Not all movie moments are created equal. You think about De Niro in front of the mirror, Duvall sniffing napalm in the morning. You think about Denzel screaming that King Kong ain’t got shit on him. You think of Meryl Streep. So many moments for her you just think of her face, her magnificent best-actor-of-all time face. Some moments are amazing rather than merely pedestrian. But we all agree on so many of them, such as Orson Welles whispering “Rosebud.”
Now put all of these things out of your mind and realize there are moments in film that are as powerful, more powerful, more subtle, more perfect than the obvious, staple ones we usually think of first. These happen more quickly in some cases, or occur in a perfect span of seconds or minutes with a movie that is a total disaster in every other respect.
Hopkins’s Absolute Honor
Let’s start with what might be my favorite movie ever (excluding of course Godfather 1, 2, and 3, which I view collectively as a single film). I’m talking about the Anthony Hopkins-driven movie The Edge, a 1997 more-or-less commercial flop that has one of the finest endings of all time.
To set the stage, Hopkins plays a billionaire with an exceptional memory and reading fetish who gets lost with his assistant and a photographer in the remote Alaskan wilderness. The photographer is played by Alec Baldwin and is on the trip for a shoot with Hopkins’s wife, a supermodel played by supermodel Elle MacPherson. The assistant is killed early on, a move that was the worst part of the film, in my opinion, but functions to leave Hopkins and Baldwin alone. While lost together, Hopkins reveals that he knows Baldwin and MacPherson have been having an affair. Now, Hopkins really loves MacPherson, like really. So, when Baldwin ends up biting the dust, too, and Hopkins gets back alive, the moment is perfect for a display of absolute integrity and selflessness when questions arise about how he survived. Have a look.
Bane Takes Primitive To a New Level
It might be hard to believe that a profound moment can be found in an action movie. And a superhero action movie at that. All I’m saying is these movies aren’t meant to present deeper meaning. It’s not the intention of the directors or usually the actors for that to be the case. A superhero action film knows exactly what it’s trying to be and nothing else. But try telling that to Tom Hardy.
In 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, there is a single frame, nay, a single second, that is for me one of the most profound moments in any film I’ve yet seen. Hardy, who plays Bane, is being scolded by a wealthy, shifty character who finds out quickly that he is not at all in control of the situation. It’s the subtle act that Hardy has his Bane do that is at once chilling and also brilliant, an action that is, in my view, so very primitive that one can’t help but be called back to a time when our species was more apelike that human, more aggressive than calculating. In the scene, Bane is showing the wealthy man that it is he, Bane, who is in control by simply placing his hand palm up on the man’s shoulder while telling him exactly how it is. This moment when Hardy places his hand on the man’s shoulder is stunning. I really wish I knew if it was an improvisational decision on Hardy’s part or the brainchild of director Christopher Nolan. Whoever thought of it, it is perfect.
The Diamond in the Bull Ring
This one is rare for me because it’s the final scene of a movie that was not at all good otherwise. 8 Seconds is a bio-pic about professional bull rider Lane Frost. Frost, played by Luke Perry, first came to the public’s attention after Garth Brooks featured some footage of him in the video for his hit song “The Dance.” But make no mistake about it, nothing about 8 Seconds was good, except that damn ending when Frost’s best friend Tuff Hedeman, played by Stephen Baldwin, keeps riding the bull after the buzzer to honor his recently passed friend. Tuff just keeps riding and riding. Now it’s possible that having not followed the drama play out in real life (literally missing the real Tuff’s fantastic long ride) that I may have been more moved than some others. But I cried. Not right away, but once Tuff got to about 12 seconds I was for sure into a full blown ugly cry. That’s Frost’s on-screen wife and parents watching from the stands. See how you hold up.
When a Western Opens with Art
If you want to hold me in the seat, start your movie with outstanding cinematography and shot selection and then start sprinkling in narration that gives me obscure historical facts I have never heard before. I’ll not move for the next six hours, I promise. The opening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does exactly this. The shots in that opening are pure magic — cloudy skies in fast-forward transit; golden sunlight spilling across a field of golden wheat; Brad Pitt, who plays James in the film, reclining in middle age, slowing down, settling down and later a perfect silhouette in a smoky bar room. These shots are the very definition of an exact execution of talent and imagination. And then add the narration by Hugh Ross in voice-over during these shots, telling us that James was missing the nub of his left middle finger and “was cautious lest that mutilation be seen,” and explaining that he “also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids” that caused him to blink a lot “as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” In short, the entire opening is an absolute work of art in and of itself. And it comes as the opening of a western about an Old West outlaw so is, at least for me, unexpected and a wonderful surprise because of that. Here’s the full opening.
Ed Harris’s Goodbye
In keeping with surprises as one way of breaking someone’s mind in a film, The Hours is surely one to have a look at. However, this surprise is far more immediate than some. So much so, I’d be inclined to say it is less surprising and more outright shocking.
The film, released in 2002 and based on the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, covers the lives of three women during three different eras and linked in one way or another by Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, one of the three women is Woolf herself, played expertly by Nicole Kidman. The spectacular cast includes Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore in filling out the other two female leads, while film great Ed Harris also stars in the movie as Streep’s best friend, AIDS-ridden poet Richard “Richie” Brown. There’s so much going on with this film, and certainly in the novel, and I encourage everyone to enjoy both, but the gasp-moment is delivered by Harris in his final scene of the movie.
Harris’s character, Brown, is to receive a major literary award at some point in the near future, something which Streep’s character, Clarissa Vaughn, is preparing to celebrate with her friend and former college lover. Vaughn still clearly has deep affection for Brown but is troubled by his severe depression and is visiting him in this scene.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and columnist. He is the author of three books – the collections The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012), Where Alligators Sleep (Foxhead Books, 2014), and the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). In 2012, he was a finalist for both the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award and the Still Fiction Award. The Same Terrible Storm was nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing, while his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best of the Web, and cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler and Stuart Dybek, respectively. Other writing has appeared in the anthologies Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2010), Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2015), and Larry Fessenden’s Sudden Storm: A Wendigo Reader (Fiddleblack, 2016). He is the past founder and editor of four literary journals and is currently the founding editor of the online flash fiction journal The Airgonaut.
READ OTHER WORK BY THIS AUTHOR:
- Westworld: Exploring AI Theory and Philosophy
- The Exorcist
- Television Confessional: Introducing Split Screen