I remember very clearly the first time I watched the curious case of Benjamin Button, it was the first film that I had ever seen that stayed with me even after the credits ended. For days and days whenever my mind drifted from the monotony of my school day I’d wonder if life was nothing but a series of coincidences or if there was a bigger plan for each one of every one of us. This was the spark that created an existential crisis in my life, and at the same time it awoke a fervent curiosity that has only amplified throughout the years. Are we truly the masters of our own destiny, or has life doomed us to forever serve under its fateful chains? Is destiny real? Or is it something we have created to excuse our poor choices in life? Whatever it is you may believe, there is no denial that David Fincher was able to capture the complexity of this philosophical concept through the life of Benjamin Button.
Loosely based on the short story by the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, this film centers around the peculiar life of Benjamin Button, who is born quite literally during the end of World war 1 in the blooming city of New Orleans. He however, came into this world with an unfortunate affliction. He was born and old man, destined to an early grave. We however soon learn than in fact Benjamin is aging backwards, getting stronger and healthier as time goes by; and thus, Fincher takes us on a journey exploring significant events in Benjamin’s life. From his early life struggling to function in his decrepit body, his many adventures in his youth, his fleeting and tumultuous relationship with daisy, to ultimately; his final breath in the arms of the woman he loved
Death is perhaps at the epicenter of this film, the very first scene is that of Daisy in her twilight years, strapped in her deathbed in the middle of a storm. And from then on, the imagery of death is nothing but constant throughout the rest of the film. Benjamin, in his first few minutes into this world, was cursed by this hooded specter as his very own mother died in the process of giving him the gift of life. Even his own father appalled by the abomination he had sired, decided to put an end to BEN and drown him in a local river. That is, until an ounce of humanity flickered on his eyes and decided to spare his life and abandon him in a nursing home in the hands of a loving woman, who raised him as her own. And just like that; his life began condemned to live among the elderly pretending to be one of them; blurring his identity in the process. Due to his condition, he missed a pivotal part of his childhood as he was bound to a wheelchair, drenched in piercing pain throughout his whole body. Relegated to observe the outside world through the windows at what could be called his “home”. The underlying meaninglessness through Benjamin’s adulthood and quote and quote “silver years” were solely because of this. His earliest memories were that of death. Every new friendship he developed with the people around him, every mentor who taught him about the small pleasures of life, every single person in his childhood who meant anything to him abruptly vanished. Leaving young Benjamin confused, scared and heart broken. Even one of the happiest moments of his childhood, if not the happiest, was obscured by the veil of death. When he took his very first steps, when he first tasted a drop of freedom from his rotting chair, when religion had presented him a miracle, he was once again denied an ounce of bliss as death had taken the man responsible for his newfound strength. And from then on, death meant very little to him, he never dropped a single tear for the loss of a loved one, he had completely rationalized and internalized the emotional pain he had suffered as simply a part of life. That is why, throughout the rest of his life, Benjamin has been trapped between the desire to love and be loved, and the terror of the heartbreak that comes from loving someone and see them whither before his eyes. Every tragedy throughout his life has evoked the same response, when his Piano Mentor died he took a long voyage with captain Mike into the endless sea. When the first woman of his life, and perhaps the only relationship he has had that had an ounce of depth, simply abandoned him leaving behind nothing more than a thank you note. What did he do the very next day? He joined the navy and headed off to war. When his entire platoon perished during battle, he returned home to try to start from scratch. When he had an opportunity to start a relationship with Daisy, he has once more rejected the idea of letting himself be bound to someone he clearly cared about and went his own way. It was only until his father had told him the truth and Benjamin, unable to process this information, had no other option but to forgive his father and ease him into the afterlife. It was then that he had a complete change of heart, and his life turned around. He decided to finally move forward and have a normal life with Daisy. That is… until this very scene where Daisy falls down the stairs and she has to have an emergency delivery. You can see the angst and fear in his eyes as he is terrified for the life of Daisy and his daughter. And a few scenes later we see him regressing to his old habits and decides to abandon them to avoid the pain of actually losing one of them.
Fate is another constant theme throughout the movie, Benjamin is abandoned by his own father and decades later. There he is. Abandoning his own family. Is this the cruel joke of destiny? Or was Benjamin unable to grow and fight his own demons. This conflicting set of ideas are beautifully demonstrated in a single scene later in the film. Benjamin rushes to the hospital in perhaps one of the most memorable part of this movie, we see a montage of seemingly random events, narrated by Benjamin. This interweb of mundane people doing every day tasks, that at first seem to be pretty innocuous and have no connection with one another, lead us to the heart wrenching revelation that Daisy had been hit by the taxi driver and as a result her lifelong dream of theater and dance were shattered as her legs were mangled by this incident. Problem is; there is absolutely no way that Benjamin could ever know about the doings of every single person that lead to the accident. And when he makes the assertion that what happened to Daisy was completely unavoidable… well let’s just say that I find his conclusion questionable. This is what I find interesting about this character. He builds this entire web of minute coincidences that eventually lead to a horrific accident, though once you examine this for a few seconds, you realize that Daisy not only didn’t pay attention while crossing the street, but she was carelessly twirling in the middle of the street and completely oblivious to her surroundings. The question remains, why does Benjamin go to such extremes to remove agency from Daisy? Well in my humble opinion, the reason Benjamin is unable to confront the mistakes he and those close to him make, that seem blaringly obvious, is simply because of the way he was raised. Now I might be making some assumptions here, but the first half of the film, during Benjamin’s upbringing, it seems to me that he being one of many of the people his adopted mother Queenie had to look after, he received very little attention and guidance. And because everyone thought that his days were numbered, they didn’t take much interest in him. That is why every time someone died, no one really explained to him what was going on, probably to avoid the inevitable conversation of his own death. And even when he asks Queenie how long he had left on him, she just gave him a vague answer. That is why since a very young age he had such great thirst for adventure, he took the first opportunity he had and he went to a great new world seeking for answers but not knowing what to look for. And near the end of the film he once again decided that he will escape from his choices and abandon his family to travel the world, and despite the many years from Daisy’s accident he absolves himself once again only leaving his daughter some pseudo apologies and some hazy philosophy of life through his letters.
Though there are not a great number of symbols in this film, I’d like to focus on what perhaps is the most prominent in the entire story. That is the hummingbird. Though there are only two instances of its appearance, the timing of them could be in fact very meaningful. I think the movie makes it obvious that this tiny bird symbolizes infinity as captain Mike explained its meaning with his tattoo. However I believe Fincher tried to exemplify an even more complex idea, but first, we need to look at another symbol in the movie to understand his message. I found it strange how there was an emphasis of the lighting strikes suffered by Mr. Daws. Since there were 7 of them, at first I believed that perhaps they had something to do with the seven deadly sins, and perhaps the lighting occurred every time he committed a sin. But that does not make much sense. I focused on the number 7, I thought for sure there must be a reason why this number was chosen for a specific reason. And then it dawned on me that the message Fincher tried to deliver is that sometimes things simply happen. The lightings in Mr. Daws stories were simply that. Just lightings. But it speaks to our immense ability to find meaning in arbitrary objects. The very last conversation Benjamin has with Mr. Daws, he concludes that the lightings were messages from God that reminded him that he was lucky to be alive. Which brings us back to the hummingbird. The only two appearances it has was after the death of Captain Mike and at the end when Daisy is only a few breaths away from the eternal slumber. Same with the original tale about Mr. gateou and his counter clockwise clock. These stories and images we tale ourselves are empty vessels we fill with substance. It may seem bleak at first glance. But I believe that finding meaning in the small cosmic coincidences spattered throughout life is one of the best attributes of the human condition. That is the source that brings us comfort and strength when one is in tremendous need. In a world filled with malice and tragedy, meaning is what makes it worth to push forth.
This film may not be perfect, may be a little too long, perhaps it may have a little too much exposition. But if you have not seen it I urge you to go watch and see what an unpolished gem Fincher has created. Though its original purpose might have been to explore the intricate and mysterious passage and flow of time, in the end, he delivered a much deeper and personal character driven piece of art, that shines a light into the mind of a man shattered by tragedy and death unable to break the cycle of his past.