‘Blackbird’ wrestles with matters of life and death

“Blackbird” (2019 production, 2020 release). Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Director: Roger Michell. Screenplay: Christian Torpe. Web site. Trailer.

We’re all aware that our lifetimes are finite in nature and that they will one day come to an end. But, as our lives unfold, many of us become progressively more concerned with how that end will ultimately come about. Will it be on terms of our own choosing? Or will we relegated to circumstances that are out of our control? And how much input will we have in determining the details of the process? Those are among the questions raised in the moving new end of life drama, “Blackbird.”

Life for aging ALS patient Lily (Susan Sarandon) has become a shadow of what it once was. The fiercely independent free spirit, who could easily be the poster child for the causes of choice and free will, has led a rich, remarkable, experience-filled life on her terms. However, with the advance of her illness and failing physical state, she’s seen that existence shrink considerably. She’s lost the use of an arm, her breathing has become labored and her sense of balance has grown precarious. She still insists on being as self-sufficient as possible, often refusing help from others, like her dutifully patient, ever-well-meaning physician husband, Paul (Sam Neill). But, even with such strong-willed determination, Lily sees the writing on the wall and realizes that she’s only weeks away from being confined to a network of life-sustaining equipment that, in her view, will only prolong her suffering. For someone with her temperament, that’s worse than a death sentence.

With such a clear awareness of her circumstances, Lily decides to take action. She’s determined to bring matters to a conclusion on her terms, no matter what others may think or what the law may say. She thus sets plans in motion to make her exit in the way she wishes to leave.

In essence, Lily plans a celebration of life for herself and her family. She summons her nearest and dearest to her Connecticut seashore home over Thanksgiving weekend for what she wants to be a loving, fun-filled gathering that marks one last time for sharing long-standing traditions, heartfelt sentiments and joyful good times. And, at the conclusion of that time together, having said her goodbyes and with Paul’s assistance, she plans to quietly slip away, letting go of her pain and courageously moving on to whatever grand adventure awaits her next.

Lily sees the weekend as a time of great expectations. Yet, despite the best laid plans, it also has the potential for emotionally charged upset and debates about the wisdom of her decision, despite agreements made in advance to keep the mood positive and prevent those issues from arising. Nevertheless, considering what’s at stake and what’s about to transpire – a weepy and trying time fraught with possible legal consequences – there’s a good chance that Lily’s plans may not unfold as hoped for. Add to that the revelation of long-hidden secrets and previously unexpressed emotions, and you’ve got a volatile mix that the well-intentioned patient may not want – and that she may have never seen coming.

Gathering for the weekend are those who have long been in Lily’s life: her elder daughter, Jennifer (Kate Winslet), a privileged, uptight perfectionist who always wants to do the right thing and mercilessly insists that others do the same; her flighty, ungrounded younger daughter, Anna (Mia Wasikowska), whose mysterious disappearances and erratic behavior always keep the family guessing; Jennifer’s husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), an impish, playful sort who tries to deflect conflict but ultimately has difficulty keeping a lid on his frustration; Anna’s on-again/off-again lesbian partner, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), an old soul in a young body who frequently provides much-needed wisdom in the midst of chaos; Lily’s teenage grandson, Jonathan (Anson Boon), a chip off his free-spirited grandmother’s shoulder; and Lily’s oldest friend from college, Liz (Lindsay Duncan), a kindred spirit who has been with her through all the good times and remains fiercely loyal even in the face of death.

Over the course of the weekend, Lily has an opportunity to spend time with each of those in attendance, saying what’s gone unsaid and seeking to wind up any remaining unfinished business. The attendees also have an opportunity to share time with one another, expressing their feelings and having a chance to address outstanding issues. It’s a time for being spontaneous and uninhibited, such as celebrating an early Christmas, something that Lily realizes she’d be in no shape to properly enjoy if she chose to postpone her self-inflicted demise for a month. And it’s also a time to wax philosophically about issues like taking chances, breaking rules, exercising one’s power of choice, and knowing when to hold on – and to let go.

It’s an experience that proves remarkably rewarding, devastatingly difficult and curatively purging, all at the same time. It gives everyone an opportunity to take away from it exactly what he or she needs. And it’s something that ultimately will touch everyone in ways never thought possible. But, then, none of that would have happened were it not for their willingness to exercise their powers of choice and free will, and isn’t that what life is ultimately all about?

As I have written on a number of occasions, choice and free will are among our most precious birthrights, and we should make every effort to value them, using them judiciously in the ways we lead our lives. However, all too often, we disavow these attributes, claiming that we’re unable to exercise them or, even worse, contending that they don’t even exist. Such practices significantly diminish our lives, leading to existences that are unfulfilling and full of regrets, truly sad outcomes to be sure. Which is why the example Lily sets is so valuable, showing us the importance of our capacities for choice and free will in our lives, even in matters as weighty as how we die.

How we make use of these aspects of our lives depends greatly on our thoughts, beliefs and intents, the cornerstones of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these metaphysical tools in shaping the reality we experience. They drive what happens, framing the nature of our existence and everything within it. And, if we want that experience to be all it can, we had better be careful how we wield that power. Do we want a life that consists of what fulfills us? Or do we capitulate to the dictates of convention, even if it’s not what we want, simply because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe we have no choice in the matter?

Lily has lived her life under the assumption that she’s in the driver’s seat. She has long decided what she wanted. She has followed her heart, even if it’s not the path that others would take or whether they would approve of them. In fact, she’s not about to let trifles like the law dictate how she lives her life – or leaves it behind. To do otherwise in any of these contexts would go against her very nature, her true, authentic self. And she’s not about to stop now, even as her journey approaches its end. As she comes upon what is perhaps the most important event of her life, she’s patently unwilling to go through it on terms that don’t suit her.

As Lily reflects back on her life over the weekend, she reminisces about the many vivid, colorful experiences she’s had during her time on the earthly plane. She speaks fondly of the chances she took, unafraid to bend or break the rules to provide herself with the satisfaction she sought. She relishes her sexual adventures, her enjoyment of art and music, her drug experiences, her times as a wife and mother, and much, much more. Together those elements have woven a rich tapestry of experience, one characterized by experimentation, fulfillment and a willingness to courageously dismiss her fears. This combination has made for a truly heroic journey, one that we should all seek for ourselves during the time we’ve got.

Lily hopes that her decision to stage this final farewell will not only bring her what she wants, but that it will also set an example for those closest to her. She sees it as an opportunity to celebrate the life she has led, an experience she hopes others can appreciate and adopt for themselves to add more joy to their lives. She looks at her daughter Jennifer, for instance, and sees someone who has everything going for her but doesn’t enjoy it because of her neurotic demeanor. Moreover, she’s concerned that Jennifer’s constant worrying and niggling attitude are diminishing her quality of life, an outlook that Lily fears could be rubbing off on her grandson, filling his head with foolish notions and pointless preoccupations at a highly impressionable time in his life. Consequently, Lily doesn’t hesitate to make her opinions known on these fronts, hoping that they’ll have an impact in reshaping the beliefs that Jennifer and Jonathan hold. This becomes pointedly (and hilariously) apparent during the family’s impromptu Christmas gift exchange in which Lily gives each of them presents that poignantly reflect her views, hoping that they’ll make her viewpoint more than abundantly clear.

Of course, if we truly want such a satisfying life for ourselves, we need to discern what makes it worth living and what doesn’t. And, to that end, we need to be able to determine what’s worth keeping and what to release, particularly when it comes to what no longer serves us, even if that means our very physical existence. Lily has a keen sense about this, and, when she comes to realize that her failing physical state is preventing her from living the life she wants, she knows what she needs to do. With no likely prospect of recovery in her future, she consciously decides to avoid the probability that seems unavoidable. She thus embraces beliefs that make such an outcome possible and will subsequently bring it into being.

Despite good intentions and seemingly clear foresight, however, that doesn’t mean everyone involved in this co-creation will whole-heartedly share Lily’s aims. After all, those attending the farewell weekend are about to lose their beloved wife, mother and friend. As supportive as they might want to be, there’s still a sense of hesitancy lingering in their thoughts and beliefs. Can they really go along with Lily’s plan, no matter how much they love her? And, even if they fundamentally disagree with her decision, can they keep up a sufficiently credible front to reassure her otherwise?

Nevertheless, as difficult as all of the foregoing may seem, and even with a vague awareness of others’ doubts, Lily is determined to push ahead. She knows the time has come. But, even with that knowledge, over the course of what’s to be her final holiday celebration, she wants to remain committed to living in the now, fully engaged in the moment and all it has to offer. And that’s wise advice for all of us, especially in light of how preoccupied so many of us are when it comes to the way we live our lives, overly concerned with a past that’s come and gone or a future that has yet to arrive. Lily wants to immerse herself in the warmth and love around her at the time, while simultaneously expressing gratitude for what she has and having no regrets for what she doesn’t. With the end nearing and the time remaining to enjoy her life running out, she wants to make the most of every moment left while she still has the chance, an enviable example to follow.

The right to die is one of those topics that tends to divide society along rigidly defined lives, and that’s very likely going to be the case with a film like “Blackbird.” Director Roger Michell’s touching, thought-provoking, deeply moving drama, an American remake of the Danish offering “Silent Heart” (“Stille hjerte”) (2014), examines the dynamics within a family wrestling with this notion while honestly and lovingly addressing the heartfelt feelings associated with such a profound and intentional choice. While a few story elements don’t work quite as well as they probably could have, most of the narrative is handled sensitively and realistically, all brought to life by the superb performances of its stellar ensemble, particularly Sarandon, Neill, Wasikowska and Duncan. This release will obviously disturb some viewers, but others will be deeply moved – and fervently reminded that what we do with our lives (especially in the now) is up to us and no one else’s business. The film is available for online streaming and in limited theatrical release.

It should be noted that “Blackbird” has been the victim of some unfair criticism, that it’s yet another manipulative movie about a dying protagonist, an admittedly overworked cinematic theme. However, characterizing “Blackbird” as a picture about a dying protagonist oversimplifies what it’s seeking to address. It’s not a story about a character dying but about a character’s right to die, a topic that needs to be examined and debated much more fully than it has been. With the exception of a few films like “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” (1981) and the made-for-cable offering “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010), the right to die has been something of a taboo subject. But, as we should all be aware, death is indeed part of life, and how we approach it shouldn’t be a subject that’s hushed up or only spoken about in whispers in dark corners. We should all have the right to determine the conditions of our departure if we choose to do so, and pictures like this help to draw the subject into sharp focus. They should be applauded for their candor and forthrightness in helping to make it possible for us to move on to our own next grand adventures in the ways we seek.

As we approach death, a time when we often find ourselves at our most vulnerable, we may well feel disempowered and lacking in self-worth. Those conditions are bad enough in themselves, but, when we add to that indignities that magnify the state we’re in, we might feel even more despairing, compounding the woeful circumstances we’re already experiencing. Is that how we really want to spend our last days? Or do we want to create conditions that will uplift us and allow us to make peace with ourselves during such a trying time? Achieving such an outcome may push us to take charge of the situation, forcing us to be strong and resolute at a time when doing so could be fundamentally difficult. But, if that’s the price we must pay, then we must steel our resolve to realize the fulfillment we seek, no matter what others may think. It’s our life that’s at stake, and we have a fundamental right to live it the way we desire, even (indeed especially) in its precious final moments.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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