The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins in the hospital room of an elderly, terminally ill woman. Attending is her daughter, Caroline. The dying woman asks Caroline to read from the diary of a friend named Benjamin, whose life addresses this question: If one could live in reverse—old to young—would inevitable losses be erased?
Benjamin's story begins with a vignette about a clockmaker and his wife who lose their son in battle during World War I. The craftsman's final masterwork, a magnificent clock in New Orleans' train station, runs backwards—a reflection of his desire to rewind time and relive happier days.
At the moment the clock begins ticking, a peculiar person is born—with a crinkled visage resembling that of an octogenarian. His mother perishes in childbirth. His father, Thomas Button, cannot bear what's happened and contemplates tossing the decrepit infant in a river. Instead, he deposits him on the steps of a nursing home. Benjamin is discovered by a black woman named Queenie who lives and works there. She vows to raise him herself.
As Benjamin grows—older and younger—he meets someone who'll change his life forever: a girl named Daisy. She matures as he regresses, setting the stage for one of the most complicated love stories ever told. Along the way, Benjamin's adventures lead him into the employ of a salty tugboat captain, to exotic ports, into the arms of another man's wife, into battle in World War II and back home to New Orleans.
Each day, Benjamin's internal clock runs inexorably backwards.
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button challenges the idea that life would be better if we could erase its hurts. Characters repeatedly deliver philosophical aphorisms that add up to a message about the importance of cherishing each day, whether it brings good or ill.
The right response to loss, according to the film, is acceptance rather than denial. The tugboat captain, Mike, quips, "You can be as mad as a dog at the ways things went, you can swear and curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go."
Dealing with death, then, is a closely related theme. Growing up in a nursing home, Benjamin learns to receive from the residents the small gifts they have to offer. An elderly woman teaches him how to play piano, for example, and tells him that losing those we love reminds us of the importance of our relationships. Likewise, Caroline tells her dying mother, "I wanted to tell you how much I'm going to miss you."
Another theme is new beginnings. "It's never too late, or in my case, too early, to be whatever you want to be," Benjamin says. "I hope you live a life you're proud of. If not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."
Queenie cares for Benjamin's physical and spiritual needs. And she tells him his life has purpose even though he looks different ("You're on your own route, Benjamin. ... Be thankful for what you've been given").
Thomas Button eventually apologizes for abandoning Benjamin. Before his father dies, Benjamin carries him down to a lake to see the sunrise one last time.
In one poignant scene, Daisy asks Benjamin, "Will you still love me when my skin is old and saggy?" He replies, "Will you still love me when I have acne, wet the bed and am afraid of what's under the stairs?"
The pair never marries, even though they have a child. Benjamin asks, "How can I be a father when I'm headed in the other direction?" Daisy tells him, "Be there for as long as you can, and I'll accept the consequences." As he keeps regressing, he says, "You're going to have to find a real father for her. She needs a father, not a playmate." Whether his solution is proper is debatable: Benjamin leaves Daisy so she can find a husband and father for the child (which she does). But Benjamin never wavers in his devotion. And he sends birthday cards and notes expressing his affection from afar. The film concludes with Daisy caring for Benjamin as he forgets how to walk and talk.
Queenie is a Christian whose faith influences how she sees Benjamin's condition. She calls him a "child of God" and "a miracle." And when he gets discouraged about his condition, Queenie encourages, "God has a way in that." She prays for him, and she exhorts him to keep saying his prayers when he leaves home.
At Queenie's revival-oriented church, the pastor performs an exorcism on Benjamin, saying, "Out, Beelzebub! Out, damnable affliction!" A man who's suffered much comments, "God keeps reminding me I'm lucky to be alive." Daisy mentions the psychic Edgar Cayce and his beliefs in predestination and fate.
As Captain Mike dies after a heroic attack on a German U-boat, Benjamin tells him, "There's a nice spot in heaven waiting for you." Benjamin spies a hummingbird flying upward, perhaps a symbol of Mike's spirit. A hummingbird appears again when Benjamin grows too young to live any longer.
As a "teen," Benjamin talks about his body's changes. And when Captain Mike learns Benjamin has never had sex, he takes him to a brothel. We see numerous prostitutes in lingerie as well as Benjamin under the covers with a woman. It's implied that they have sex repeatedly. Benjamin becomes a brothel regular after that. His father is also a customer.
In Russia, Benjamin befriends Elizabeth Abbot, the lonely wife of a British diplomat. Nighttime conversation turns into a nightly sexual rendezvous. We see them kiss and see her in her nightgown.
As an adult, Daisy is a ballet dancer who attributes her liberal attitude toward sex to her profession. She tells Benjamin that sex is a part of her troupe's regular activities. She also says many dancers are lesbians. After a sensual dance in front of him, Daisy propositions Benjamin for sex. (He declines.)
After a performance in New York, female dancers are half dressed at best, and the men aren't wearing much, either. It's a nod to bohemian culture as they dance, embrace, drink and smoke. (A similar scene follows later on.) We see Daisy in her undergarments as she gets dressed, and one of her dancing outfits is translucent and exceedingly tight.
Benjamin says at one point that he's had a number of different lovers. (We see him embracing and leaving several.) He and Daisy eventually consummate their relationship, and we see several montages of their sexual escapades over ensuing years picturing them in various states of undress. One distant shot shows them naked in an embrace on the beach. Another shows their nude silhouettes as they swim at night. They have one encounter after she's married to someone else.
Queenie and her lover, Tizzy, kiss on her bed. (She's wearing a nightie of sorts.) It's implied that they have an ongoing sexual relationship, and they have a daughter years later.
WWI soldiers get shot and blown up. On a tugboat mission during World War II, Captain Mike comes upon a torpedoed boat: Bloody bodies float in the water. The U-boat's guns kill almost everyone on Mike's vessel.
Benjamin's mother is covered by a bloodied sheet after she gives birth to him. Pregnant, Daisy falls down the stairs, and we see blood on the floor. A woman is hit by a car, resulting in blood on the ground. A man recalls being struck by lightning seven times. For humor's sake, we're shown each strike.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words. Five s-words. Jesus' names are taken in vain at least a half-dozen times. God's name is abused a couple more time than that; twice it is paired with "d--n." Characters also utter a handful of other swear words ("a--," "d--n," "b--tard").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Captain Mike drinks constantly and smokes cigars. There's drinking and smoking at the brothel. Mike's crew gets drunk at bars every night. Thomas Button has several drinks with Benjamin, who gets drunk for the first time while with his father. Benjamin and Elizabeth share some vodka. We also see them drink champagne. Daisy drinks and smokes, as do others.
Other Negative Elements
Queenie lies about Benjamin's sudden arrival, repeatedly saying that he's the result of her sister's affair with a white man. We see an elderly man's backside as he showers; Benjamin is shown twice in a soapy bathtub (naked, but covered by bubbles). We also see Captain Mike drunk and shirtless, wearing only long underwear. Captain Mike calls a Cherokee sailor "Chief."
"Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18." That observation by Mark Twain inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to pen his 1922 short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Nearly a century later, Zodiac and Fight Club director David Fincher lets loose a cinematic adaptation.
At its core, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about how we live, given the inexorable reality of death. Whether we live forward into old age or backward into infancy, the result is the same: We die.
Taraji P. Henson, who plays Queenie, talked about this theme with Plugged In Online: "[The film] was very therapeutic for me because I lost my dad a few months before going into production. I feel like sometimes we build these defense mechanisms to help us cope. And sometimes it's not the best. They can be walls that start to manifest themselves later on because you haven't dealt with anything bad in your life. This really forced me to deal with the loss of my dad."
Brad Pitt felt much the same way. He told Rolling Stone, "I'm scared to death of [mortality]. ... [But] what occurred to me on this film, and also with the passing of [Angelina Jolie's] mother, is that there's going to come a time when I'm not going to be with this person anymore. ... I don't want to waste time being angry at someone I love. ... This thing is fragile, and there's a ticking clock on it, and whether it be death or what, there's just going to come that time. So this movie changed that for me."
Indeed, despite its potentially gloomy subject matter, the messages in Benjamin Button often parallel Solomon's teachings on need and time in the book of Ecclesiastes. But there's a stumbling block on the way to understanding them: Sex in this film is depicted simply as one of the good things life has to offer. Never mind the context. From Benjamin's initial encounters with prostitutes, to his affair with a married woman, to dalliances with unnamed suitors, to his lengthy love affair with Daisy—before and after her marriage to another man—Benjamin's sexual mores never get a second look.
Further, Queenie's devout faith seems completely disconnected from her sexual choices. Henson said of her character, "Queenie was ahead of her time, shacking up. I just think she was the kind of woman that didn't fuss over that kind of stuff. We never dealt with it."
By starting at the end and working toward the beginning, two things become clear: David Fincher thoughtfully deals with one of life's hardest issues, death. And he leaves the purpose, place and morality of one of life's biggest issues, sex, almost completely unexplored.