“Collateral Beauty”: A Conversation with Time, Death and Love

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By Kathy Winings

kathy_winings_3_profileThe death of a child is probably the most devastating experience a parent can go through. This is made all the more devastating when the child is very young and has just begun to spread his or her wings.

This is the experience of Howard Inlet (Will Smith) in the new film “Collateral Beauty.” Howard’s whole life has been turned upside down with the death of his six-year old daughter. Unable to deal with her death, Inlet, once the creative force behind a successful New York advertising agency, withdraws completely from life. Over the year following her death, he only comes to the office to create massive and intricate domino-like designs that he proceeds to topple once the masterpiece is complete. He retreats so far into his grief that he does not eat or sleep, does not communicate with his business partners and friends, sits alone in a dark apartment, and cycles recklessly through the city day in and day out.

During one of his daily cycling rides, Howard appears to stumble on a support group for parents who have lost a child. He finds himself periodically sitting in on their meetings only to leave if asked to share about his experience. Over time, he begins conversing with the group’s director (Naomie Harris) who also lost a child, a six-year old daughter, to cancer. It is during one of their conversations that she shares a concept that helped get her through her grief. This concept is the phrase “collateral beauty.” As she describes it, collateral beauty is recognizing the possibilities of meaning and beauty that are all around us even in the midst of death and pain. But Inlet cannot move past the pain of his loss and cannot or will not acknowledge what happened to his daughter.

Trying to salvage a now-suffering business and also wanting to reach out to their friend, Howard’s business partners Claire (Kate Winslet), Whit (Edward Norton) and Simon (Michael Peña) take the drastic step of hiring a private detective to follow Howard in the hope of obtaining evidence that can be used to force him to turn over his controlling stock in the agency.

While on the surface this appears to be a sad story, it takes an intriguing turn when the private detective discovers three letters written and posted by Inlet. The letters are addressed to Death, Love and Time, respectively. The business partners obtain the three letters and realize that this is just what they need to prove that their partner and friend has gone mad. Needing to close a lucrative deal that will save them and their agency, and knowing that Howard may not support it, Inlet’s partners come up with an almost Machiavellian plan to hire three actors to portray Death, Love and Time. The three actors will confront Inlet while secretly being filmed, so as to catch him on camera looking mentally unbalanced. The partners will use the film to force him to give up his controlling shares in the company. This is where things become interesting.

In order to get to know how best to “haunt” Inlet, each of the three actors spend time with one of the three business partners. This is how we come to see that each partner is harboring a deep secret; one that is, oddly enough, tied to the issue being portrayed by the actor with whom they are working. Time (Jacob Latimore) learns that Claire wants desperately to be a mother but fears that time has passed her by. Death (Helen Mirren) soon realizes that Simon is facing death himself by a recurrence of cancer, and newly-divorced Simon cannot hide his fear that he has lost his daughter’s love, something readily apparent to Love (Keira Knightly). It is this interconnectedness that pulls the audience into the film as one discovers this is not just a movie about a man and a business dealing with death and loss. At its heart, “Collateral Beauty” is a film about family as seen through the eyes of love, death and time.

The official trailer for “Collateral Beauty” (courtesy New Line Cinema).

Is this an epic, earth-shattering film? No. Is it a movie worth seeing? Yes, for sure. Initially, I only saw a film in which a father is grieving for his daughter and is unable to move forward with his life.  It was after I returned home that I began to see the film with different eyes. With the death of his daughter, love and time have died for Howard.  As far as he is concerned, what value does our daily life truly have? Death is cruel because it takes everything we hold dear and puts an end to it all. The loss of time means the possible death of love for business partner, Claire, if she cannot become a mother. With the loss of the love that is experienced between mother and child, the time we have left is cruel and without purpose.

The gradual death of his body and the lack of time makes partner Michael desperate to stop the flow of time so he can have just a little more time with his family. Where is the beauty in the pain that his wife and children will have to live with when his body is out of time? And the death of Whit’s marriage threatens the love between he and his daughter, recognizing that time is passing him by each day as she grows older. While he may have been responsible for the death of his marriage, where is the meaning and value of time and life if he loses his daughter’s love as well?

In life, we come to know the depths of love, the opportunities and limitations of time and the challenge of loss and death through our relationships, most notably our familial relationships. When we think that time is endless, love and death may be taken for granted. And in the midst of loss, we often cannot feel love and time seems to stand still. And it is during those times in which we cannot see the collateral beauty – the confirming, accompanying beauty and meaning that surrounds us when we have experienced the death of a loved one. It is interesting that another definition of “collateral” beyond confirming and accompanying is “descended from the same stock.”

And this is what got me to see the deeper meaning of the film. What we stress in Unificationism at the time of one’s passing is the need to look to what we can learn from that person’s life so we may continue to grow and develop. In the midst of the sense of loss and pain that we may be experiencing, the loved one’s life should be guiding us to recognize the beauty and meaning of our lives, of genuine love and the value of the time we have left in the physical realm. It is the continuation and confirmation of the beauty and meaning of what God has given to us. In a sense, in the midst of loss and pain, aren’t we really reminding each other to recognize the collateral beauty?♦

“Collateral Beauty” (rated PG-13) is currently in select theaters. Running time: 97 minutes. Directed by David Frankel; written by Allan Loeb; main cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren. See IMDB for full details.

Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs; Director, Doctor of Ministry Program; and, Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.

Photo at top: Will Smith and Helen Mirren in a scene from “Collateral Beauty” (courtesy New Line Cinema).

3 thoughts on ““Collateral Beauty”: A Conversation with Time, Death and Love

  1. Being a Christmas season film and having viewed it, I would say that “Collateral Beauty” is at least meant (or tries) to be a modern version of Dicken’s classic parable on life, “A Christmas Carol.” I am not quite sure that it succeeds in that, but it does, at least, highlight the human challenges (of love, time, death) faced within the context of a modern, corporate society. Both stories are also about second chances and to some extent, at least, redemption.

    Where in Dicken’s one shares in the experience of a spiritual epiphany and is left appreciating the triumph of compassion over power while recalling the historical challenges of the working class and the physically handicapped, here we must confront the stark “handicaps” often found within modern work environments, including issues of alienation and even mental illness.

    Unfortunately, the “Collateral Beauty” story ends on a mixed note and such issues and themes are left to be pondered later; fittingly perhaps, among real, living beings.

  2. Thank you Dr. Winings for your beautiful analysis. I went to see the movie and enjoyed it. I saw the movie after reading this comment from Dr. Raymond Moody:

    “I called my friend, Lisa Smartt, of The Final Words Project to tell her to see the movie “Collateral Beauty.” It has not received the best of reviews but it is a fascinating film that addresses many of the themes of final words research and what we know of the enigmatic and paradoxical language of the threshold. I would love to hear from those of you who have seen it and what your reactions are. I understand the complaints of the reviewers, but the film is intriguing in how it deals with language and grief. What are your thoughts?”

  3. Personifying time, death and love, in this movie, “Collateral Beauty,” is a refreshing approach to help bring sense to someone’s broken heart. I liked that about the movie. It prompted me to think about what my relationship with time, death and love is. These are questions anyone can ask themselves, even if we have not been faced with a most tragic loss as the character played by Will Smith.

    Usually, a movie that people like to watch over and over, like “A Christmas Carol”, has a certain flow when the viewer is taken along for the ride, so to speak, and when the hero of the movie experiences a breakthrough, the viewer shares that joy.

    In “Collateral Beauty” however, I found that too much time and too many scenes showed the main character in deep, overwhelming grief. Once a point is made, to bring it back, over and over, does not make the movie more interesting or more profound. It had the opposite effect on me.

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