Starring Kate Winslet, Susan Saranson, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Mia Wasikowska
My continued complaint with filmmakers is they don’t watch enough other films. “Blackbird” might have been an award-worthy, groundbreaking new take on the terminally ill/assisted suicide moral dilemma if a handful of other films on the same subject hadn’t gotten their first. Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “My Cousin Rachel“) isn’t known for originality, in fact, most of his films just deliver to mainstream audiences plots to smaller films he obviously hasn’t seen. “Blackbird” isn’t a bad movie, it’s one of those scripts designed to make the viewer cry, it presses all the right buttons. Plot devices from “After the Wedding,” “Youth in Oregon” and “August Osage County” pop up throughout the movie which reduces its impact on the more well-trained cinema viewer. Audiences who never remember what they watch might find it more impressive.
Lily (Sarandon) has made the difficult to decision to end her life before her cancer becomes so bad she loses the remaining body functions she is grasping onto. She and her devoted husband Paul (Neill) have set a date, invited the entire family over. It’s like a holiday get together, but instead of presents and celebration, it’s ending with mom’s death. Youngest daughter Anna (Wasikowska) isn’t convinced this is the right decision and has her own plan to derail the impending conclusion. Eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet), the control freak, is on board until she discovers something shocking occurring between her father and mother’s best friend Elizabeth (Duncan). The family barely touches on the illegality of what they are about to do, but with all these new circumstances coming to light there is far more to discuss.
"Wasikowska probably delivers the most empathetic performance, but it’s the same, 'her against the world,' role she’s unfortunately been typecast in."
Most dramas dealing with terminal illness work more to be funny than realistic, to enable the audience can cope with the sad message. Last years “my parent is dying” drama “What They Had” did the exact same thing and suffered from the exact same problems as “Blackbird.” The actors, some of them miscast, desperately elevate the many tropes. Sarandon has already played the dying mother who smokes pot to cope in “Stepmom,” she is the exact same character here. Wasikowska probably delivers the most empathetic performance, but it’s the same, ‘her against the world,’ role she’s unfortunately been typecast in. Winslet is a combination of Swank and Roberts from “What They Had“/”August Osage County.” “Blackbird’s” most heart-tugging narrative is that sometimes it’s not the person dying that needs more time. When the movie hits the explosive dinner scene (Hello again, “August Osage County.”), the family matriarch giving away sentimental possessions for her family to remember her by is the first big cry.
The light uncomfortable humor is on par with what we have seen from Michell’s previous work. It’s the heartbreaking moments you will remember. The idea of someone choosing the exact last moment they will have with their family is a powerful visual that familiarity can’t dilute. In the third act, “Blackbird” has worn the audience down, spent enough time with all of the characters that you begin to feel something no matter how hard you resist. It’s impossible not to be affected by the finality this family is hurdling toward, yet simultaneously you are always aware of this is a very specific circumstance that will seem too foreign to the very audience this movie is intended for. If “Blackbird” can start conversations about assisted suicide, or compel families to talk about uncomfortable circumstances, maybe it’s worth wading through the monotony of the narrative.
‘Blackbird’ is infuriatingly familiar yet still manages to wear the viewer down to tears in the final act.