Sundance 2011: HOW TO DIE IN OREGON Review

     January 27, 2011

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I don’t have an opinion on the euthanasia debate.  The issue is simply too personal to each individual for me to weigh in and tell complete strangers that they shouldn’t take their own lives or that they shouldn’t have to endure more pain.  Peter D. Richardson’s documentary How to Die in Oregon supports the “death with dignity” argument by showing how some people in Oregon, which has legalized euthanasia, are taking advantage of the new law.  The movie is heartbreaking as we watch terminal patients struggle with the decision to end their own life with “dignity” (I put that in quotations for a reason I’ll explain later in the review).  While the film works brilliantly on an emotional level, it does its advocacy a disservice through oversights and unnecessary tangents.

There are two major stories in How to Die in Oregon.  The first is about Cody Curtis, a married 52-year-old mother of two who is dying of liver cancer.  The other follows Nancy, a widow who’s on a mission to fulfill her dead husband’s final request that euthanasia be legalized in their home state of Washington.  Richardson takes minor detouts as we briefly meet supporters of euthanasia or terminal patients who are considering “physician-assisted suicide”.

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I put words like “physician-assisted suicide” and “death with dignity” in quotations because I feel that they’re slogans.  Much like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, the slogans imply that the opposition supports looking for an easy way out or a shameful death, respectively.  The film also highlights the work of the group “Compassion and Choices”, which sends out volunteers to help euthanize patients looking to avail themselves of the Oregon law.  Again, the notion of “compassion”, which means to suffer with, doesn’t really apply to a stranger who is going to mix the lethal dose of medication into your drink so that you can die.

It was because of these rhetorical roadblocks that I had some trouble finding my way into the movie as easily as others I’ve spoken to about it.  However, Richardson’s journey with Cody eventually got me tearing up.  It’s bittersweet to see this funny, good-hearted woman who doesn’t wish to die but has planned for that contingency so that her death will be on her terms.  Cody’s journey is powerful and moving as she holds almost nothing back from the audience.  Nancy’s tale of trying to get Initiative 1000 passed in Washington is compelling, but it exists in a political territory the film isn’t really willing to explore.

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How to Die in Oregon makes a case for “death with dignity” but that case is weakened by Richardson’s over-reliance on the emotional impact and conducting unnecessary interviews.  If the film wants to sell me on legalizing euthanasia, then I want to know more facts.  I want to know about other options for end-of-life care.  I want to know if the doctor-prescribed death drink ever fails to kill the patient and instead sends them into a persistent vegetative state.  At one point, a title card tells us that Cody is improving under “palliative care”, but it doesn’t tell us what that means or entails.  Rather than take the time to show a broader view of end-of-life care, Richardson shows tangential scenes which don’t benefit the emotional or intellectual impact of the movie.  For example, in one scene he meets with the founder of the “Hemlock Society” (a name I found dreadfully glib), an organization dedicated to legalizing euthanasia.  After the scene, we never see the society’s founder again.

On an emotional level, How to Die in Oregon is a triumph.  It pulls at your heartstrings without feeling manipulative and when we look at Cody, we see our own loved ones, and the thought of losing them slowly and painfully is absolutely gut-wrenching.  But on an intellectual level, the film is unsatisfying.  Euthanasia is a loaded issue and Richardson does his audience a disservice by not providing them with a broader view of the benefits and weaknesses of various options one has when considering their end-of-life care.

Rating: B-

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