On Slow Motion Deaths In Films

There’s a very common trope in movies where when an important character dies time slows to a crawl as the camera pulls in close on their face. Soft piano or synth music usually accompanies the moment. I’ve probably seen it over a hundred times now and frankly I think the impact is lessening with each pass.

In an average big budget film when a main character dies they must die in the most dramatic fashion possible. The action has to slow down to let the moment sink in for the audience to understand the gravity of the situation. The thing is it slows down to an absolute snail’s pace, and therein lies the issue. I’ve seen enough Hollywood movies in my life to become completely jaded by this idea. Every single time I’ve seen this done in a big budget film recently my first thought is always, “Yes I get it this person was important now can we please move on?” and usually that thought only gets me halfway through the incredibly tired cliche.

What’s funny though is that the more weary I become of slow motion death trope the more powerful I feel the quick deaths are. War movies like Saving Private Ryan and American Sniper do this to good effect. When someone gets shot they die in an instant. There’s no long pause for the audience to take note of what’s happening. And I feel that the sudden shock of a known character just collapsing to the ground in an instant without any last words works much better. We as the audience are left to catch up and try to frame that moment ourselves. What were they doing moments before? Does it matter anymore? Sometimes the film gives you the chance to wonder that with the following scene as the characters sit around and discuss their loss, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I think the the avid movie-going audience may not be as tired of this problem as I am, but I still think quick character deaths will affect them much harder in the end. Or at least until the becomes a tired trope in itself.

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Sam Callahan

Filmmaker by day, writer by night.

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