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Grief, Death, and Devastation Punctuate Awards-Season Films Vying for Best Picture

There’s a scene midway through Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” that’s so tragic and devastating — sadder than anything in “Ordinary People,” if that’s the barometer we’re using — that it knocks the wind right out of you. Because nobody could ever fully recover from what’s just happened. As a moviegoer, you’re so shaken, you can’t help but wonder how are these people possibly ever going to go on?

Grief and loss run throughout this year’s top Oscar contenders. From the mother who commits suicide in Matt Ross’s exemplary “Captain Fantastic”; to the wide-eyed Indian boy separated from his birth family in Garth Davis’ “Lion”; to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a sublimely eloquent portrayal of a young man’s coming of age in drug-addled 1980s Miami, anguish and heartbreak abound on the big screen.

So what does all this pain and suffering say about who we are, and where we are, as a society? Have we been collectively pummeled with so much pain that it’s come to permeate the way the film industry approaches its art?

Taylor Sheridan, screenwriter of David Mackenzie’s bloody bank-heist crime drama “Hell or High Water,” says yes, we have.

“Since [Sept. 11] 2001, we have just been forced as a people to face loss — loss of innocence, loss of futures, and families,” Sheridan says. “It’s just continuing, and I think it’s interesting from a social and a political standpoint how angry we’ve become. There’s not a character in the movie that you meet that’s not in some state of loss.”

With its pulpy cops-and-robbers plot — Sheridan describes the movie’s violence as “a catharsis being expressed in film” — “Hell or High Water” might not be the most obvious choice for a story about two brothers, one a violent ex-con, the other a divorced dad, wracked by grief. But “Hell or High Water” paints a stark and convincing portrait of death’s messy aftermath, whether it’s the death of a loved one, or the death of a dream gone unrealized, festering like a wound.

“I didn’t want to excuse the behavior, but I wanted it to be explained,” says Sheridan of his characters, whose goal is to save their family ranch from foreclosure. “Their father was an abusive alcoholic. Their mother is dead. The whole impetus for what they do is their grief.”

“Since [Sept. 11] 2001, we have just been forced as a people to face loss.”
Taylor Sheridan

In Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” there’s grief of another sort, that of a woman once described, per screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, as “the most beautiful widow in the world.”

It’s this messy intersection of “tragedy and heartbreak and women” that Oppenheim wanted to explore in his script about first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following President Kennedy’s assassination.

Jackie Kennedy is a beautiful, glamorous, graceful figure, but beneath that surface, which I think is the case with any person, there’s an emotional human being,” says Oppenheim, for whom writing this screenplay was a passion project spanning many years. “We had seen stories told about the Kennedy assassination many times and from many points of view, but we’ve never seen it explored from Jackie’s perspective and, more importantly, from the perspective of what it would be like to go through that kind of trauma just as a human being — as a wife, as a mother, as a woman who is sitting next to her husband watching him be violently murdered and then having to go home, tell her two young children that they’ve lost their father, having to guide that young family through the process of vacating the only home they’ve known for years and wondering where they go next, literally, where do they go live, all the while the eyes of the entire world are on you.”

In “Jackie,” we witness the unraveling of Jackie Kennedy in a way that we have not been privy to before. We watch her get drunk, we watch her sob. We watch the black, watery tracks of smeared mascara run down her tear-stained face.

We also get to meet Jacqueline Kennedy the “marketing genius,” the woman who coined the Camelot reference and led public image-enhancing White House tours, the woman who helped mold her husband’s presidential legacy.

“Jackie Kennedy is often viewed through the lens of style and the kind of iconography of being this beautiful wife and arm candy and socialite, and she is never given her proper due for being this extraordinary pillar of strength,” Oppenheim says. “She’s so much more than just the superficial portrait we often end up with in popular culture.”

“Jackie Kennedy is a beautiful, glamorous, graceful figure, but beneath that surface…is an emotional human being.”
Noah Oppenheim

But would we avoid grief if we could? In “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s ethereal, moody sci-fi drama, the answer is a resounding no. Amy Adams stars as a linguistics professor tasked with saving the world from an alien invasion. More frightening than that, her character must choose whether to pursue a marriage that she knows will ultimately result in the worst kind of sorrow.

In the end, she chooses happiness, for however long it lasts. Because what she discovers — just as Jacqueline Kennedy and so many other characters headlining films this season — is that loss, no matter how great, can never be as powerful as love.

“If you are true to yourself, if you know who you are as a person, you’re not going to feel any amount of regret about making the same choices twice,” says “Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer. “Because what you feel is this: if I just try to save myself from pain that I know is coming I may deny joy to so many other people.”

But these films grappling with profoundly dark themes do not come easily for the writers who must commit themselves emotionally to the story.

“If I could feel my eyes starting to get wet I knew, OK, I’m being honest about this, I’m being as authentic as I can,” says Heisserer. “Hopefully, all of that is a gift I give to the audience.”

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