Like in real life, movie characters often hide their true thoughts and motivations behind facades, but today I want to look at the rare times when characters are completely and unabashedly, even painfully, honest with each other. Scenes like Ed Harris explaining his moral code in Gone Baby Gone and “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying” from The Shawshank Redemption show characters finally opening up fully about themselves. The final scene with Luke and his father from Return of the Jedi and basically any scene between Bela Lugosi and the title character in Ed Wood add heart to already-great films. However, there is no scene of pure honesty as good as the crumbling house scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
After almost entirely erasing Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his mind through experimental surgery, Joel (Jim Carrey) has only the memory of their first meeting left. After following her to the abandoned house, he admits he’s scared and begins to leave, just like the first time. When Clem says, “So go,” Joel regretfully responds with “I did.” There is no beating around the bush, no fancy wordplay, just “I wish you’d stayed” and “I wish I’d stayed too. Now I wish I’d stayed.”
We’ve all been in situations where we wish things could have played out differently, whether it was a relationship, friendship or even just a discussion. Who hasn’t looked back on an important moment in life and wished they had done it better? Here, finally, Joel gets too, even if it’s just in his mind. He admits to wishing he had stayed and admits how scared he was, but Clem—always the more adventurous one—says “What if you stayed this time?”
Sure, Joel has been trying to stop the memories from being erased for most of the movie, but it’s usually by running away, something he often does. Here, he tries to hold onto his memory by staying. I did a double-take the first time I heard Clem say that line about staying, but it’s the first time where Joel is really in control of his mind. Since Clem has already had the procedure done, it’s kind of implied that this moment went the same way for her. This is clear when Clem tells Joel to meet her in Montauk, where they again meet for the first time.
The acting in this scene is just perfect. Jim Carrey, best known for over-the-top comedic antics, is as subtle and restrained as the best of them as his character pours his heart open to Clem.
Obviously, Kate Winslet is great too, but that wasn’t surprising to anyone. It’s Carrey’s performance, never once breaking into his trademark ham, that is the big surprise of the film. Without one so raw and personal, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would not have worked so well.
The crumbling house is such a poignant image for this scene. Walls fall down, waves rush in, and beautiful piano music plays in the background. It’s a sad image, yes, but it’s also happy, because not only are they looking back on a loving memory, but they are reliving it exactly how they want to. It even shows some character development on both of their parts. Joel is finally ready to open up and tell Clem exactly how he feels. Clem finally realizes she scared Joel the first time and probably throughout their relationship, and she apologizes to him. Does this mean they will end up together and be happy in the future? The movie doesn’t give us an answer, but surely they have both become better people.
Tomorrow, we get to the very top of the list as I unveil my #1 favorite movie scene of all time.