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12 Movies That Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know about Character Transformation

09 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Miguel Guerrero Becerra

Best Edward Norton movies

“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”

-Werner Herzog

We snake through land and through life with enraged tenderness, sluggish and disoriented, ready to traverse, in disheveled and strange rampages, from humans to monsters, from miserable kings to furious slaves, from quiet mumbles to frenzied roars.

We incinerate ourselves within the explosion that beholds us. We transform, evaporate from flesh and bones into ashes and clouds billowing out, growing above the hollow space of nothingness, becoming one with emptiness.

Such petrifying doctrines of men being vessels of inherited goodness and innate evilness exist only in chimerical and philosophical nonsense. Men are not victims of random moralities, nor are they the result of imbedding ethical prophecies. Men are only casualties to a single flooded universality: CHANGE!

Change spreads as spider’s venom. It is stingy but imperceptible, it flows in different doses but equally fatal over everyone. Real change is a permutation of the soul and an alteration of the mind. Life is taken about through the brawling of mock battles, battles wrestled as if in child’s play.

But if life is play, then, murderousness sensitivities are latch on to such games, aggravated by the aroma of contradiction, by the rottenness of casual circumstance, and by the sneakiness of emotional transfigurations. As Herzog intended to express in the previous quote, what it all boils down to, ultimately, is that inevitable transformation, is the lurking monster that haunts us all.

This is a list more about human convolution than evolution, about characters within stories that contain starting and ending points colliding into one baptismal resolution. Characters may begin their journey as silvery lakes rippling as beautifully as liquid starlight, but they might as well, come out of it smelling the same way corpses taste.

For better or for worst, something stays deep within when we transform, dead or undead…it stays. It never let us loose from its grasp.

 

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

citizen-kane-1941

What it can teach you: Character transformation must be memorable.

Charles Foster Kane is a personage non-descript. He speaks with a villainous mouth. Not in foul apology but with extravagant gullibility, as if exerting a festering disease of rebellion every time he speaks, without even being aware of distilling it.

What else can be said about this character and the film that balms him with bitterest vengeance? Both were sudden and rare lights in a cinematic time mired by shadow. Both were ignited through calm retrospective, and today, they continue to burn with a fire that shall consume the world.

Transformations give and take, and in Citizen Kane they do so with rummaging trepidations. “Rosebud” is not only a word; it is a rendering effect, drowsy with mangled melancholia and loss.

Ever since he was lacerated away from a humble childhood by rough hands and the unforgiving, hot breath of his unbinding mother, every step taken by Kane during his vexing peregrination, was a wretched symphony of deployment, a poor hoax, a collapse in its own way to recover that fragment of innocence, that piece of naive hope that was stolen from him in premeditated rudeness.

From a gladiator staining the arena with blood and brains in leisurely movements, to a secluded, lumbering oaf reduced to submission by his own great rage. Kane truly was a different varmint for each season in his life.

All the mollified production innovations of the picture were there, only to hence forward the wilderness of this nimble crusade. Perhaps, this is the most gratifying marriage between storytelling prose and visual magnificence in the history of film. It was a pure, emitting example of enchanting imagery, ceremoniously serving only the purpose of the deluging narrative.

Anyone can fall short when describing the alluring poetry and eternal prominence of this filmic giant. But, if it is character transformation what we are referring to in this list, Charles Foster Kane is a replenished example of filliping behavior.

He dozes on and off between contradictory dimensions of emotion, in search of an ejaculating need, so tangible in clinch, and so far off from his touch and reach. He moves among the walls of his haunted castle like a tired troll, maybe a drunken ghoul, irreparably demised by the over exertion of his own power. His mutating voyage signifies the shrinking process of a man´s soul, as his ego grows without surrender.

Charles Foster Kane was a monster that eclipsed the sun, so was Orson Welles. The greatness of both creatures has been forever etched upon memory, but so have their failing paths, and most importantly, their tragic finales.

Tragedy is the land where both men sat down to rest from the weight and pain, the influence they wished to admonish upon the world was causing on their shoulders, to gasp and to plead for a breath of imploring air.

 

2. The Godfather (1972) & Apocalypse Now (1979) – Francis Ford Coppola

the-godfather-(1972)

What it can teach you: Transformation is all about catharsis.

Catharsis: Purgation of the soul.

Throughout their quest, characters breath in the scent of real and perceived dalliances. They listen to the little snores of the creeping beasts that lay asleep within them, trying not to wake them up with a slashing shout.

Characters take on many mortal forms and shapes, before they cast them off to welcome the conjuring cleansing, the unfathomable act that will spread the marrow from their bones, and leave them shaking, agonizing, and rebirthing into the dawn, like a red sun that has come to inflict pain into a narcissistic twilight.

Catharsis comes in many filters, all of them ready to scrub the filth of old and infirm ghosts out of the character´s soul. For some, it comes in distillations of heartbreak and despair. For others, it is more of an eldritch hymn to the moon, one that assuages a headless guilt with a long haul.

Francis Ford Coppola´s The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are both cinematic leviathans. They are opposite in texture, streaming senses, and delicatessen visuals, but are narrowed together by the brilliance of their unguarded narrative.

Unripe and unstuck from their proper times, both canons invite us to enclosed worlds populated by dark spaces and majestically lit faces. Worlds soiled with corrosive aphorisms. Both are allotments of inebriated ironies and mounting angers, where the only villains, are the traitors hidden beneath the protective covers of the shadows.

Michael Corleone and Captain Willard are inbreeds of their own dramatic poisons, they are antiheroes coming from the same bloodline. They are battling through their personal jungles and rivers made out of liquid, mortal sadness. They are in the look out for evanescent monsters. Monsters, that are both visible and invisible, living spectrums and undead reflections of themselves, of society, and of the flooded roads they have been set upon.

Their purgation comes from two very different pilgrimages and one bonding destination: the tearing of their humanity and the clawing of their forgotten mercy, their bowels forever becoming wild voles shitting drops of terror.

If you are looking for character transformation, you better look here, within these films. It comes in slow phases, with blowing bangs and goblin faces scarring through darkness. It takes a while for humans to stop and reconsider how much they have changed. In the real world, catharsis is shaded among walls of concealment.

In cinema though, the world of a character reacts as if with impending storm, and the transformations of Michael and Willard are so overly pleasant and memorable, because they hit us hard and unexpectedly, they hit us like a fucking punch on the balls.

 

3. Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988)

Rain Man (1988)

What it can teach you: Immediate goals deceive the character from accomplishing transformation.

The immediate want of a character, his or her crystalized frustrations to achieve an immediate goal, must outstrip him from the possibility of change. The character´s strength must be drained away until he is left in solitary toddling, wandering thirstily for such recognition of evolution.

In Rain Man, Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) is a nuzzling man, dirty with dashes of disgusting glamour towards life, work, and family.

When he finds out after the death of his estranged father, that the 3 million dollars of his inheritance have been put into an unknown trust fund, to fiddle and preserve the care and well-being of an unknown, autistic, older brother named Raymond (Dusting Hoffman), Charlie enters a state of gravel shock, obeisant to some natural law of selfish paradigms.

He goes to the institution where Raymond is hospitalized, and drags him out of there (practically kidnaps him), with the sole idea of taking him back to California with him, to benefit from the gleaming trust fund he is certain, should belong to him.

The film has all the elements of a bubbling road trip: the journey of a disillusioned man, whose anchored life will giggled away obtrusively, thanks to the bruised mark, the path and the companionship will permanently scar on his delusory mind.

Rain Man, however, differs from the rest of the consorting films of this genre, by the means of faltering the adventure of the road little by little, and giving voice to the twisting relationships of the trip, through brokenhearted wailings of acceptance and avowal.

Raymond never changes throughout the film despite that everything around him does: his environment, his reclusion, his commodity, and his routines.

He is the sun of this inflicted galaxy, and the rest of the characters are planets, axing and orbiting around him to scavenge the necessary resources for their own personal growth and selfish survival. Charlie, specifically, is a reluctant constellation. His transformation, on the other hand, is so upfront and disrupting, because we barely notice it at an individual stage.

As his greed for the puttering money begins to tatter, so does our barrier for empathy. But we only see it through the electric impulses he has towards Raymond. The love he feels for his older brother is an odd combination of pleading and pity. It is a gastronomical equation at its purest level, the more squeamish a character is to change, due to his obsessive goal, the sweetest his redemption for such change will taste.

 

4. Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993)

Philadelphia (1993)

What it can teach you: Show the character’s flaw at the beginning. What is his essential need for transformation?

Philadelphia was by the time of its release, no groundbreaking portrait of the dissevered fatalities the AIDS pandemic was leaving behind at the time. Countless of nameless victims were piling up like obsidian trash, inside a perverted, communal grave.

By that time, there had been plenty of docudramas and television specials already displaying an elegiac mood towards the subject. The film was, however, a mainstream catalyst that aid in the crumbling of the glowering, hypocritical silence, society wanted to preserve about this affliction.

It did so, by supplying a broaden understanding of the disease, through the casting of two recognizable celebrities, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Hollywood was able to give face to a rather faceless sickness. The film provided an obtainable voice for an almost absent pitch, through the vociferation of A-list charm and stardom.

Tom Hanks gives an Oscar winning performance as Andy Becket. He showcases a soft spoken man, who, after being fired from a lawyer firm due to the thick embrace of his illness, decides to venture into the enterprise of making justice for himself as a way to appease his demonizing deformation. He is quiet, always mourning his own despair; his persona resembles an entire limb that agitates almost to the rhythm of an aquatic flipper.

Yes, he is great and passionate, but it is actually Denzel Washington as a disreputable lawyer that takes Andy´s case, who provides the autumn tint of gold for this movie.

As the practically unchangeable, listless, pleading, “not bothering to conceal his disdain towards homosexuals” asshole, Washington fills the narrative with a thimble brimming of anxious, unhappy hunger for social justice and human identification. The moment he meets Becket he is disgusted. He rubs his hand against his polyester suit, as if that was to scrub away any toxicity left corrupted by Becket’s handshake.

This man is in urgent need for an injection of dignifying humanity. He is not a bad man. We do not like him but neither do we dislike him. He is us: Ignorant, arrogant, completely aloof and judgmental about a virus we know nothing about.

The moon never beams with out bringing nightmares, and after being witness of an act of fouled-spit on the face-discrimination committed against Becket in the public library, he accepts the challenge of defending this sick man on court. Still, not because of a matter of repentance, but for the popularity this monstrous case might absorb and slurp.

The transformation of this character is rounded because his despicable ego has been exposed from the beginning, and his catharsis will arrive in lonely pieces, as if brought to shore by a relentless sea. Having to join his life with that of Becket’s, his strapped armor of obtuseness, will begin to shatter greave by greave. And it is a delightful process to watch.

 

5. The Silence of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

the silence of the lambs

What it can teach you: What are the demons, wounds, and past ghosts that the character refuses to face?

What kind of transformation does Clarice Starling undergoes? Is it a gender over-thriving kind of a transformation? At the beginning of the film she is placed inside an elevator packed with tall men that resemble frigid towers. She seems a lost girl admiring defying statues, yet they do not intimidate her. Then, what kind of convolution is it? Is it the overcoming of fears?

It is not a transformation what this character goes through, it’s an exorcism.

All the main characters in this movie seize eyes wet with wanderlust and desire, Clarice, Hannibal Lecter and even Buffalo Bill.

Clarice is drawn by the wetness of Hannibal’s eyes, eyes that are like moonlit pounds where strange animals come to drink at night; and vice versa, Lecter is captivated by the mirroring of Clarice’s: perhaps bright holes where spectrums wander around impatiently to be freed, with only a cold bench where to sit while they wait.

We all know the story; she is a detective in charge of finding and prosecuting a serial killer (Buffalo Bill). But in order to do so, she requires the help and guidance of another deranged murderer (Lecter), who used to be Buffalo Bill’s psychiatrist.

This is a nebular, dark film, but it is not because of the thriller elements or the cop on cop suspense the movie contains. Its darkness arises from a deeper responsiveness, from a hollow, sucking abyss, one that feeds upon our secrets, our childhood memories. An abyss we all carry around the neck like a necklace made out of bricks, hunching us more and more to the point of kissing the floor. This is a dark film because it is a film about humane inquisitions.

Jonathan Demme uses point of view shots and breaking the wall technique to penetrate into that abyss, yet he uses them not only to provide a closer glimpse into the ghosts inhabiting on the edges of the characters ‘souls, but also to dive deep into the audience´s very own wounds.

The last time Clarice and Hannibal share humid looks, they establish their last deal. Their relationship from the beginning has been based on an ordeal of cosmic deals. The difference with this last one is that it latches on to a barbarian confession between each other.

Clarice is to blur out her more internalizing demons, her aggressively grasping memory about the lambs and their silence, in exchange for the information that could provide the exact location of Buffalo Bill. She hesitates, out of fear, out of shyness, out of guilt, out of everything, for her, remembering is an out of the body experience. Her abyss has grown a full muscle thanks to the memories, and in a way, so does she, but in paralyzing tantrums.

 

6. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Gran Torino (2008)

What it can teach you: Knowing what kind of personality problem drives the character, allows a stronger climax on his or her transformation.

Walt Kowalski hands over a strong assault of racist names to any American citizen that looks like a non-American, with the same unawareness of a teenage boy delivering his newspaper route. Especially now, more than ever, himself being a lonely, beer chugging, bitter, xenophobic widower with an Asian family as neighbors.

Gran Torino smells of hide, of the fragrance of something hidden: the gathered dust of an old America, desperately trying to come to terms with a new kind of nation.

No. Disregard the previous statement. Old things don’t want to come to terms with new things that are about to replace them. That would be indulging in dark fantasies locked up in delousing chambers. Old things that don’t want to acknowledge that their time has passed, desire nothing more but to gouge out the eyes of new things with burning spoons.

What Gran Torino brings out to the light about a relentless old American ideology, is not prejudice or xenophobia, it is something broken loose form a deeper place, perhaps something intact that speaks through a language of scowls or, with a voice brimming until…well, broken.

We are talking about the reluctant acceptance, the refusal that with age and the coming of the crushing weight of decades, a belated flowering of life might arrive unexpectedly; ready to dribble us off into sweetness, ready to detach us from the labyrinthine inner life that used to engulf us.

Walt Kowalski, with agonizing optimism, embraces a new common humanity he just did not want to embrace, after a change in his life’s periphery. To him, being old gave him the chance to be irascible, to be as rotten as a festering wound. The slow-tempered magic of the film, as only Eastwood is able to feather, is that it manifests the opportunity for an atmospheric transformation.

Old age carries the freedom of pulling off a fine third act in the structure of our lives, one of closing redemption, one that new and young spirits cannot experience because only when old, the realization of windup belongings coming to an end, strike as hard as a silent rush of melancholia through chest and limbs. And that is precisely what Gran Torino makes you feel, even if you consider yourself brand new and shiny.

 

 

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  • Jake

    What about The Dark Knight? Harvey Dent has one of the best character transformations in movie history. It shows how tragedy can turn a good, decent man insane. Or Straw Dogs!

    • Matias Gonua

      of movie history? give me a break

  • Gines Velazquez

    Carpenter´s Cristine? Full metal jacket? Paul Verhoever´s Strarship troopers? 🙂

  • Martin

    Fight club?

  • Justin Kurzel

    SNOWTOWN…

  • Sinedd

    What about Amores Perros?

  • Sau Empty

    taxi driver?

    • Chankya

      Yes, what about it? I am curious to know what kind of transformation Travis Bickle went through.

  • Hal Dunn

    So many great movies on this list. Interesting characters is El Supremo, the numero uno reason for a good movie becoming a great movie. And character development and transformation is the best. On the Waterfront is an excellent classic.

  • Still D.R.E.

    Malcolm X

  • Gigi Ramsey

    This is a finely written article. More like a literary piece than a random list.