Movies that use a missing/dead character to drive narrative.
June 17, 2017 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Movie buffs and casual fans -- what are some films that have a missing or dead character that becomes a core part of the "journey" of the main characters? A good example is Apacolypse Now, with Colonel Kurtz being a driving force who we don't meet until the end of the film. Another example is Stand by Me, which I have admittedly not seen, but looks to fit the profile: "After the death of a friend, a writer recounts a boyhood journey to find the body of a missing boy." Casting a wide net, so all suggestions are welcome!

I'm working on a project that uses this structure and need some movie examples to help flesh out what I'm going for. It's an extremely familiar storytelling element to me but I need other people's minds and memories to help me track down where it crops up. Thanks in advance.
posted by no_context to Media & Arts (63 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not highbrow, but I Know What You Did Last Summer.
posted by lalex at 12:22 PM on June 17

Any murder mystery, basically? Or am I misunderstanding?

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is good.
posted by ODiV at 12:22 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]

The recent French film Valley of Love fits this very well.
posted by vacapinta at 12:25 PM on June 17

Saving Private Ryan?
posted by theseldomseenkid at 12:26 PM on June 17

Sunset Boulevard, although it is a narrative by the dead character...
posted by jim in austin at 12:27 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Just movies? Six Feet Under did this with the dad.
posted by dogmom at 12:29 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

How about "The Big Chill" from 1983.
posted by Vermillion at 12:36 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]

You want Living MacGuffin (warning: tvtropes) and its cousins.
posted by axiom at 12:37 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]

Rebecca, the movie based on the Daphne duMaurier book.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:38 PM on June 17 [14 favorites]

Oh, lordy™, Laura !!
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:38 PM on June 17 [13 favorites]

Weekend at Bernies
posted by jamaro at 12:39 PM on June 17

posted by under_petticoat_rule at 12:45 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

posted by modesty.blaise at 12:53 PM on June 17

Twin Peaks if you're taking tv shows.
posted by Smearcase at 12:54 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

All About My Mother/Todo Sobre Mi Madre and in a way, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
posted by Smearcase at 12:57 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

The Sixth Sense
posted by jtexman1 at 12:57 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

…. surprised to be the first to mention The Third Man.
posted by General Zubon at 12:58 PM on June 17 [11 favorites]

I think the way you've described the question is a little too broad for answers to be helpful. As someone else pointed out, every single murder/abduction movie ever made fits your criteria.

I get the feeling though that you are looking for things more along the lines of Waiting for Godot or the Usual Suspects. Is that right?
posted by 256 at 1:03 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

A few more that just crossed my mind:

About Elly
The Lady Vanishes
Dangerous Crossing
Julieta (sort of fits, I think)
posted by modesty.blaise at 1:04 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

13 Reasons Why - although the dead character appears extensively via flashbacks, about half the show takes place in the present after the death, still focused on figuring out the dead character.
posted by skewed at 1:13 PM on June 17

Gone Girl
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:14 PM on June 17

Arrival, though ** SPOILERISH ALERT ** they sort of take it back later in the movie. Definitely worth watching to see it used very explicitly as a narrative device, as opposed to something that also drives the character throughout the movie (I am accepting all challenges to this analysis in FanFare ;)
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:21 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Memento. The Usual Suspects.
posted by bendy at 1:42 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

The Netflix show Bloodline is about a family being affected by their black-sheep brother, who is pretty early on revealed to be now dead. How he got dead, and the after effects on the siblings, drive the whole narrative.
posted by matildaben at 2:01 PM on June 17

In Casablanca, the story is set in motion following the murder of two German couriers for the letters of transit they were carrying.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:02 PM on June 17

Spoorloos (a.k.a. The Vanishing, but for fuck's sake do not watch the American remake that is also called The Vanishing). Spoorloos spooked me out for weeks after I saw it.
posted by tzikeh at 2:04 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

Like Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty is narrated by a dead man
posted by TheRaven at 2:06 PM on June 17

And seconding Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, not only because it does fit your exact criteria, but because it is possibly the most under-seen movie that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It was meant to be Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback film, but Warner Bros. failed on every marketing front, plus it was released the same week as The Constant Gardener and Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Batman Begins. It never stood a chance.
posted by tzikeh at 2:08 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

posted by vunder at 2:21 PM on June 17

Pretty Little Liars does that with the character of Allison, though like 13 Reasons Why, the character does appear extensively in flashbacks.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:23 PM on June 17

Veronica Mars! The first season primarily revolves around the death of Veronica's best friend (which occurred before the start of the show.) The character does appear in some flashbacks.
posted by firei at 2:32 PM on June 17 [8 favorites]

just realized these are pretty much my favorite type of films. a few: Brick, Winter's Bone, Cake ..perhaps Young adult, but its only sort of mentioned at the end, to sort explain why she turned out that way
posted by speakeasy at 2:48 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

and yes! def. the arrival!!
posted by speakeasy at 2:50 PM on June 17

posted by 8603 at 3:06 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

The Third Man is alllllllll about this.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is largely about the lead character's retracing the investigatory steps of his recently deceased mentor.

Humboldt's Gift: "I wasn't doing so well myself when Humboldt acted from the grave, so to speak, and made a basic change in my life. In spite of our big fight and fifteen years of estrangement he left me something in his will. I came into a legacy." (sorry, that's a novel)
posted by praemunire at 3:07 PM on June 17

Ordinary People
posted by heatvision at 3:17 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

I watched the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express last night. The movie opens with scenes from a kidnapping/murder that takes place years before the murder in the movie, and that earlier murder drives the plot.
posted by FencingGal at 3:18 PM on June 17

The movie classic that is The Searchers with John Wayne.
posted by Carillon at 3:21 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

Sense8 does this with a few characters, though there are a lot of plotlines and these are not the only ones.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:25 PM on June 17

Posthumous Narration (warning: tvtropes)
posted by WCityMike at 3:28 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Fleabag is really funny and also completely heartbreaking.
posted by Mr.Krotpong at 3:51 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

Not a film, but: Desperate Housewives with Mary Alice Young.
posted by thetarium at 4:28 PM on June 17

How I Met Your Mother
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:49 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

Speaking of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys is another Shane Black film that follows two LA lowlifes as they re-create the last few days of a young dead woman and a young missing woman.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:56 PM on June 17

Am I really the first person to mention the Hangover movies?
posted by seasparrow at 6:05 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

The Passenger
posted by davebush at 6:19 PM on June 17

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock
North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock (insofar as the McGuffin is the search for a non existent character called Kaplan)
The Shooting by Monte Hellman
posted by Morpeth at 6:41 PM on June 17

Captain Fantastic
posted by kitkatcathy at 8:44 PM on June 17

posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 10:16 PM on June 17

A Rose for Emily (PBS short film based on Faulkner's short story)
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:36 PM on June 17

The French have a word for this: l'Arlesienne. See the French wikipedia article for more examples (In French, obviously)
posted by bluedora at 1:31 AM on June 18

The Netflix series "Stranger Things" fits your criteria I think.
posted by Blissful at 1:45 AM on June 18

posted by stellathon at 3:29 AM on June 18

Picnic at Hanging Rock
posted by gudrun at 6:23 AM on June 18

Also, maybe Don't Look Now?
posted by gudrun at 6:40 AM on June 18

First instinct was also Twin Peaks, but instead here's River.
posted by flabdablet at 6:43 AM on June 18

Lost Highway ("Dick Laurent is dead.")
posted by kapers at 7:30 AM on June 18

Chan Is Missing
posted by murphy slaw at 3:09 AM on June 19

The Force Awakens...?
posted by Devoidoid at 8:37 AM on June 19

I am confused by your examples. And based on the answers you are getting I think other people are also.
Absent characters who influence a story (looking for Kurtz) are not the same as narration by an adult version of the story's protagonist (Stand by Me).

Can you clarify what you are looking for?
posted by SLC Mom at 10:26 AM on June 19

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