Following my emotionally deflating matinee, I headed over to a quieter part of town for a showing of How to Die in Oregon at the Harvard Exit. What can I say, I’m a masochist sometimes.
I know, I know. a spoiler warning for a film called How to Die in Oregon shouldn’t be necessary. But trust me, it is. I can’t bring myself to pull any punches or tiptoe around anything in this review; the filmmaker definitely didn’t. I also have to apologize in advance for not remembering all the names of those involved. Also for gushing, which I rarely do, but is completely validated here.
This film is ostensibly about the Death with Dignity act passed in Oregon in 1994. It states that anyone with a terminal illness (or, I assume, dying of old age), can elect to receive a lethal dose of Seconal which they administer to themselves in order to end their own lives. The government attempted to reverse the law in 2008, resulting in much more national attention for it as well as efforts to pass the same law (I-1000) in Washington State.
The first shot of this film is a home movie of a woman stirring together some kind of milky concoction in a large glass. Given the title of the film, it takes mere seconds to realize what that liquid is for: we’re about to watch someone die. Sure enough, we follow the liquid into the living room where an elderly man is sitting on a bed surrounded by family. The present clinician asks him if he understands what is about to happen, to which he replies, “Give me the goddamn glass!”. To get a laugh in this setting really speaks to the film’s humanity and the spirit of its subjects. This man says the drug he’s about to take will “kill me and make me happy”. He wants to die. Everyone around him seems to accept this. He downs the liquid Seconal mixture, and we basically watch him slip into a coma and die. This may seem like an abrasive way to bring the audience into your film. And it is. But it was extremely important to lead with that scene. First of all, it forces us to admit that moments like this carry an intense and inherent intimacy that should only be reserved for family and loved ones, and we’re intruding. Secondly, it lets the audience know right off the bat that the title is not a euphemism or a misnomer. We really are talking about what most of the country mistakenly refers to as “assisted suicide”.
In the subsequent scenes, we are given a little more information about the state law and some statistics surrounding it. In the seventeen years this law has been in effect, only 500 people have taken advantage of Death with Dignity. Not a staggering number, and certainly not the “slippery slope” its detractors allude to. We meet several more Oregonians who are consulting with Sue Porter, a client manager at Compassion & Choices of Oregon. Heart problems, cancer, old age. Their reasons and infirmities are varied, but their desire is the same. They want control over their lives. More specifically, they want control over how their lives come to an end.
This is where we meet Cody Curtis. Cody is a 54-year-old wife and mother of two who has been diagnosed with liver cancer. She’s been given six months to live. The rest of the film is focused mainly on her and her journey, her struggle with the decision to end her own suffering should the need arise. From the very beginning, Cody is planning on using her right to Death with Dignity. It’s just a matter of when. We get her personal views on the law, on terminal illness, on the kind of impression she wants her life, and its end, to have on her loved ones.
Cut to Seattle. Nancy Niedzielski lost her husband to a brain tumor. It was a long, painful, tragic process that couldn’t be helped by modern medicine, and couldn’t be humanely expedited because Washington didn’t have a Death with Dignity law. The last promise Nancy made to her dying husband was to get the law reversed in this state. She’s on a mission to give others the comfort and control her husband wasn’t able to receive.
As the parallel stories of these two women played out, I’ll admit I was confused for the first half of the film. For some reason, I assumed this documentary would explain in detail what the law actually says, how it kept from getting overturned, the process of being approved for the “procedure”, etc. i couldn’t figure out why we weren’t focusing on that. Then I saw Cody Curtis eight months after her six month diagnosis, and it hit me: this film is not about the law. It’s not about the controversy, the politics, the morals, or the public opinion. This film is about the people this law effects. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand the specifics of I-1000 or both sides of the issue. What matters is I don’t understand at all what it’s like to live with a terminal disease, knowing you’re going to die soon. This is the point that I fell in love with Cody Curtis.
I wish I could say that Peter D. Richardson’s directing was visibly commendable. I wish I could say the editing was solid, or the score was well-conceived. But I can’t. I can’t, because they did their job so well, that for the two hours I was in that room, my misty eyes were glued to the screen. I didn’t notice technical things, my disbelief was completely suspended. I was having an emotional conversation with Nancy and Cody, and it was riveting. Their spirit, their strength, their fear and pain, were all equally palpable, as was the fear and uncertainty of their families.
But to say this film is a tragedy, to say that I was saddened by Cody’s final scene, would be inaccurate. You can’t think about this film that way. This is a wonderful, beautiful, touching film not about someone’s death, but about their commitment to quality of life, and their courage to face the unknown on their terms and no one else’s. I have honestly never been as moved by a film, fictional or otherwise, as I was by this one. In the final days, when Cody’s family and friends are gathering, the film comes to an emotional head. I could hear the sniffles around me, I could see the glint of tears on nearly everyone’s cheeks, including my own. Cody is giving her friend a very personal gift, and you know they’re about to start a very tearful and honest exchange. Out of nowhere, from off camera, Cody’s son comes in. “Mom, do I need to butter this pan?” (he’s been in the kitchen baking). She laughs, and tells him no. Then she looks at her friend, and they both start laughing. This ends with a shared look that is more tender and honest than any long, drawn out soliloquy could be. And with her final moments, as we watch through drawn curtains from outside Cody’s bedroom window, we can hear her start to whistle, “I’ll fly away”. And she does.
I honestly don’t know how I felt about this law before. I don’t know how I feel about it now. But I do know that, in those two hours, I came to care deeply about Cody and her family. I came to understand her choice, and I am exceedingly grateful for her right to make it.
As if the film wasn’t emotional enough, afterwards we were lucky enough to have not only Peter D. Richardson on hand, but also Nancy Niedzielski, Sue Porter, and the Curtis family. They were very gracious and honest in their answers, and the only thing I can really say about it is that as filmmakers, family members, and advocates for human rights and social change, they are a brave group of people, and I’m glad I got to be in the same room with them.
How to Die in Oregon won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and will air on HBO Thursday, May 26.