Tone and style matter, especially when you're killing off characters.
Chances are, as a director or a writer, you've gotten really into a character's death scene at some point. You think you're creating a work of art. This is the most beautiful piece of cinema or storytelling anyone has ever seen, high drama. The time comes for your dramatic character death, and—
For some reason or other, it just didn't land. Isn't that the pits? You thought you created art, and your audience is snickering.
I was reminded of this issue recently when someone on Twitter reposted a clip from Kong: Skull Island. Take a look yourself, and see if you can keep a straight face.
Kong: Skull Island still has the funniest death scene of all time pic.twitter.com/xI4EyTpWhw— Jay | tfatws spoilers (@jayspatrol) April 1, 2021
Oof. Comments on the YouTube video sum it up pretty well. "It’s the thought that counts," or "possibly the most useless death ive ever seen in a movie lmaooo."
We know Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a sense of humor, but I'm going to assume this wasn't meant 100% to be a joke. So what went wrong here, and how can you avoid this pitfall yourself?
Be tonally consistent
Kong: Skull Island was generally a pretty straight-laced monster movie in the guise of a Vietnam War film. You have all the callbacks to Apocalypse Now and a cast of strong dramatic actors.
And Shea Whigham is one of them. He's playing this moment entirely straight. There is so much dramatic buildup here. The film wants you to feel his sacrifice. And when he dies, you can see by the other characters' reactions that this is devastating to them.
If you establish a tone in your project, then you're pretty bound to stick to it throughout. You have to write within the framework and tone you establish from the very start. We can have moments of levity among serious beats, but in a tonally consistent work, they're not going to suddenly be slapstick or comedic if that doesn't feel authentic to the work.
Here, as a subverted beat, having a character sacrifice himself only to be thwarted can totally work. Maybe the grenades don't fire. Maybe another skullcrawler suddenly rushes in from the side, robbing him of his intended kill. But to have the creature just go, "Psych!" and whack the character into oblivion feels wrong.
The camera work is also questionable. That zoom to emphasize the explosion feels so unnatural to me, and again reads as more comedic. Why not stay with his companions' perspective and leave out any stylized whip-pans or quick zooms?
Here's another unfortunate example.
What's tragic here is not Russell Crowe's singing. It's that the scene leans so heavily into the drama of the situation. This is Inspector Javert's moment of reckoning, when he faces all his internal torment and sees the cracks in his philosophy, and he decides he cannot face another day. The music swells, he falls, we see him in slow-motion from multiple angles, until... crunch.
Maybe director Tom Hooper was hoping for hyperrealism here. Granted, that is probably what it would look like if someone landed awkwardly on an embankment, with a sound effect to match. But no one in the audience really wants that, and the film hasn't been super authentic before this.
The character is singing, after all. Not exactly a real-life scenario. We need a balance of realism and fantasy.
In addition, the whole scene up until that moment is shot a little awkwardly, from unreal perspectives. The camera is soaring all around in god's eye view, but then it shifts suddenly into the role of a static observer from the bridge, and it's jarring. Why not keep the shooting style consistently stylized? Let Javert go over the edge of the bridge. The audience can stay in the perspective just behind him. We know what happened.
Pay off your premise
We've seen a couple of inadvertently funny examples. What about some examples of character deaths that work?
Let's look at one that is supposed to draw laughs from Jurassic Park.
I'll be honest, this scared me when I was a kid, but now I love this moment. Everything about it is played for humor, from the toilet setting to Ian Malcolm's line just before ("When you gotta go, you gotta go").
And we feel okay laughing about it because Donald Gennaro was established from the start of the film as elitist, money-grabbing, cowardly, and smarmy. After all, he leaves two kids alone in an attempt to save himself. So we can cheer for the chomp.
The movie doesn't suddenly shift tone or shooting style to get this done, either. Jurassic Park is full of adventure and one-liners, and Spielberg stays grounded in the action throughout.
Another thing to note here is that the audience wants to see the dinosaurs in action, as long as our favorite characters stay safe. Seeing the T-rex come smashing through the bathroom walls is an amazing visual, and having the "blood-sucking lawyer" bite the dust is part of the premise's fun.
You have to earn it
If you want your character death to be a huge dramatic moment, remember that you won't get there unless you create a strong foundation in the story first. It's all about character development and building to a crescendo in the script.
Here's a prime example.
I know I'm not the only one who bawled when I first saw this. It is so good.
Here we have another character falling to his (supposed) doom. It's also a purposeful character sacrifice. So it's a scene that has two things from the failed examples we just looked at. But why does it work?
This is an incredibly complex sequence that does a lot of things right to make the audience feel the loss.
Like with the dinos, Fellowship of the Ring keeps a consistent tone and style throughout. Peter Jackson loves beautiful imagery and giving us grand, sweeping cinematography with some stylized slow-motion thrown in, but he also knows when to keep the camera still and the editing simple. Here, the slow-motion is motivated—we linger on the faces of all the characters in turn as they realize Gandalf is gone. Everyone gets a moment to react.
The change in scenery is also so effective. I remember sitting in the theater and my eyes having to adjust to the light when the Fellowship returned to the surface, because it was so bright and stark compared to the mines. What an amazing way to make the audience feel like they were experiencing everything alongside the characters!
But this death also hits so hard because the writing has earned it.
Gandalf is a beloved character for a reason. He's kind, wise, and powerful, and the audience has had plenty of time to get to know him before he falls. He fulfills the role of the guide/mentor in the traditional hero's journey story structure, so everyone in the Fellowship relies on him, especially Frodo. His loss is the "ordeal"—what are they supposed to do now? And again, Jackson makes sure the audience knows how bad this is and how horrible the characters are feeling by spending a beat on their grief.
Do character deaths right
These are scenes that could have gone just as wrong as the first two. If you rush a character death, or depart from your established tone or style, or if you haven't earned the scene and resort to hamfisted ways of building drama, it probably won't work.
Of course, we can't talk about character deaths in film without including this 1973 classic.
What are some character deaths that just didn't work for you? Leave them in the comments.