16 Movie Flashback Scenes That Pack An Emotional Punch
Flashback scenes in movies can have a variety of purposes. They can reveal the answers to a mystery, provide context for a character’s choices, or disorient the viewer with a non-chronological narrative. In the case of these films, however, the flashbacks are used for emotional impact at crucial moments in the plot. The purpose is often to draw parallels between a point in the past and the current scene, and can also provide insight into the thoughts and memories of key characters. Not only do these sequences allow the narrative to slow down, but they also have a greater impact because of the filmmaker’s choice to withhold them until the audience is properly invested in the story and characters.
There are films that are essentially all flashback, while other movies save the moment for an emotional payoff. Sometimes, the flashback is to a crucial moment before the death of a character, giving us a scene of emotional connection to enhance the impact of their passing. Other times, the scene is a seemingly ordinary memory, but within the context of the narrative, the flashback is given additional significance. These scenes can contain some of the film’s most poignant dialogue, while other times the emotional impact comes from images alone.
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After patriarch Hector (voiced by Gael García Bernal) is thought to have abandoned his family for a life of music, his wife bans music in the family. Several generations later, Hector’s 12-year-old great-great-grandson Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) has a love of music that prompts him to unintentionally travel to the Land of the Dead, where he finds the truth. It is revealed that Hector only disappeared after being sabotaged by a thieving musician, leaving behind his daughter Coco.
Although music is blamed for the problems within the family, a flashback reveals Hector singing a song to Coco as a young child. This brief scene shows the love Hector had for his family and how he used music to show it, changing the family’s opinion about the art form so that Miguel can follow his passion.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
When advertising executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) runs into multiple obstacles in his efforts to get home from a business trip before Thanksgiving, he develops an unlikely, if contentious, friendship with fellow traveler Del Griffith (John Candy). Del is good-natured but annoying and prone to accidents, so Neal spends much of the film trying to put distance between them.
When Neal finally reaches his destination, a flashback sequence of him recalling all the time spent with Del leads to the big reveal: While Neal was eager to get home, Del had been in no rush because he had no family to get home to, his wife having passed years earlier. Once realizing this, Neal invites his new friend home for a Thanksgiving meal with his own family.
- 3114 VOTESPhoto: Buena Vista Pictures
When Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is taken by a toy collector and brought to Al’s Toy Barn, he meets other classic dolls from the TV series they are based on. Among them is Jessie (Joan Cusack), a cowgirl rag doll similar to Woody.
With a dialogue-free flashback sequence, we see the series of events leading Jessie to the toy store. We watch as Jessie goes from being the favorite toy of the little girl who owns her, to becoming a forgotten artifact of childhood. When the child owner becomes an adult, she gives the doll away to charity, leaving Jessie feeling abandoned. This also parallels the fears that Woody has about Andy, as he is also growing older.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
Edward (Johnny Depp) is an artificial humanoid created by the Inventor (Vincent Price) in a large estate on the outskirts of an American suburb. Because Edward is unfinished, with scissors serving as placeholder hands, he is eventually feared and misunderstood in society. Even though Edward is skilled with his scissors, he longs for real hands.
This is even more heartbreaking when a flashback reveals that the Inventor had given Edward a pair of hands as a gift, but passed before he was able to attach them. Even more upsettingly, Edward unintentionally destroys the hands with his scissor fingers once his creator is gone.
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Ratatouille follows the unlikely partnership between food-obsessed rat Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and restaurant underling Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), who are able to make culinary magic while secretly working together in the kitchen. For a movie about the power food has to transport us, it's particularly fitting that the protagonists are able to make a meal so good that it takes cynical food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) back to a childhood memory. One taste of Remy and Alfredo’s ratatouille dish sends Anton and the audience into a flashback.
A young Anton returns home in tears after a day of being bullied, greeted by his loving mother and a bowl of ratatouille. It is a simple gesture of love and kindness carrying emotional resonance allowing the audience to understand and empathize with the food critic who previously appeared terrifying and villainous.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Edward "Teddy" Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) believes he is investigating a missing patient at the psychiatric facility on Shutter Island as a Deputy US Marshal, until a flashback reveals the truth. Teddy remembers his name is actually Andrew Laeddis - and the reason for his incarceration.
His wife was suffering from a manic-depressive episode and drowned their three children at the family lake house. Laeddis was imprisoned for murdering his wife, and guilt over failing his family has led to extreme denial and the creation of the law enforcement alter-ego.