A Synopsis of the Film (if you haven’t seen it, skip this part):
Dr. Malcolm Crowe is an accomplished child psychologist. He is on top of the world at the beginning of the film, while he and his wife admire Philadelphia’s highest honor in medicine, an award now nicely mounted in their living room. The very same night, however, Dr. Crowe is shot by an unstable ex-patient, Vincent, that breaks into his home. Months pass, and Malcolm has seemingly lost confidence in his work; his marriage appears to be suffering, as well.
His case now centers around a young boy named Cole Sear, a reclusive nine year old with several cuts and bruises on his body, possibly the result of physical abuse in his household. Dr. Crowe initially is reluctant to take the case because he sees a parallel with his ex-patient that ended up shooting him.
As he begins to probe deeper into his work and become closer with Cole, the film’s big secret is revealed. Cole has the ability to see dead people. He explains that they continue to live out their lives and do not even realize they are dead. Dr. Crowe comes to believe the young boy and helps him in trying to understand these ghosts rather than fear them all the time. (Warning! Big twist of the movie about to be revealed!) The good doctor returns home and sees his wedding ring fall out of his wife’s hand. He is then forced to realize that he too is among the deceased. He had not only been helping Cole accept his gift, but had been helping himself in the process.
Hidden Themes & Subplots
Acceptance of God’s Gifts:
Rom. 11:29, Heb. 2:4, ROM 12:6, 1 Pet. 4:10
Granted, Cole is only nine years old and this unique gift is terribly frightening for him. But it can be used for a model for our own lives. As individuals, we all possess certain talents and attributes that make us who we are. The problem is that many times we reject these aspects and do not use them in order to benefit others. Some things may be deemed too difficult or the reward may not be great enough, so we do not live to our fullest potential.
Mt. 13:13, Deut. 29:3, Jer. 5:21, Mk. 4:9, 23
Dr. Crowe is a very intelligent man, but sometimes he can be too smart for his own good, which leads to assumptions. He believes he knows what is wrong with Cole from the start and begins to feel it is not worth the time because of his previous failure. When he finally begins listening to what is being said, he can truly understand his patient.
Lynn Sear, Cole’s mother, has attempted desperately to keep her relationship with her son stable. She honestly wants to understand what is going on in his life. Much like the ghosts that her son sees however, she sees and hears only what she wants. She tries to play off all the strange occurrences that revolve around their lives and justifies them however she can. Cole’s fear of damaging their relationship kept him from ever trying to explain what was happening. It was not until the young boy took the first step and was completely honest with his mother that the lines of communication could be opened.
1 Thes. 5:2, Heb. 2:15, Eccl. 8:8, Sir. 22:10
Traditionally in film, ghosts have always been portrayed as having “unfinished business” from when they were living. Which gives them reason to come back and attempt to set things right. The basic premise that can be drawn from this is that some people fail to take the opportunity to take advantage of their time on earth while they have it. They figure that they have plenty of time and ignore the fact that life is precious and should not be squandered. “Unfinished business” in life can be as simple as telling your family that you love them. Whether they seem like trivial things or not, doing something that will later lead to regret is really not worth it. Each day deserves to be lived to its fullest.
Religious Imagery & Symbolism
The Color Red:
This is probably the most obvious and blatant symbolism in the film, but it needs to be addressed anyway. The color can be interpreted several different ways. It is seen most notably in the film in main characters’ clothing (Lynn’s sweater, Mrs. Crowe’s dress), the doorknob to the basement, Cole’s tent etc. It is woven into almost every scene of the movie. One plausible explanation is that the color appears in the real world as something that is associated or impacted by someone who is deceased. This is also connected to the visible cold breath from some of the characters. The red imagery acts as a signal to gain our attention and focus it…a strand woven through different times, scenes and characters to tie everything together. In our Catholic Church faith, we find the color on the feast days of the martyrs and, most especially, at Pentecost: a time in which the Holy SPIRIT came down upon the apostles giving them tongues of fire (gifts) which they then used to communicate with all people.
The Church and the Tent:
They are used as Cole’s safe haven; a place in which he feels protected. Ironically, he is running to seek God’s protection from the very gift that God bestowed upon him. Since God is perfect He does not make mistakes and does everything for a reason. It is unfortunate when people are dissatisfied with themselves and ultimately God’s creation because they fail to see the big picture as well as God’s love.
The Birthday Party:
This scene is shot beautifully, especially in one particular moment in which a red balloon floats to the top of a spiraling staircase towards a ceiling light. Symbolically this scene can be read as the balloon and its association to spirits ascending into the afterlife and eternity towards the light of God.
At several points in the film characters can be seen looking through windows. At one point Cole looks out a window and a cross seems to be transposed onto his head from the window’s reflection of things outside. The careful placement of the character’s head and the cross is either a brilliant accident or a subtle intention by the director to outwardly reflect Cole’s faith and trust in God.
Paschal Mystery (places we see it exemplified within the film)
- Almost all of the characters share something that they need to die to in order to strengthen the relationships that they have with one another. Fear stands in their way. That fear varies between the characters. For Dr. Crowe it is the fear of failure, he does not have the confidence in his abilities that he once did and does not want Cole to end up the same way as Vincent (his ex-patient). Cole’s mother also possesses a fear of failure with her abilities as a mother. She tries to ignore the problems that they face and pretends that they live perfectly normal lives, which only adds to the tension and stress. Cole’s fear is one of rejection. Mentally, he is far beyond the maturity level of a regular nine year old, but he realizes his past and his age inhibit people’s willingness to listen to him.
- Dr. Crowe’s realization of his death at the end of the movie means that he must die to himself…so to speak. He cannot keep haunting his wife and allow her to move on with her life. It is not possible for him any longer to attempt to live out a life that, resultantly, he no longer has. Their relationship is over and though painful, they must both move on in order to ease the pain. For Malcolm it’s the afterlife, for his wife it may be a new love.
- Cole’s mother has been hit hard with the extraordinary truth her son has presented to her. At times the truth can be a difficult thing to hear, it may not be supernatural necessarily, but when coming from a family member it can only be with the best of intentions. As the listener one has to set pride aside and open up his/her heart as well as their ears.
(Now name three other instances in which you find the Paschal Mystery in the context of film.)
Character Overview: Cole
At only nine years old, Cole already displays many Christ-like attributes. He is unique among the rest of humanity and, as a result, is an outsider to many people, in this way he develops a life much like that of Jesus. At one point, however, he wishes he could “just be normal”, and he’s not even sure he wants what he has been given. Ultimately, Cole faces the truth and has faith in accepting who he is.
Definitely a hard position to be put in, Cole’s gift has forced him to mature quickly and beyond his years to a certain degree in order to balance his life. The foremost thought on his mind is the well being of other people. He seeks a strong relationship with his mother and friendships with his peers but is unable to completely give himself to others for fear that they will be hurt in some way. By the end of the film the viewer can feel a sense of relief in seeing Cole beginning to balance his “sense” with the everyday pressures of being a kid.
-naïve (due to age)
Character Overview: Dr. Crowe
The beginning of the film portrays a Doctor at the peak of his professional life. Although his wife agrees that his work is important, she doesn’t feel like a priority. She stands by him in his decisions nonetheless. The shooting, however, leaves only a shell of who he used to be. He is plagued by self-doubt and insecurity in the afterlife. The one patient he was unable to help caused his personal downfall.
With Cole showing signs of the same case, it only strengthens his new weaknesses. He also blames himself for his failing marriage. The guilt he feels is from leaving her alone.
By the climax of the film Dr. Crowe realizes he is (was) only human. Perfection and being Christ-like is something to strive for, it is a guide, but in the end we are human, and we will fall. When a life-altering “bump in the road” came along, the doctor’s confidence was shattered. It was the small boy in his life that didn’t give up on him and that helped carry his cross which reset his faith in himself and in someone “Higher” back into place.
Dr. Crowe Pros:
Dr. Crowe Cons:
Character Overview: Lynn Sear
Cole’s mother is a wonderful actress–not just in real life, but her character’s life.
As the young boy’s mother, it is easy for her to give off the sense that she is in control and that everything is fine. She has been very patient with her son and his “odd” behavior for several years, but the strain is beginning to show. She claims she wants to listen to and trust her son, yet she only hears what she wants.
A perfect example is the dinner scene with Cole and Lynn, where she asks him if he took the bumblebee pendant from her drawer. He repeatedly tries to explain to her what happened, but she already has a set answer in her mind of what she wants to hear. When he tells her the truth, she becomes frustrated. She is loyal to her son, however, to the end, remaining by his side in every situation as she tries to break down the barriers between them.
This scene (chapter on the DVD) doesn’t “sum up the entire movie” but is emblematic of the characters, storyline or theme inherent within. Watch the scene carefully, and discus how it summarizes several of the major themes of the film.
- How open are you with your friends and family? How well do the people in your life really know you? Do you simply have surface relationships or do things go deeper? Are you letting fear stand in the way of making solid relationships with God and everyone else?
- Cole spends a lot of time in a church or his small tent sanctuary. Do you go to church to grow in faith and love? Do you go to church hide out for a while and abandon your faith at the door as you leave
- Think of all the different aspects of you life that are important (God, School, Family, Friends, Money, et. Al.). What order do you put these things? How do they affect one another? Is God incorporated into everything in your life?
- Hopefully not, but let’s say you were to pass away tomorrow. Would you have to come back as a spirit because of unfinished business? What are you putting off or avoiding in your life?
- Dr. Crowe was seemingly drifting through the world of the living, and did not even know he was dead. Are you floating through life, or are you taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way? Are you reading the signs in your life or seeing what you want to see?
- How do you think you are set apart from other people? Is it sports, academics, personality, etc.? Are you using those things for your glory or for God’s? Do you even utilize the gifts you have been given, or let them collect dust?
Jn. 16:13, ROM 6:13, Jer. 26:15, Zech. 8:16, Jn. 8:45, 1 Pet. 3:18
Something as miraculous as seeing spirits is highly unlikely to happen to anyone except in the movies. A lot of times people believe “miracles” are fantastic events or situations, but not necessarily. They can be as simple as someone using their God given abilities to help others. Living up to what we are called to be and to do – is not a miracle, it is a possibility. We just have to allow it. We have to be willing to live it.
Living a chaste life in our society today, while surrounded by temptation in the media…that is what we are called to do. Having the courage to tell a friend they should stop abusing drugs or alcohol, that’s what we are called to do. Living up to our full potential that God intended, that’s what we are called to do. Do it.
Call to Action
Ps. 26:4, Mt. 6:24, Mk. 7:6, 1 Jn. 4:19
Living a double life is incredibly easy. Not a double life in the sense of Batman or James Bond, but who you are on a retreat or in Mass, compared to at school or when you go out. God’s love is constantly raining down upon us and we can come back from Mass or a retreat or LIFE Night wanting nothing more then to be open and loved by everyone around us, at least for a few days. It’s simple to “divide” into two lives again. The real challenge here is to incorporate and support one another as we leave our safe havens and go out into the world to share our gifts with everyone else. The faith is meant to be shared, not just personally experienced. You might “see what others don’t”. The challenge is to communicate it in such a way that others do.