The camera tracks from left to right as the dissolve moves us from the hill to the hospital room.
There are two callbacks in this moment. First, we have the callback created by the dissolve that reminds us of the negative moment when Ellie and Carl spoke to the Doctor about having children.
There’s also the callback to the negative moment when Carl broke his leg and was laid up in the hospital room. It looks to be the same room, or at least a similar room in the same hospital, and the shot is framed from a similar angle.
Ellie is shown in bed, reading and hooked up to an IV. There are some things on the table next to her that we’ll get a closer look at in a moment.
Look at the contrast of light in this shot. The blown out brightness of the world outside the window. The deep shadows surrounding Ellie.
And then comes a balloon. It’s a callback to earlier when they were children and Ellie returned Carl’s balloon. The balloon floats in and bumps against the book Ellie is reading, shifting her focus.
Another thing to consider that this GIF doesn’t fully articulate: The pace of this shot is very slow. There’s motion, but it’s subdued and creeping. The camera. The balloon. The momentum of this montage is slowing as we near the end.
The movement and editing is trying to connect us to the idea of two people struggling to keep moving against the weight of age and time.
A static frame, with Carl barely holding his head up. He’s trying to smile for Ellie. That’s the only motion within the frame. Look at how his mouth struggles to make it work, but his eyes don’t have it in them.
He’s off-center and at an odd angle compared to the doorway and the camera’s position. He’s placed in such a way that he feels like he’s in the wrong spot, mirroring his emotional discomfort.
At the same time, given the arrangement of the room and the shot-reverse shot tempo of the cuts, Carl is in the right place. Ellie was on the left of the frame in the previous shot, and Carl is more to the right.
Again, think about the shots of Carl by himself. This is a shot of Carl visually isolated from Ellie as he contemplates how he’s going to live a life without her. As he does so, he’s surrounded by shadows. This darkness is encroaching on him already.
Recall the shot of Carl coming to Ellie’s side while she sat alone, hair blowing in the breeze. How he reached out to comfort her in a moment of her sadness. Then he came from left to right. Here he comes from right to left. The framing creates an impression of difficulty.
Look at the way he reaches out with his hand to touch her both times. They’re small actions, but there’s a sense of simple intimacy here. A hand on her leg. Holding each other’s hands, as we’ve seen so many times before.
Now look at the table. Tape. Art supplies. She’s been doing something.
That book on her lap, which will be revealed in the next shot, is her childhood Adventure Book.
She’s been adding to it, though we won’t learn that for most of the movie. In this moment, the movie is planting the idea that she’s been leaving a message for Carl, but he won’t discover it.
His grief will delay his discovery of the message he is given here.
This is how we say goodbye.
Before, Carl reminded Ellie of her grand desire for adventure when she was at a crossroads, feeling grief over their inability to have a family. Now Ellie returns the favor, making sure that Carl has the Adventure Book.
She’s letting go of her story and passing it to him. She’s trying to remind him of something, hoping that he’ll see how she’s filled the pages with the story of their life together. She’s trying to tell him that even though they never made it to Paradise Falls, she never stopped believing that their life together was an adventure worth writing down.
Look at the way that their hands move as she pushes the book to him. She uses the book to slip from his one hand and to push his other hand off of her leg.
She’s trying to tell him to let her go.
They hold hands. They always hold hands.
She straightens his tie, one last time, after years of making sure it was on right.
She touches his face. A small gesture. A soft, fleeting moment.
Look at how close we are. How intimately we experience this moment. How the camera keeps them both in frame but focuses on Carl’s face. This story will be about how he reacts to this loss. We are aligned with Ellie, watching him. Seeing how he processes this moment.
And look at the way he stands between us and the window. How the shadows seem softer, but they’re still all around.
Carl, centered in the frame, gives Ellie a kiss on the forehead. She lies there, mostly motionless. The only movement within the frame is Carl’s gentle lean forward.
And then the dissolve begins and the shadows encroach further. The next shot is full of darkness, and this transition lets us feel those shadows creep in.
This is the last moment Ellie will be with Carl, but not the last moment she’ll be in his heart. That dissolve, instead of a hard cut, suggests the fluid nature of this moment. Her passing is concrete, but her presence lingers.
We’re back in the church from the beginning of the montage. Using the same setting from earlier evokes those memories of the previous scene for both Carl and the audience.
Look at the contrast between those moments. During the wedding, there were candles and sunlight streaming in. Now, the light outside is growing dim, and the candles are all snuffed out. Look closely and you can see that the candles are burned down lower than before.
At the wedding, the pews were full of people. Now, Carl sits alone on the step. Our sense of his solitude is increased by putting us in a space that we’ve seen packed with people before.
Even the distance of the framing of the shots suggests a change. We’re further away from Carl than before, letting us see more of the space and feeling a greater sense of his isolation.
Carl is holding a blue balloon, like the one we just watched him float in to Ellie’s hospital room. This single balloon, not part of a bunch, but alone and tethered to Carl. Their pairing also works to remind us of his isolation.
And look at the balloon clusters at the funeral. In the darkness, their colors appear drab.
And then there’s the lack of motion in the shot. Again, the frame is locked down. Again, there is a small amount of movement in the center of the frame from Carl. In this case, he stands up and slowly turns.
Notice how he’s not walking toward the exit of the church, which would be toward us, but walking away from us to fit with the action to come after the dissolve.
This use of a dissolve as a transition between shots continues to suggest that the emotional weight of each shot carries over into the next. That in Carl’s head it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he’s still thinking about the loss of Ellie.
Carl takes the balloon from the funeral and walks back to his house. Another dissolve sustains the idea that we’re holding on to Ellie’s memory and the pain of her loss from the hospital bed to the funeral to here. Carl’s interior psychology motivates these changes.
Look at the way the shadows continue to creep in. It was twilight in the hospital, the funeral was growing darker still, and now we have the barest slice of illumination in this shot. Compare that to the previous exterior shots of the house, where we could see the trees and everything was sunny and warm. There’s a drab coolness to the lighting, and the color of the house seems washed out. Drained.
It’s a slow, plodding shot, matching Carl’s solitary walk. This is not a trip he knows how to make on his own, and you can feel the strangeness of it for him in his pace moving up the steps. Look at the way he seemed to bound to the house as he carried Ellie there on their wedding day. Feel the difference in his stride, not just because of the years, but the mileage.
And then we fade to black, creating a narrative break from the beginning of this montage. Look at the way that progression from light to dark is the opposite of the shot that started this montage, going from dark to a sudden burst of light with the camera’s flashbulb. We’ve spent this whole time making the journey from light to dark. From Day to Night.
This journey even played out in smaller moments, like the transition between building a nursery and going to see the Doctor. That journey from Day to Night traveling alongside the journey from hope to sorrow. As the screen fades to black, we hit Carl’s lowest point yet.
But his story isn’t over yet.