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Sundance, Day 8: Death after life

Posted by Ty Burr  January 27, 2011 11:37 PM

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howdieoregon.jpgAt Sundance, there are buzz movies, and then there are the ones that everyone clears a space around and discusses in hushed tones. "How to Die in Oregon" is one of those. Whenever you hear shuttle-bus chatter about this documentary on assisted suicide among terminal patients, it's with an I-cried-and-I-survived sense of accomplishment or a girding of one's psychic loins before heading into the theater. Did you hear? goes the refrain. It opens with an on-camera death.

Well, not quite. Director Peter D. Richardson does begin the film with a dying old cuss named Roger surrounded by his loving family and barking impatiently for the Seconal cocktail that will end his life. Do you know what drinking this will do to you? asks the medical assistant as required by Oregon state law. "It will kill me and make me happy," Roger snaps. Then he downs the glass and slips into a coma singing "Ol' Black Joe." His last words are, "It was easy, folks, it was easy." The camera doesn't stick around for him to stop breathing.

"How to Die in Oregon" has a point of view, which is that people deserve to choose their time and mode of exit when they're on the way out. Richardson visits with a number of aged folks who've signed up, and to a man and woman they're profoundly relieved that when their suffering becomes unbearable, they have a remedy in their bedside table drawer. The decisions reached in this film are not reached lightly, and the brutal directness of almost everyone we meet oddly serves to lighten the experience: These people are past the ethical struggles, and their certainty has a purity that's singular and moving. Much of the film's running time is spent observing the final year of Cody Curtis (on left in photo above), a 54-year-old wife and mother with inoperable liver cancer; she's articulate, philosophical, graceful, and scared as hell, and anyone who watches "How to Die in Oregon" is a better person for knowing her, even indirectly.

Elsewhere, Richardson follows the fate of a similar ballot measure in Washington state and checks in with a few right-to-die opponents, but neither evenhandedness nor partiality is the point here. The movie just wants to get close to people who are far out on the limb of human experience and who realize exactly what they're walking away from. I cried, too, but from several emotions in addition to sadness; the film's a hard but incredibly moving, even transformative watch. "How to Die in Oregon" will be on HBO later this year.

Everything else after that looked, shall we say, a tad shallow. "Take Shelter," starring perennial Sundance It actor Michael Shannon, has very strong word of mouth, and mostly deservedly so. This slow-burner about an average midwestern husband and dad who has nightmares of a coming apocalypse and starts building a survivalist dugout in his back yard maintains its tension remarkably well, thanks to Jeff Nichols' careful direction, a creepy score, and Shannon's performance. The movie's a patient build from everyman normality through increments of anxiety and possible psychosis until, just as we're wishing that Nichols would get on with it, the hero erupts in a hair-raising scene at a Lions Club community dinner and the star at last is revealed as the Michael Shannon we know and fear.

The movie paints itself into a corner, though -- either the character is crazy or he's not, and the strength and dread of "Take Shelter" lies in the not knowing. As soon as Nichols has to go one way or the other (it doesn't matter which), it becomes a slightly lesser beast. Still, good enough for Sony Classics to buy the distribution rights, and good enough for you to seek it out when it hits theaters. And the actress playing the hero's wife, Jessica Chastain, is striking and impressive; a new face to me, she'll be appearing next in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."

One of the sneakiest and strongest things about "Take Shelter" is the way it collects all the angst that can beset a modern family man -- post-9/11 fears, ecological disaster, the fragile well-being of one's loved ones -- and squeezes it all onto one man's terrified face. Here's director Nichols at the post-screening Q&A addressing whether the movie's particularly "male"; he doesn't think so, but I do.

And here's Nichols on hiring Shannon, with whom he'd worked before.

To wrap up the day's notable screenings, "Abraxas" (below) is your basic punk rock zen monk movie. Points for staying true to both the Ramones and the dharma, though, and "Namu Abraxas" is my mantra for the rest of the festival. On the downside, the statute of limitations for use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a movie -- even in Japanese -- officially ran out two years ago.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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