Emotional investment in a movie is a telltale sign of good writing and direction, and the ability to take advantage of that emotion is what gives it a chance to be great. Tempting an audience to feel so deeply that they’re moved to tears is an important and obvious goal in excellent cinema. However, as important and obvious as it may be, it is not a goal that is easily attained. A movie can’t just present ‘sadness’ to an audience and expect them to care, even if it’s in a brilliantly executed scene. There needs to be a process; a period of time in which the audience can engage with a character or idea. There needs to be time for a story to develop into something inspiring, nostalgic, tragic, or undeniably beautiful.
The time it takes for an audience to get invested varies from movie to movie, but without investment, an impactful moment cannot exist. Some movies play on ubiquitous and easily accessed sentiments like love, devotion, and honor. The investment time in these cases can afford to be faster, as it’s easy for the audience to relate to the emotions the movie wants you to feel. Other movies, however, reach for the more abstract feelings, the emotions buried deeply within all of us that are impossibly difficult to characterize. Often these are the emotions that we repress and don’t want, or don’t know how to describe, and when a movie is able to represent them to us we feel open and vulnerable. We feel as though our experience is less so unique, and more so wholly human. These investments may take more time, as the movie has to prod and poke at all the places we hide these emotions until they begin to resurface. They are then ripped out of us through the vector of a masterful scene or some poetic dialogue, leaving us marveled at how similar and fragile we are.
For a writer, the most critical part of forging an investment is creating a character likeable enough to identify with, but flawed enough to feel real. We would be hard pressed to identify with a perfect character, because outwardly, they have nothing to worry about. If they hit a roadblock, they’re still probably better off than the rest of us. They’re hard to root against, but they definitely aren’t fun to root for. A writer needs to find a medium, a character that an audience will desperately want to succeed– not because they’re perfect, but because they aren’t. We want to see them succeed, because we need it just as much as they do; we want to see that perfection is not the standard for achievement.
Many movies try and fail to follow this process. Often, this is due to rushed story-telling, poor dialogue (which draws the audience out), or a simple lack of character development. There are countless examples of this failure, and most of the time, they simply aren’t good movies. On the other hand, there are also many movies that expertly develop their impactful moments, exemplifying them as brilliant displays of writing and emotion. They are perfect examples as to how each impactful moment is different in its own right, yet all share a common theme of likeable characters and a commanding emotional investment from the audience.
Below are some of the best; all being moments impactful enough to make an audience cry (there will be spoilers).
Coop receives all his video messages at once
After leaving earth and his family behind to save the human race, Coop watches 23 years-worth of video messages at once. It’s the family we had grown attached to in the beginning of the movie, growing older before our eyes, and before Coop’s. He watches his son grow up, and remembers the life he had to sacrifice. He hears about his son graduating from school, his grandson being born and then dying, and his step-dad passing away- all in 30 seconds. While this is already hard to swallow, it’s really the moment when his daughter, Murph, comes on screen that gets the tears flowing. She’s the same age as Coop when he left, and breaks down, telling him she wishes he’d come home. It’s a beautiful moment that could only occur with the help of interstellar travel, and it’s a brilliant reminder that our hero had to leave what many of us couldn’t.
The Shawshank Redemption
Brooks’ release from Shawshank
Brooks was one of the most loveable characters in all of Shawshank Prison, and about as innocent as a little old prisoner can get. The audience was charmed by his perservering gentleness in such a harsh place, whether it be taking care of his pet bird or his beloved library. The scene that rips the audience’s heart out occurs when Brooks is released from prison. It is quickly apparent that Brooks can’t adapt to life outside of Shawshank. He hangs himself from some ceiling rafters, all while delivering a heartbreaking and sobering monologue on how the world simply isn’t meant for him anymore. It’s a deeply resonating death of innocence that shakes the audience to tears, and reminds them that not every life has a happy ending.
The story of Carl and Ellie
Love is one of the most relatable and easily called upon emotions, allowing for a quick emotional investment in just the opening scenes of Up. Beautifully colorful animation, swelling music, and adorable sequences between Carl and his soulmate Ellie set everyone’s hopes up for their love story to continue. The absence of dialogue allowed the audience to engage fully with the imagery and elegant score, investing further into a love story that would end all too soon. Adult themes of infertility and financial strain are suddenly and wordlessly portrayed in minutes, creating silent reminders that all of Carl’s happiness relies solely on his wife. When she eventually dies and leaves him broken, the impact is a tangible depression and devastating emotions.
Field of Dreams
Just a game of catch
Field of Dreams is a cult classic “dad” movie, and it’s also one of the only movies that can reliably make a dad cry. When a financially struggling Ray Kinsella hears a distant voice telling him “if you build it, he will come”, he paves most of his crops in order to build a baseball field. His family thinks he’s lost his mind, and his decisions lead to more money problems, notable marital strain, and a rising concern for his children’s prosperity. In the climax of the movie, it is revealed that “he” had referred to Ray’s long-deceased dad, with whom Ray had a troubled past. The two simply play catch together, sharing a sacred bond that only a few understand. It’s a beautiful moment, and it makes every father and child appreciate the little things while they still have them.
Toy Story 3
The generation that grew up loving the Toy Story movies is hit especially hard by the third installment’s final scene. At the end of Toy Story 3, when Andy is leaving for college and gives away his toys, the whole crew is assembled together one last time. As they sit on the porch and watch Andy drive away, Woody utters the tear jerking words, “So long, partner.” In that short but sweet sentence, everything that was needed to be said, was said. It was a perfect farewell for a series that molded countless childhoods, and audiences couldn’t help but feel it was a formal farewell for each and every one of them, as they transitioned into newfound adulthoods of their own.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Pretty much the whole damn thing
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those movies where it’s simply impossible to explain how, but it captures human emotion (particularly love and longing) perfectly. It’s the perfect example of a movie which pokes, prods and probes at the human experience until it pulls every deeply repressed feeling out of its audience. It leaves tears, nostalgia, and “I miss you” texts flying all over the place with every viewing. The score is a brilliant piano medley with mood-centric undertones and quirky additions that capture the characters and their chemistry to absolute perfection. It’s a masterpiece of emotional cinema, and the entire movie is basically one giant impactful moment that leaves its audience lost in introspective reflection.