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14 Movie Wives Who Died To Make Drama For Their Movie Husbands

Because a man isn't complete without a woman to feel sad about, but spend minimal time with on screen.

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1. Leonard's Wife, Memento (2000)

Newmarket Films

Played by: Jorja Fox

Christopher Nolan, whose Interstellar is opening soon, is unquestionably the movie king of the sacrificial wife — a figure who mainly exists in flashbacks and visions. She's there to cause angst in our hero in the midst of his crime-solving or professional-killing or revolution-leading or whatever else he's up to. She's usually not so much a character herself as a living psychological burden, shot in gauzy light. She triggers stories, but never really gets to be a part of them (on account of being dead and all).

Nolan's first use of the trope turned up in his chronologically flipped breakout Memento, in which Leonard (Guy Pearce) goes on a quest to find the man who murdered his unnamed spouse. That wife, played by CSI's Jorja Fox, shows up bathed in golden, late-afternoon sun in memories. It's a standard dead wife portrayal, serving as a reminder that we're seeing the character through a subjective lens. But to the film's credit, that idealized portrayal is undermined by revelations late in the movie that let the audience in on a more complicated truth.

Gauziness level: Medium

2. Helen, John Wick (2014)

Lionsgate

Played by: Bridget Moynahan

Unlike most other late spouses on this list, Helen didn't die because of something her love, retired hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), did or failed to do — she passed away thanks to an unspecified but photogenic illness, freeing him from guilt. Still, John spends most of the movie killing Russian gangsters as an extended way of mourning her, and she's depicted in her few scenes at maximum idealized gauziness. And, even as she was dying, she found time to buy her hubby an adorable, equally doomed puppy to keep him company, which makes her quite possibly the most saintly member of the Dead Wives Club.

Gauziness level: High

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3. Dolores, Shutter Island (2010)

Paramount Pictures

Played by: Michelle Williams

Sometimes the dead wife needs to be saved from baddies, and sometimes she needs to be saved from herself. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of two U.S. Marshals investigating a patient's disappearance from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane, is haunted by visions of the wife he believes was killed in a fire by an arsonist who was imprisoned on the island. What actually happened, as hinted by Dolores' perpetually damp hair, was even darker, if also practically a Victorian hysteria tale that makes the film's atmosphere of heightened dread a little eye-roll worthy in retrospect.

Gauziness level: Medium

4. Mal, Inception (2010)

Warner Bros.

Played by: Marion Cotillard

Uber-Dead Wife, Mal, haunts Inception as its antagonist, its guilty conscience, and its primary victim. In his second spousal appearance on this list, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, master manipulator of dreams and grieving widower. He feels responsible for Mal's death, which is why she's become a self-defeating specter, showing up as a ghost from his subconscious to sabotage his work. Always looking perfect, Mal is another figure who exists mainly in memory in the film, and distorted memory at that — whatever the real Mal was like, the version that torments Cobb is more a reflection of his own feelings of regret rather than her actual existence.

Gauziness level: High

5. Helen Kimble, The Fugitive (1993)

Warner Bros.

Played by: Sela Ward

Helen seems like a perfectly lovely human being before she's murdered by the one-armed man. But she really could have given more thought to her phrasing in that 9-1-1 call.

Gauziness level: Low

6. Izzi Creo, The Fountain (2006)

Warner Bros./Regency Entertainment

Played by: Rachel Weisz

Izzi isn't even dead for most of Darren Aronofsky's crazy-eyed epic about mortality, but she's a diaphanous gal with one foot in the afterlife. As the cancer-striken wife of Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman), she's more at peace with her approaching death than her husband, who's so fixated on researching a way to save her that he ends up isolating himself from her in her finals months. For all that, Weisz gets second billing in the film, and appears as Queen Isabella of Spain in its conquistador section. The Fountain is really a story about Tom in his different incarnations, while Izzi feels more like an elusive figure of his regret and longing.

Gauziness level: High

7. Julia McCullough, The Prestige (2006)

Francois Duhamel, Touchstone Pictures/Warner Bros.

Played by: Piper Perabo

The woman in the third Christopher Nolan contribution to this list manages to set off the destructive magician's rivalry without being a lingering presence in it herself. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) may differ on who was responsible for Julia McCullough's death, but at least she's not made into a guilt ghost. In her short time on screen, she's actually a vital, playful personality.

Gauziness level: Low

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8. Joe's Wife, Looper (2012)

Alan Markfield/Sony Pictures Releasing

Played by: Xu Qing

Rian Johnson's time-leaping sci-fi drama eventually sends its protagonist Joe (Bruce Willis) off to Shanghai, where he abuses substances, kills people for money, and meets the woman who saves him from himself, marries him, and gets shot for her efforts. She's not the movie's main female figure (that would be Emily Blunt's Sara), but she's the reason Looper's plot exists. Their meet-cute, which occurs during a bar fight, is spiky enough to balance out the fact that most of their relationship is summed up in a montage.

Gauziness level: Medium

9. Woman, The Road (2009)

Dimension Films

Played by: Charlize Theron

Like most of the characters in John Hillcoat's post-apocalyptic drama, she never gets a name. The woman — the wife of Viggo Mortensen's character and father of Kodi Smit-McPhee's — gets to embody dying civilization in the flashbacks in which she appears. She's glimpsed only in the slowly deteriorating past, having given birth not long after whatever event has brought about the world's end, and as a true gauzy Dead Wife, she doesn't choose to soldier on into the terrible future with her husband and child.

Gauziness factor: High

10. Liz, The Salton Sea (2002)

Castle Rock Entertainment

Played by: Chandra West

All of trumpet player-turned-meth addict Danny Parker's (Val Kilmer) troubles started when his wife, played by Chandra West, was killed by masked men when the two of them stopped to frolic by the Salton Sea. D. J. Caruso's film spins out a twisty tale of criminals and corrupt cops, but when it comes to Liz, it's classic in its depiction of the woman who died so its story could exist.

Gauziness level: High

11. Maximus' Wife, Gladiator (2000)

DreamWorks

Played by: Giannina Facio

Maximus' (Russell Crowe) wife and son are killed before he manages to return to them, so we never see them alive in Ridley Scott's historical drama, but they do manage a timely appearance from the afterlife in the midst of a field of (supernatural?) grain.

Gauziness level: High

12. Murron MacClannough, Braveheart (1995)

Paramount Pictures

Played by: Catherine McCormack

Murron's execution for the apparently unforgivable crime of resisting rape kicks off her husband William Wallace's (Mel Gibson) rebellion against the English while also freeing him up for future entanglements with other ladies. But Catherine McCormack brings Murron to vivid life in her time on screen, and her romance with Wallace is sweet and grounded — they're actually shown falling in love, so that she doesn't feel like a character who exists only to be sacrificed in the name of narrative convenience.

Gauziness level: Low

13. Shelly Webster, The Crow (1994)

Dimension Films

Played by: Sofia Shinas

OK, this is slightly cheating, since Shelly Webster and Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) are both murdered the night before their Halloween wedding. But this '90s goth classic raises a major question: Why does Eric get to rise from the grave, slap on makeup, and seek revenge, while Shelly only saunters out late in the game in a backlit sequence that makes Gladiator's field of grain look restrained? We live in a modern era where a girl's got a right to avenge her own death!

Gauziness level: High

14. Rheya, Solaris (2002)

Twentieth Century Fox

Played by: Natascha McElhone

Solaris, Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of the sci-fi novel that inspired Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film of the same name, is in some ways about the whole dead wife trope. The planet of the title seems to generate replicas of its human visitors' loved ones, based on their memories, including one of Dr. Chris Kelvin's (George Clooney) late wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone), who committed suicide. The new Rheya, who quickly transforms from a dreamlike figure into something more solid and complex, may be a living memory, an echo, or some kind of alien entity. But in challenging Kelvin to confront all of his grief, resentment, and self-blame, she and the movie engage with and finally undo the idea of the woman who dies in order to give her husband something to brood about.

Gauziness level: Medium

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