Mortal Thoughts
Andrew Chan on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Let’s first consider what for most cinephiles will be a decidedly unromantic fact: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was made for 150 million dollars. As of this writing, this places it between Poseidon and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice on the list of most expensive movies ever made. If we believe, as many seem to, that the amount of money thrown up onscreen nowadays is inversely correlated to the degree of humanity that gets captured, then it’s no surprise that, glancing up and down that list, there’s scarcely another title that compares to Button in thematic and tonal gravity. Given the myriad incarnations the project cycled through since first being conceived for Frank Oz in the 1980s (after which it was volleyed from Steven Spielberg to Ron Howard to Spike Jonze), one assumes that whoever bankrolled it must not have anticipated just how plaintive David Fincher’s final product would be. Otherwise it’s hard to fathom such a hefty sum being spent on a film that obliges audiences to sit in the dark for close to three hours contemplating what the typical blockbuster pays through its nose to insulate us from: aging, death, and the impermanence of all we love.

The unexpected harmony of extravagant price tag and minor-key mood is just the most obvious reason this film stands as an anomaly in the landscape of contemporary Hollywood cinema. There’s also the bewildering contradiction between its tone of existential brooding and the hokey tendencies of a plot centered on Capra-esque tropes like neighborly kindness and the essential value of life. Taken from a whimsical little F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who is born old and ages in reverse, the film’s premise is indeed what its detractors have derided it for being: an epic, derivative hunk of American cheese. Coming into this world with the sagging flesh and twiggy limbs of E.T., Benjamin is a born outsider, ready-made for instant romanticization. Benjamin seems set for a path of lifelong ostracism, but from the moment his cowardly father abandons him at the door of a New Orleans retirement home run by a kindly African American woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), he’s propelled forth by the unquestioning affection of strangers—including an elderly tenant who teaches him piano, a Pygmy who regales him with his adventures, and a young girl named Daisy, who later on will prove to be the love of his life (Cate Blanchett). As if this premise weren’t sappy enough, the film ends with a sequence in which all the people Benjamin has encountered in life open their loving arms toward the camera.

On one level, Button is an echo chamber of sentimental American myths and feel-good falsehoods. When I first saw the film, its intimations of a natural harmony between blacks and whites in early twentieth-century New Orleans struck me as forced, especially just three years after Hurricane Katrina drew attention to the city’s history of racial rifts. That the characters who know about Benjamin’s condition are able to come to terms with it so easily and view him as normal seemed like an advertisement for a fantastical America free of its deep-seated intolerance. Also eyebrow-raising is the way Benjamin navigates his otherness. For the most part able to throw off the yoke of his own freakdom by passively passing, he shares his identity when it can no longer be hidden but otherwise keeps mum—and even gets through his first love affair (with an icy but charmingly unhappy wife played by Tilda Swinton) without having to reveal himself. There’s an attractive stoicism in how the story avoids miring itself in a predictable narrative of adversity, privileging the outsider who is able to nonchalantly disappear into his allotted time and place over the one who stands at odds with it.

Eric Roth’s screenplay openly embraces the clichés through which we conceive of a life’s trajectory, weaving out of its search for lost time a hit parade of personal milestones: the first job, the first kiss, the first hangover. Perhaps this is necessary for the central conceit to work at all: for Benjamin’s reverse aging (and the physical-spiritual mismatch it creates) to carry the requisite dramatic weight, we have to accept the notion that life can be neatly compartmentalized into periods, and that certain kinds of experiences are paradigmatic of certain stages. Accordingly, Benjamin’s teenage years are marked by a desire to test his abilities as a wage-earning man by setting out to sea; the inception of his early adulthood finds him sowing his oats with a string of pretty ladies; and the onset of middle age is accompanied by solitary, soul-searching travel to (where else?) India.

Considering what I’ve just described, you’d think I was making an obligatory show of my ambivalence toward the film as a prelude to absolving its flaws. But this is a masterpiece through and through, and not only the best thing I’ve seen come out of Hollywood in years, but also a film that deserves to stand proudly beside the work of contemporary masters Terence Davies and Wong Kar-wai in its evocation of what it feels like to be caught in the middle of time as it endlessly, imperceptibly slips away. The complexity of Button’s emotional effects stems as much from its cornball premise as from the subtle ways Fincher manipulates it to his own ends. For every predictable move the script makes, the film grows richer and deeper by frustrating our expectations of what a big Hollywood epic is supposed to do in justifying its hero’s significance.

Benjamin’s movement through various rites of passage is so underplayed, the film never seems to be asking us to measure the character’s extraordinary circumstances against the banality of our own. Similarly, the world Fincher constructs around his protagonist never calls attention to itself. Historical milestones are presented with both the vague suggestiveness of signs and the inconsequentiality of wallpaper. Though it opens on the streets of New Orleans on Armistice Day and ends with Katrina about to make landfall, Button is not interested in the monumental face of history, and never uses front page news to measure out the decades, to augment its scope, or to bolster a character’s position as an emblem of an era (as in Forrest Gump, the Roth-scripted film to which Button is unfortunately, though understandably, compared). This means that, like Benjamin, whose physical appearance runs counter to the clock ticking away inside him, we never get a foothold in the stream of time. Years dissolve into each other with a surreal sense of disproportion, and the occasional political or pop cultural reference (a brief World War II interlude here, an image of the Beatles there) isn’t enough to pin time down in its place. The film achieves its disorienting temporal quality by contrasting this ineffable flow of time with a reality built of exquisite, meticulous period detail, so that each scene seems to fully inhabit its moment while simultaneously hovering above it, eulogizing it.

This dance between the eternal and the finite is never more beautifully realized than in the way Fincher harnesses Pitt’s star power. For so long American audiences have been taught that a serious Hollywood thespian is one who resists the symbolic power brought by fame and struggles mightily to bring the particularities of a character’s emotional world to life. Pitt, usually a vapidly beautiful, emotionally inscrutable actor, portrays his character from youth to old age, and his poignancy in this film has less to do with psychological acuity than with his willingness to be reduced to a physical presence on which his iconicity is written and rewritten. In one of Button’s most heart-stopping moments, Benjamin steps out of the shadows of a darkly lit frame, revealing the smooth, unwrinkled face of Brad Pitt from the era of A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall. Time that was lost has been regained, and the effect is eerie, unsettling. It’s hard to think of an instance in our new age of digital cinema where visual effects are employed with such low-key naturalism but achieve such disquieting, metaphysical grandeur.

And yet what does this sudden emergence of youth and beauty mean in the face of death, the banality of which the film has had us come to terms with from the get-go? That Benjamin’s body changes through time in ways that are markedly different from the rest of the human race cannot negate the fact that its ultimate destination is the same. While much of film and literature has dealt with death as a climactic and singular event that invites shock and mourning, Button heightens our awareness that we are dying every moment of our lives. Our mortality means that we are forever rehearsing, however subconsciously, the inevitability of loss. Instead of masking this reality, Benjamin’s unusual circumstances only serve to highlight the strangeness of our transforming bodies preparing for their own extinguishment.

Thanks to all the pricey technology, Pitt transforms back and forth in time, and we are reminded that Hollywood actors who are blessed to have decades-long careers often function as emotional totems and chronological markers in our lives—as we watch them change on screen through the years, we are witnessing our own aging reflected back at us. In the midst of a film so rooted in the certainty of death, we discover an acknowledgment of one of cinema’s primary illusions: the sense of time preserved and death made irrelevant. In Button, Fincher has managed to synthesize a world-weary acknowledgment of mortality with a celebration of cinema’s ability to console with its deceptions. The film should be a source of hope for anyone who wants to believe commercial cinema can still produce great art—and it’s not simply because it departs aesthetically from run-of-the-mill big-budget filmmaking, but also because it is the kind of miracle only the Hollywood tradition could have produced.