“When something starts with a six year old dying, nothing’s going to feel right.”
Unresolved grief fills and drives Collateral Beauty. The film opens with a joyful Howard (Will Smith) presiding over his ad agency’s Christmas party, reminding his employees that they make connections with people through three key concepts: time, love, and death. Then the film jumps ahead three years. The joy is gone from the office. While others quietly work, Howard spends days at a time building elaborate domino structures, just to knock down the first block and walk away. Obviously something has happened.
Three of his partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Peña) watch this, wondering when Howard will snap out of it. The business is beginning to suffer. And they have an offer to buy the agency, but Howard won’t even talk with them. So they hatch a plan they hope will bring Howard back—or if not, be evidence that he is incompetent.
They come across three actors, Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightly), and Raffi (Jacob Lattimore), who operate out of a very off, off Broadway theatre (The Hegel Theatre). But perhaps it is the actors who really find them. When it is discovered that Howard has written angry letters to Time, Love, and Death, the coworkers hire the actors to confront Howard as Time (Raffi), Love (Amy), and Death (Brigitte). In time the seeming hallucinations drive Howard to a grieving parent group when the leader (Naomie Harris) connects with him. But it turns out that the three coworkers also have their own issues that need to be addressed. As the co-workers work with the actors to focus on Howard, Time, Love, and Death also seem to speak Whit, Claire, and Simon as well.
Besides working well on the level of plot and character, this is a film that also provides some philosophical depth. (Note the theatre’s name.) As the actors confront Howard as the cosmic personae, the discussions become heated and quickly move into more complex ideas that many films would not want to touch on. Because these are impassioned philosophical discussions, they never become off-putting or overly cerebral. But the film does respect the audience’s intelligence and ability to comprehend that ideas being presented without talking down.
Along the way, as Howard vents his rage at the cosmic forces, he gives voice to all the pain and anger that can often accompany grief. That pain and anger includes religious concepts that never seem adequate for people in the time of loss. He is an equal opportunity ranter. He takes on Christian, Buddhist, and secular ways that we use to try to explain away the pain of death.
It should be noted that a simpler film would have just set Howard against his idea of God but, through blaming these non-divine cosmic forces, we can still imply that Howard is rebelling against a divinity he finds inadequate. (Although there is a certain Trinitarian vibe to the trio of Time, Love, and Death.) In this, Howard is the newest incarnation of Job. He is willing to state his case that the way the universe works is wrong. Like Job, Howard receives answers that may be less comforting than he wants, but in the challenge of confronting the questions there is an opening for him to begin to find a way through the pain to see again that there is beauty in the world and his life.