Joshua Reviews Peter Richardson’s How To Die In Oregon [SXSW 2011 Review]

Death is not a subject many like to tackle head on.

However, much like any worthwhile documentary, the latest film from documentarian Peter Richardson, How To Die In Oregon not only takes a distinct and absolutely haunting look into the idea of death, but also what it means to truly have control over ones life.

How To Die In Oregon takes a look at the state’s battle with the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, which, in 1994, culminated in the state becoming the first one to legalize the act.   With only Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands having the practice legalized, Oregon became a hot bed for the battle for and against euthanasia.   However, it’s also so very much more.   Looking at the stories of those currently going through the process of ending their lives this way, the film follows those directly involved and their families, in what is one of the most moving and heartbreakingly powerful documentaries in at least a half decade.

Dealing with Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, How To Die In Oregon first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and will see it’s official public release thanks to HBO, who will be airing the film later this year.   Clocking in at just 107 minutes and at a budget of just $750,000, this is a beautifully haunting and hauntingly beautiful film, created by a native Oregonian in Richardson, showing that the ultimate extent of humanistic free will is the ability to say that you’ve had enough of life.

The Grand Jury Prize winner for Documentaries at Sundance, the film follows a collection of stories from people dealing with this issue head on.   Cody Curtis, a 54 year old mother of two is the core story here, and we watch as she goes through the process, from first meeting on.   We also meet Nancy Niedzielski, a woman campaigning for the act after watching her husband fall victim to brain cancer; iconic radio voice Ray Carnay; the brief story of Randy Stroup, a man who was denied treatment for his cancer, and Dr. Katherine Morris, a physician who comes to grips with the act and its relation to the doctoral oath.

The film’s core narrative, surrounding Curtis, is absolutely heartbreaking.   The viewer is literally welcomed into the most intimate and emotional time in this families life, and is shown a family and a person coming to terms with the fact that not only will her life end, but that it’s on their own terms.   It’s as bittersweet as a pile of the darkest chocolate, with the emotional response of a punch to the stomach.   With very little editorial or political spin, How To Die lets narratives like Curtis’ steep in the viewers hearts, and let what they stand for steep in their minds, tossing in some genuinely heartwarming, often self-deprecating, humor, which pairs ever so wonderfully with the heaviest of heavy subjects that is the basis for this film.

Also, Richardson as a filmmaker lets the film do all the talking.

While the film itself doesn’t ooze style like that of a Morgan Spurlock or Alex Gibney documentary, not only would that have done the narrative no justice, but there are a series of distinct directorial choices, particularly near the end, that only add to the film and its aesthetic.   There is a moment, near the film’s conclusion, that plays so powerfully that one may wonder why Richardson chose to shoot it that specific way, but there is not another choice one could have made.   Bringing everyone that was with me during its screening at this year’s SXSW Film Festival to tears, Richardson was able to use directorial choices like the one seen in the film’s end, to truly let the narrative and those who create it speak for themselves.

It’s this sense of narrative freedom that fits the film, and the film’s spirit and soul, like a glove.

With a moving score from Max Richter, How To Die In Oregon transcends documentaries.   More than a film, How To Die is a poetic look at free will and a group of people coming to grips with the end of their lives, and how they want to end them.   The definition of a tender piece of filmmaking, there is little to no editorializing, and thankfully so.   Richardson takes on the heaviest of topics, euthanasia, with a wholly heartbreaking and lyrical hand.

Documentaries, or moreover art for that matter, has the ability to transcend their respective medium.   How To Die In Oregon does just that.   It’s something more than film.   Something pure.   An absolute must-see.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.