjamin Button’; one of the major reasons is how the films handled their endings. Killing off the protagonist is a tough way to end your movie. For some, it’s like killing the movie itself. Imagine ‘Star Wars’ without Luke Skywalker, or worse, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ without Indiana Jones. Naturally, those films wouldn’t survive without their protagonist, because the story is not designed to deal with it. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to. But for a film like ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which goes from the birth of Benjamin to his death, it needs to have a strong, fulfilling ending, or else the entire film dies with him in the hearts of the audience. ‘Gran Torino’ faces a similar issue. Both are films closely associated with death, and its inevitability in mortal man. Walt Kowalski in ‘Gran Torino’ is faced with his death during the course of the film, as he starts experiencing painful symptoms of what is hinted to be lung cancer; coughing up blood, and the like. When he sacrifices his life to destroy the Hmong gang at the climax, the writers wisely made it both shocking and inevitable. We knew he was going to die eventually, but they let him do something that vindicated and saved his newfound family. So, in a way, he didn’t die; he just drove into the sunset. This is symbolized in the film itself by having Thao, the Hmong boy Walt befriended, inherit the Gran Torino that Walt himself had built on the assembly line, actually driving it in the last shot. The Gran Torino is important, because it represents Walt’s life and work. Walt still lives in that car and in Thao, even though he has gone on into whatever fate awaits him behind the veil. He fades gracefully, rather than simply vanishing. When I walked out of the theater, I didn’t feel that Walt was dead.
In ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, death is also set up as inevitable, even though Benjamin is taken by his reverse aging, and not by gunfire. At the beginning of the film, the blind clockmaker’s reversed clock, which is hung at the train station, is linked somehow with the birth of Benjamin, as if in some twisted way, the clockmaker’s dream had come true. Someone really would live a reversed life. Unfortunately, the clock’s relationship with Benjamin is never elaborated on, and even more confusingly, it is still shown ticking at the climax of the film, well after Benjamin’s death. The filmmaker’s made the effects of the reverse aging strangely inconsistent as Benjamin neared death, as he somehow ended up with Alzheimer’s and dementia. If they had kept it consistent, he would have had those same diseases at birth. Introducing the dementia element strips Benjamin of the most critical feature as he nears death: personality. Even though the reverse pattern would indicate Benjamin actually becoming more youthful, steadily, until his heart stopped beating, they made his mind completely snap, which is rare in the elderly regardless of age. This was a big mistake. Also, by stripping him of memory and personality, the Benjamin we’ve known throughout the entire film simply vanishes. He’s gone. He dies without grace and without memory, without something to do this vivid character justice. A character so great, so iconic, as Benjamin, deserves a chance to drive into the sunset. He needs that chance at immortality in the hearts of moviegoers. When I walked out of the theater, I was depressed, because I knew Benjamin Button was dead. He didn’t live on in anyone. Nobody remembered, except for Daisy, and she fades with more grace than he did.
Seeing how ‘Gran Torino’ and ‘Benjamin Button’ part ways, it makes me think of the underlying philosophies that would result in their respective endings. For Walt Kowalski, life has become more powerful than death, transcending it. Death has no sting for Walt. He drives into the sunset, with hope. You can’t sacrifice your life for something or someone you believe in if you don’t have hope. For Benjamin Button, death has swallowed up his life. He’s fallen into a black hole of inevitability, where the only hope is to surrender to the cruelty of existence. Though for an entire film we’ve been treated with a hopeful, eternally naive human being, the writers gave him a death so fatalistic it quenches his spirit.
I’d rather die like Walt Kowalski. And I’d rather tell stories about the Walt Kowalskis of the world, not those who are swallowed up into oblivion.
Filmmakers, here’s how to end your drama. If you create a protagonist, he never dies. Period. Even if you kill him, his character cannot die, or your story dies with him. You want the audience to drive with him into sunset.