Building Context in Best Pictures – How Four Nominees Use Flashbacks To Tell Their Story
*Warning – this article contains spoilers for ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, ‘Manchester by the Sea’, ‘Lion’, and ‘Arrival’
Lee Chandler is dejected and confused, staring out a law office window into a bleak New England landscape. He feebly protests some news he just received, and the camera fixates on his pained expression. Flashback: Lee Chandler drunkenly stumbles out of the Manchester home he just unwittingly set on fire, destroying – or ending – five lives, including his own.
Desmond Doss hunkers in a Hacksaw Ridge foxhole and trades stories of childhood suffering with Fitz, his tormentor-turned-comrade. They take turns outlining the indignities and tragedies of their formative years, moments removed from the traumatic combat that bonded them together. Flashback: Doss levels a pistol at his father, after wresting it from him in defense of Doss’ mother; in this moment Doss realizes he will never lay his hands on a weapon again.
It’s dark outside Saroo Brierley’s apartment, and Saroo is once again moving pushpins around a wall-hung map of India. He shifts his focus from the board to his laptop, where he desperately tracks the voyages of commuter trains, a fruitless attempt to find his true home. Flashback: a young Saroo ambles through his birthplace, darting through alleys and around corners, building a roadmap in his own mind.
Dr. Louise Banks can’t sleep, in part because of the pressures associated with inventing a language between humans and aliens, but mostly because she is haunted by memories. She cries out, tosses, turns, and assures her coworkers she’s okay. Flashback: Dr. Banks is in a hospital room, watching as her terminally ill daughter slips further toward the inevitable.
None of these stories told in Manchester by The Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion, and Arrival are strictly linear, and they move through time with distinct approaches. The varying usage of flashbacks in each film illustrates the innumerable ways a single narrative device can be used to meet an equally infinite array of needs. In this regard, the four are emblematic of the harmony between plotting, character, and emotion that builds the foundation of storytelling, for better or worse.
That the two most decorated films from this year’s awards ceremony – La La Land and Moonlight – also featured ambitious temporal shifts, while the category’s two fairly straightforward offerings – Hidden Figures and Fences – were largely Best Picture afterthoughts is more than coincidence. La La Land and Moonlight eschewed a flashback structure in favor of distinctive leaps forward, which doesn’t suggest the diminished efficacy of looking backward as much as it testifies to the singular brilliance of those two films. Hacksaw, Arrival, Manchester, and Lion may not have matched the lofty aims of Moonlight or La La Land, but in their own specific way, each demonstrates the limitless potential of a timeworn storytelling tradition.
Among this quartet, Hacksaw Ridge uses its flashbacks in the most obviously classic fashion: as a sort of musical cue replayed during pivotal moments. It’s a symptom of the film’s determinism, its dogged assertion that two events in Desmond Doss’ early years are the sole informants of every decision the character makes later in his life.
The first is a childhood scrap between Doss and his brother that escalates to real danger when Doss strikes his brother with a brick. A young Doss grapples with his actions in the family bathroom by staring at an illustration of the Ten Commandments. The second comes when Doss interrupts a physical struggle between his mother and father, turning his father’s abusive fury – and gun – against him. Doss relates later in the film that in this instant he knew he would never hold a weapon again.
Hacksaw Ridge can be difficult to dissect because the film is so intent on historical accuracy. It would be a mistake to assume that these events did not represent themselves in Doss’ adult makeup with the same proportion the film suggests. Even so, Hacksaw’s adherence to traditional flashback structure does two things. First, it reduces Doss the character and trades any of his agency for a fatalism stemming directly from these two events. Second – like a melodramatic theme – the flashes heighten the emotional stakes wherever they interject. They act as historical reminders and emotional seasoning.
Characterization is sacrificed in the film, but by drawing a direct line between Doss’ actions in the film’s present and these moments in his past, Hacksaw Ridge adds gravity to the events we see on screen – no small feat, as those events are categorically grave to begin with. These flashes don’t paint a full picture of Doss for the audience, but they exponentially enhance the importance and resonance of the fragments it can see.
Hacksaw Ridge begins in the past. The audience meets Doss as a boy, tussling with his brother. His father’s abuse, rage, and alcoholism is immediately established. So, when these images are revisited, it doesn’t shift the film’s reality. In Manchester by The Sea, the opposite is true.
When Manchester begins, the audience is introduced to Lee Chandler, a solitary building superintendent in one snow-swept Boston Neighborhood or another. There is no origin prologue, outside of brief scene with Lee, his brother, and his nephew on a fishing boat. Even in this moment there is no great truth, no stage setting that relates to the hollow janitor the audience soon meets.
As the film progresses – Lee must return to Manchester to settle his deceased brother’s affairs – the audience learns more about Lee’s past. This information is carefully doled out in a way that starkly contrasts with the flashbacks in Hacksaw Ridge. While that film attempts to use its memories to establish colossal stakes from its earliest moments, Manchester is measured; its context moves in like a storm. First, with creeping darkness, followed by small, foreboding droplets, and finally, in that law office, a breathtaking torrent.
As Lee moves around Manchester, the film is building a mystery. Other characters speak in hushed tones about events that might have happened, or may be apocryphal. Some treat him like a pariah, others with a pity and distance reserved for a person who is hopelessly broken. Interspersed are the flashbacks: Lee, with a happy family that apparently no longer exists; Lee, in a hospital room, learning of his brother’s congenital heart disease; Lee, partying in his one-time basement with dozens of one-time friends.
Like Hacksaw, Manchester uses the past to color the present, but it does so without the adopting the former’s simplified causality. In this film, the events not shown in flashbacks are more important than those present. As Manchester moves along, it’s clear that an unspeakable tragedy altered Lee to apparently irrevocable effect. The Lee in the film’s present is not the same as the Lee in happy flashbacks. The family we see in those flashbacks is, in one way or another, gone. Rather than repeatedly recalling tragedy as an explanation for all of Lee’s actions in the present, the film encourages its revelations to shift audience perspective in real time.
Neither of these two techniques is inherently superior. Hacksaw Ridge shows its cards early, and effectively replays them to beckon an emotional response. Manchester by The Sea withholds its information, teasing out details, and invests in a more concentrated wallop. When the film finally pulls all the way back and the audience learns that Lee’s three children were burned alive in a fire of his own mistaken drunken creation, the effect is far more devastating than any of the flashbacks parsed out in Hacksaw Ridge.
Manchester’s fluid flashbacks achieve more than just one ruinous reveal. Hacksaw Ridge can essentially be viewed as one present, peppered with paramount memories from the past; Manchester, though, is more or less telling two stories simultaneously. In addition to creating one giant reveal, this paints a more complete picture for the film’s secondary characters. Because the film dwells in its past – and not simply around one flashpoint – the audience is absorbing information that informs the actions of more than just the film’s protagonist. We know that Patty – Lee’s orphaned nephew – is sheltered from his birth mother because of her once-destructive habits. Additional import is attached to the family boat, not only because characters deem it important, but because the audience is shown a sequence of family moments happening aboard. Hacksaw Ridge uses its past to color the actions of a man at war, while Manchester tells the story of a man at war with his past.
In Lion, Saroo Brierley is a man ripped from his own past, desperately trying to find his way back. This film stands apart from the other three by spending substantial time in two distinct periods. Hacksaw and Manchester technically begin in the past, but they are mostly films that look backward while moving forward, whereas Lion spends time laying track in its “past,” with an opening third that tells the story of a young Saroo’s accidental journey from home. Before leaping to the present, twenty-five years in total, Lion gives its audience the entire story: Saroo, asleep on a train, is mistakenly taken a thousand miles from home to a strange country filled with imminent danger. He is adopted by a family in Australia, where audiences see him welcomed into a new home, see him adjust, even see him joined by an adopted brother. At this point, Lion moves to tell the astonishing true story of adult Saroo’s search for his real home.
Lion distinguishes itself by using flashbacks to drive plot in addition to sentiment. Like the above two films, Saroo’s memories serve as emotional anchors – specifically, the images of his caring older brother are haunting and evocative. At a certain point though, these snapshots from Saroo’s past begin to serve as signposts for his return. In the film’s final act, he has given up whatever hope he still had of finding “Ganestalay” – the name (misremembered by Saroo) of his nonexistent birthplace. After attempting to locate his home mathematically using train schedules, travel speeds, and radial calculations, it is a cocktail of luck and recollection that eventually helps Saroo find Ganesh Talai, his actual hometown. As he aimlessly scrolls across the planet on Google Earth, Saroo finds an image that strikes a chord. He zooms and zooms, mining his memory to map the terrain on his computer.
Hacksaw Ridge uses flashbacks to explain its present and Manchester by The Sea uses flashbacks to decode its present. Both films do it to build poignancy in their present. Lion does all of this, but adds another component to its internal memory, using flashbacks as an engine to drive plot in the final act. That these flashbacks are memories, and that Saroo’s final journey home is mapped by images from the character’s actual past, only intensifies the triumph of his climactic return. The film smartly resists the deus ex machina of recovered memory, and uses the information that was before Saroo – and the audience – the entire time, drawing a conclusion to the events of the film and completing an emotional through-line that began on a train in act one.
There is a reason for considering these films in a particular order. Hacksaw Ridge moves between two dimensions; here is the past, here is the present, hey – remember the past? Here it is once more. Manchester adds depth and fluidity to its movement, seamlessly shifting between past and present, allowing the two distinct times to color one another. Lion steadily positions the past and present closer to one another, exploring its protagonist’s increasing obsession and eventually using memories as literal and figurative sign posts in the film’s resolution. Arrival is the most formally ambitious of the group – it uses flashbacks in each of these ways, while simultaneously subverting all of them.
Arrival follows Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with building a language between humans and the aliens now hovering above Earth’s surface. Importantly, the audience – and characters – can only guess at the visitors’ intentions.
As the films wears on, the audience is shown flashbacks with greater frequency. Louise playing with her young daughter, Louise estranged from her husband, Louise in heartbreaking memories, coping with her daughter’s incurable sickness. Meanwhile, in the film’s present, Louise is increasingly distraught, as though her reality is shifting. She could be upset by the recurrence of these harsh memories, although she also seems to not recognize that they belong to her.
In this way Arrival is not unlike Manchester. There is a mystery at play, one that audiences must account for when viewing Louise’s actions and exploring her character. Like Manchester, Arrival slowly builds its context, broadening the window through which audiences view Louise’s past. Then again, Arrival is nothing like Manchester by The Sea at all. In the film’s final minutes, Arrival reveals that these jarring images weren’t flashbacks at all; they were flashes forward. The audience and character were through the looking glass the entire time. A daughter not yet born, a disease not yet contracted, a husband that was beside Louise all along. This formal subversion achieves the same emotional effect as the momentous reveal in Manchester, driving the film’s plot much like Lion. Arrival shows us that the aliens are from the future, gifting humans their language so that in the distant future humans are able help save them from a dire fate. The aliens exist out of time, which is to say the exist in many times at once; they interact with time differently than humans. Louise, through her continued interaction with the aliens, was being shown glimpses of her future. It also seems as though that interaction – and consequent exposure to radiation – is the source of her daughter’s illness.
These films use flashbacks in four distinct ways, each with varying degrees of sophistication and efficacy, each to tell a stories that amount to more than a sequence events. There is a strange intersectionality between flashback structure, overall aesthetic, and plot in each of them that is more than a happy accident.
Hacksaw Ridge is filmed with a throwback earnestness, about an aw-shucks greatest generation hero, a man the film deifies. That it uses flashbacks with little complexity is hardly surprising, just as it’s no surprise that Arrival – a story about aliens divorced from our concept of time – subverts them.
Manchester by The Sea and Lion each give the past immediacy – it looms, always, over the present. In one, a man can’t overcome his past, despite his best efforts; in the other, the man is never truly lost from his past, despite the best efforts of fate. While the four films have vastly different stories to tell, they have an argument in common: that story is more than plot, more than that simply what occurs between a beginning and end. That context is crucial.