Drew Barrymore in Scream.
(Warning: This post contains major spoilers for a recent film. Even saying the name of the movie would be a spoiler. Read at your own risk!)
A good onscreen death is easy: eyes glaze over, shoulders slump, the face twists into a grimace as it takes a good look down at the fatal wound and struggles to catch its breath. The Surprise Movie Star Death is harder to pull off. It’s a plot twist that requires a delicate balance of status, casting, and shock value. To see it done right — seriously, this is your last chance to stop reading — look no further than Friday’s Life, which gives a brilliant Surprise Movie Star Death to none other than Ryan Reynolds.
In fact, if there’s anything that cements Ryan Reynolds as an A-lister, it’s not his hit superhero movie or his marriage to a Gossip Girl alum — it’s how quickly he dies in Life. A few years ago, dying in a movie’s first act would have been a sign that Reynolds’s career had stagnated from its early heights. Now, though, it’s proof he’s a star.
A Surprise Movie Star Death has to come at just the right moment in an actor’s career. Too early, like Michael Fassbender in Inglorious Basterds, and it’s not really a shocking death, just a regular death. Too late — after, say, a string of mediocre family-friendly comedies — and an early death might just seem like another easy way to pick up a paycheck. Reynolds’s death in Life comes at exactly the right time: He’s at a place in his career where audiences will pay to see his sarcastic, cool-guy schtick, so his exit 20 minutes in feels like an stunning loss. It’s also a great bit of misdirection: After the alien life form known as Calvin breaks another crew member’s hand in grisly close-up, it seems like the movie has served up enough terror for the time being. When Reynolds enters the space-station lab to try to get the alien under control, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll make it out alive. But instead, he gets the movie’s first and most gruesome death, as the demon amoeba crawls into his mouth, slithers under his skin, and crushes his body from the inside.
Luckily, the movie adheres to one of the other guidelines of killing off a big movie star early on: Have another one — in this case, Jake Gyllenhaal. Walking into Life, I was curious how the two would jockey their screen time. They’re interesting actors for entirely different reasons — Gyllenhaal has a nervous, unhinged energy, where Reynolds manages to play indifference with gusto — and it seemed likely that one of them would have to give ground to the other. By dying when (and how) he does, Reynolds makes it clear: This is not going to be a fun Ryan Reynolds movie, it’s a disgustingly dark Jake Gyllenhaal movie.
When you look at the history of Surprise Movie Star Deaths, you’d be surprised how many of them have a spare A-lister to hang around even after the star’s kicked the bucket. In Gravity, another stars-in-space movie, George Clooney letting go of that tether allows the film to give itself completely over to Sandra Bullock. Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines kills off Ryan Gosling to reveal that its true star is Bradley Cooper. Even Psycho had Anthony Perkins, an Oscar and Tony nominee, to carry the film after Janet Leigh’s infamous shower. It takes perhaps more confidence to kill off a star without a firm backup. Drew Barrymore was murdered before Scream’s opening credits, ceding the film to a bunch of TV actors who rose to the occasion; Guy Pearce did the same in The Hurt Locker, making a star out of Jeremy Renner.
Still, killing off a star early is a rare enough move that I’m tickled to see it every time it happens, especially since you have to assume there are plenty of A-listers who wouldn’t be down to take part in such a twist. (Discussion question: Would Leonardo DiCaprio have been willing to die earlier in Django Unchained?) There’s something a little thrilling about walking into what you think is a Ryan Reynolds movie, only to realize that it doesn’t need him after all.