Seven Road Trip Movies about Death

Death has always been a fascination of mine.  I think of the journey toward death as the defining challenge of our lives.  I also find that what we think about death reveals a lot about what we think about life.  Naturally, I am attracted to movies about death.  What better metaphor for our grappling with death than the road trip.

Consider these 7 movies which wrestle with the morbid.

Wrist Cutters: A Love Story

Life is like a road trip and apparently so is death.  This is the story of three wayfaring souls post-mortem after suicide in the in-between of the great beyond, stuck there because of unresolved issues from their time on earth.  Even in death, they remain consumed with concerns about the meaning of life.  One character is on the hunt for his old girlfriend, the same one who he had killed himself over, who had arrived in limbo shortly after him.  This is the independent film version of What Dreams May Come.

Elizabethtown

Drew is about to end his life after a colossal professional failure and heartbreak until he is interrupted by news of his father’s passing.  He is trusted by his mother and sister to retrieve his father’s body from Kentucky and plan the funeral.  On the way, he befriends Claire, a persistent flight attendant, who will not leave him alone.  In Kentucky, his loss is met by “a hurricane of love” [and lunacy] from his numerous, kin folk.  The last third of the film is his return trip, a cross-country trek, with stops and soundtrack as planned by Claire.  He begins to see why he should want to live.

Grace is Gone

A dad, Stanley, is met in the morning by military officers who inform him that his wife, an Army Sergeant , had been killed amid conflict in Iraq.  Unable to tell his daughters, ages 12 and 8, what has happened he whisks them away to Disney World.  For a few days, Stanley manages to conceal the truth even claiming that their mother approved of their absence from school.  This is a portrait of a parent panicked and overcome by his own sorrow, unsure that he can help his girls cope. 

The Darjeeling Limited

Three estranged brothers take a train ride across India one year after their father’s death.  They bicker, keep secrets, and fight over his possessions.  Each has his own unresolved feelings about their dad, their mom who has withdrawn from them, and each other.  Small annoyances develop into a blowout which forces them to confront root problems. 
As they journey, trust increases and they come to understand one another better.  This enables them to sort out some of their own crises. 

Into the Wild

Christopher McCandless has just finished college and is on his way to Alaska to die.  Whether or not he intended to die is subject of heated debate.  This true story is a sad one of an abbreviated life and an untimely death.  The suggestion of the book and film is that McCandless rejected his parents’ empty materialism and was heartbroken over their divorce.  Inspired by Thoreau, he sets out on a cross-country trip from Georgia to Alaska where he goes head-to-head against the elements.  In the wake of his disappearance, his family struggles to deal with the embittered feelings toward him.

About Schmidt

Before there was Up, Jack Nicholson played a widower on a road trip.  The difference here is that Schmidt didn’t love his wife all that much.  After being forced out of his job the same month, Schmidt realizes that he doesn’t know what to do with himself.  His routine had been established for decades.  In his RV, he sets out to see America on the way to his daughter’s wedding.  He stops in his hometown to discover that his boyhood home has since become a tire store.  Burdened by the brevity of his days and feeling powerless, Schmidt begins to see himself as others have seen him.  The self-righteous crab apple desires to make amends. 

Finding Graceland

Byron Gruman is a man in mourning.  His wife was recently killed in a car accident the two were in together and now horrific images of that event play out before his eyes as he drives aimlessly down the highway.  He picks up a hitch hiker, a man who believes he is Elvis.  This man is little more than a nuisance but Byron can hardly get rid of him.  As it happens, Elvis’ story is remarkably similar to Byron’s, equally riddled by inexplicable and unexpected sadness.  While it had seemed that Elvis was the one who needed help, it becomes evident that he had been there to help Byron.

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