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How to Die in Oregon Review: It's the Sad One

By Guest Contributor Ian Moore | Film | March 20, 2011 |

By Guest Contributor Ian Moore | Film | March 20, 2011 |

The alternate title for this review might as well been “Dying: this shit gets real, yo”.

How To Die In Oregon is the second film from Oregon based documentarian Peter Richardson; it made its debut at the 2011 Sundance film festival. It is driven by a unique law in Oregon passed in 1994 that allows physicians to assist terminal patients in a “death with dignity” via a lethal dose of Seconal, a heavy barbiturate. I expected two hours of axe grinding and choir preachin’, a trap documentaries on controversial subjects are prone to falling into (see also: Michael Moore). This is not the case with Oregon. Richardson presents a sympathetic but essentially unslanted picture of several families in the Pacific Northwest struggling with planned bereavement, for lack of a better phrase. It’s like Logan’s Run without the sci-fi tropes or tube-cars, and more grief.

Briefly, we have Nancy Niedzielski, who campaigned tirelessly in 2008 for a death with dignity law in neighboring Washington after watching her 35-year-old husband Randy age succumb to brain cancer; Dr. Katherine Morris, a primary physician who provides the most compelling interpretation of the oft-cited Hippocratic Oath, “‘first do no harm’ doesn’t just mean physical harm”; Ray Carnay, a radio and TV luminary with a magic voice, who records his own eulogy in anticipation of having his larynx removed; Randy Stroup, the casualty of the Oregon law who was denied any treatment other than palliative care and/or physician assisted suicide due to the advanced nature of his cancer; and Cody Curtis, 54, mother of two, around which the other stories orbit.

Richardson chooses Cody Curtis as the standard bearer for his story — a wise choice. So often assisted suicide is presented in such a way that unless the viewer has very strong abstract objections to ending life, it’s very difficult to argue with the emotional logic. The typical picture painted is of elderly people who’ve been vegetative in a nursing home since the first Bush administration, or the younger individuals with no alpha wave activity after a skiing accident. People with no measurable quality of life. Cody defies these kind of archetypes. We are introduced to a bright, intelligent woman with movie star looks and a tube-car full of charisma. Adorable, loving husband. Endearingly dorky adult children. She doesn’t look sick; tired, maybe. As Richardson takes us through her struggle with biliary duct cancer and her looming decision, he sheds light on the other side of the death with dignity coin: What if the patient’s family isn’t willing to mark the calendar for losing a loved one? In skillfully edited montages, we see Cody and her family in the awkward process of making every moment count. It’s filmed subtly, so that there are only the barest hints of melancholic gazes shot at each other. But this is where the film tracks into uncharted territory. Terminal diagnoses are made every day, and every day humans defy them. There will be no defying a lethal dose of Seconal in Cody’s case, so the portrayal of Cody’s relief at the idea of permanent respite from her hellishly painful life is tempered by the nakedly honest, poorly concealed hopeless resignation of her family.

Richardson’s affection for his subjects is evident, and balanced nicely by his respect for them and his filmmaking process. In the Q&A with him after the screening, he was asked if he had any trouble controlling his emotional response to the story (there is no shortage of real grief, despair, and tears from his subjects). He related an anecdote about filming a scene where Cody has a wheels-off breakdown after a particularly touching tribute from her former employer. Richardson: “I didn’t know what to do. Every fiber of my being was screaming that I needed to set the camera down and go comfort this other person, this human being. But [Cody] would have told me to stop if it was too much, and she didn’t. So I just stayed with the shot.”

This tenderness is carried through in the tinkling, piano based score by Max Richter. At times the swells are reminiscent of a Friday night Lifetime movie, but for the most part it keeps the longer sections of interview from drying up. The shooting style is also so transparent that I had to keep reminding myself that there was an invisible extra actor in each scene, wrenching or not.

As much potential as this film has for being emotionally manipulative, it mostly avoids the almost expected gut-punches usually associated with “serious” documentaries. Pathos abounds, but it never feels manufactured; the people in the stories come off as whole, with as much humor as there is black despair and pain. Particularly sanguine is Ray Carnay, who takes an easy joke on the kids running the studio where he records his eulogy. The funny is just that much more biting considering the double layer kid gloves with which the studio engineers are handling this bizarre process, and that theme of the patients reminding their loved ones that they’re not gone yet is one than permeates all the large group interactions in the film.

As much as How To Die In Oregon could have been a political or philosophical diatribe, Richardson takes the harder route with minimal editorialization or sensationalism, and just lets these people be. And what they are is sad, real, and still questioning why death is never easy. It can only be eased.

How to Die in Oregon was screened at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.