Warning: This post contains big spoilers for the ending of Collateral Beauty
Thanks in large part to a contentious presidential election, “gaslighting” — which, simply summarized, involves a person being manipulated by others into doubting his or her own sanity — was the word on everyone’s lips in 2016. So it’s only appropriate that the new gaslighting-themed Warner Bros. drama, Collateral Beauty, left some reviewers questioning their own mental stability after the credits rolled.
“Ludicrous,” says The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney of the David Frankel-directed film, which features a heavy-hitting ensemble headed up by Will Smith and including Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren. “You’ll still struggle to accept that what you saw on that screen actually played in theaters, was funded and approved by distributors, took a month or so of the lives of those extraordinary actors,” Village Voice critic Alan Scherstuhl writes in the verbal equivalent of a strenuous head-shake. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw points out that Collateral Beauty is “topped off with an ending which M. Night Shyamalan might reject as too ridiculous.”
What could possibly out-flummox the man responsible for the flummoxing endings of Lady in the Water and The Happening? Yahoo Movies is going to attempt to explain it to you…even if we’re struggling to understand it ourselves.
First, here’s the set-up. Written by Allan Loeb, Collateral Beauty stars Smith as Howard, an ad world wizard whose high-flying life is upended when his young daughter dies of a rare disease. Present at work in body only, his mind is perpetually elsewhere, mired in a toxic cycle of grief and self-pity. While he mourns, his triumvirate of partners — Simon (Michael Pena), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Whit (Edward Norton) — are forced to navigate increasingly choppy business waters, looking to complete a sale that could save the company, but also requires Howard’s approval.
Since he’s unlikely to sign on the dotted line, Whit concocts a harebrained, quasi-legal, and definitely ethically questionable plan: discovering that Howard has been penning letters to the forces of Death, Love, and Time, he hires a struggling trio of theater actors — Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore — to portray each of these abstract concepts for face-to-face encounters with his friend and business partner. And while Mirren’s Death, Knightley’s Love, and Latimore’s Time are conversing with Howard in public places, Whit’s team surreptitiously videotapes these meetings (making sure to wipe the theater troupe from the frame in post-production) to be used as evidence that he’s lost his marbles. Leave it to the always-sensible Mirren to directly label this scheme what it is: gaslighting.
This may sound like a cruel act of sabotage initiated by exceptionally cruel people. But Collateral Beauty improbably wants you to see the good in these characters as well. Thus, cheating cad Whit struggles to connect with his adolescent daughter, while working woman Claire ponders motherhood, and Simon decides it’s probably time he told his wife and kids that he’s dying of cancer. As for Howard, he spends his copious out-of-the-office time skulking around a support group led by grief counselor Madeline (Naomie Harris), who tries to gently encourage him to confront the tragedy in his past instead of running from it.
Got all that? Okay, this is where the ridiculous double-twist kicks in. Revelation No. 1: Howard and Madeline have been gaslighting the audience all along. Madeline is Howard’s wife and the mother of his deceased daughter; in the wake of that tragedy, he wrote her a note saying that it would be better if they were “strangers” so they could meet all over again without the pervading sense of loss that’s between them. Thus, they’ve led separate lives for months — possibly even years — deliberately pretending not to know each other while he processes his grief. It’s Madeline who finally forces Howard’s hand, bringing him back to the home they used to share and showing him video footage of their daughter, finally forcing him to acknowledge her passing. Not for nothing, but she’s also the person who explains the titular concept of “collateral beauty,” via an excruciating monologue that defines it as, essentially, seeing the good in terrible events.
Madeline can’t claim credit for originating the phrase, “collateral beauty,” though. As it turns out, those words were implanted in her head by an elderly woman who comforted her in the hospital while her daughter lay dying. And that elderly woman…was Helen Mirren, though not in her guise as a New York theater veteran. Revelation No. 2: It turns out that Mirren really is Death. And Knightly really is Love, and Latimore really is Time.
Furthermore, their purpose isn’t just to heal Howard — they’re also out to heal each of his partners. To that end, Love assists in the reconciliation between Whit and his daughter, Time suggests to Claire that it’s not necessarily too late to consider children, and Death prods Simon to reveal his illness. The last shot of the movie finds this trio standing atop a bridge in Central Park, admiring their handiwork in gaslighting the gaslighters. They must have gaslighted us, too, because even recounting these events to you right now, we can’t believe Collateral Beauty is a real movie that we really watched.
‘Collateral Beauty’: Watch a trailer: