Special to The Dagger
“What makes you think the thing you have at the moment is life?
– Caesar to his former legionary
I stand and the doorway and watch him struggle to lift himself out of his wheelchair. Visibly shaking and exhausted by the effort, he slowly pulls himself upward with the help of the nurse. The process has taken over two minutes. Upward and mobile, still shaking, one foot slides forward. The other follows. Three steps later and the effort is more than he can maintain. He mumbles something indistinct. The nurse asks him what he said. One word, “chair.”
The last time I remember him being strong, I was twelve years old, standing in his kitchen with three clean five-dollar bills lying on the counter, a cold Fresca from the basement, and a firm hand shake still making my hand ache. I had been mowing his lawn as my ‘first job’ for a month now. He would never let me mow the hill even when I got older, because it was too dangerous. His wife was just showing the signs of early-stage dementia that would claim her ten years later. For now she can’t remember which puzzle she worked on last. The doctors recommended something that would keep her mind active to stave off the effects as long as possible. A year later she would stand and the driveway yelling for help because she couldn’t remember her husbands face and thought he was an intruder.
As his wife wore away, so did he. First from the stress, later from the Parkinson’s that would take over his body, and finally, from old age that would rob him of his mind. He asks me if I’ve finished painting. He thinks I am my brother who is painting his house. I let him have that, because my brother cannot bring himself to visit and see him in this state. I am whoever will make him happy. He smiles and we talk about baseball.
“You know, I think it will be interesting to be conscious as one dies, because one must undergo the most extraordinary changes. Thinking, I’m dying now… I think I’d like to be fully conscious of it all. Because, you know, you’d just be missing out on something otherwise.”
– Roy Porter, medical historian
The film is diving deep again. Obvious sounds of crying are emanating from every corner of the theater. The woman next to me has completely broken down and is choking on the sobs. The story has now flashed back to the young English boy Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) coping with death of his twin brother. We’ve left Marie (Cécile De France) and her life-altering encounter with a tsunami that has ruined her career as an investigative journalist and her romantic relationship, but sparked a new life as an investigator into the threshold of life and death. Weaving in and out of these tragedies is George (Matt Damon), a semi-retired psychic with the ability to contact the dead. None of the storylines are an easy watch. Eastwood is not pulling any punches with the emotional content. He has something to say and with ‘Dirty Harry’ persistence he is hammering away. Unfortunately, like the slipping memory of the elderly, the story is so muddled that the message is not getting through.
Marcus is a walking commercial for Paxil. Something like Oliver Twist, if his life was somehow worse. He pursues any venue, most of which are quite humorous, in which to contact his brother, his only source of light. With none working he stumbles across George and in “Say Anything” form forces him to connect with his brother. Message: You’ve got to move on and live your life.
Marie is free falling in her own life. Her near-death experience, in the film’s best scene, shook her loose. In search of the truth in what she saw on the cusp of death, leads her to pursue an investigation into what we know about death. Met with ridicule and scorn, she loses her boyfriend and success, but moves ahead with her new career. Message: We don’t know what happens, but we hope for the best.
George lives a solitary life cursed by a psychic Midas touch and affection for Dickens. Giving up on the lucrative career of contacting the dead for profit, he attempts to rebuild what he can. The love interest from a night course on cooking fails when he is forced to see into her past. Running away, his life intervenes in both Marcus and Marie’s and all three reach their predestined conclusion. Message: Be true to yourself even when it is the most difficult.
Even the happy ending isn’t enough to buoy up the emotional depths to which we’ve been subjected. The mood leaving the theater is sullen, thoughtful, and depressed. No one is quite sure what Eastwood was trying to convey. Most people jump to the few minutes of laughs and focus there. Everything else is too hard to think about. As if it could read my mind, the IPod does it’s part by shuffling a constant mix of Radiohead, Counting Crows, and Coldplay on the ride home. Like the rest of the audience I struggle with what this film made me feel and how I am going to put it into words. It has made me think that much is the only definite idea.
“Miller follows Freud in that he ‘cannot actually conceive, can’t make sense of the notion of total annihilation.’ And so, it seems, his capacity for terror is transferred first on to the process and humiliations of the dying, and secondly on to various possible states of semi-being or almost-being which might occur around or after death.”
-Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of
He wouldn’t like this film, but he wouldn’t tell you that. He would say it was interesting or ok. I never heard him be critical. He would see the flaws. The child actors who could use more coaching from the juggernauts of Eastwood and Damon. The overly-polished special effects that test the limits of acceptance. The script that seems hastily thrown together and pulls down too hard. These flaws would be noted, but not discussed. He never dwelled on the bad parts of his life; mostly never spoke of them. He also wouldn’t tell you to go see this movie, even if you asked him directly
He is far from preoccupied with his quickly dimming mortality. That is something for his family to ponder over. He has been there before; on the shores of Normandy, at his wife’s side. At eighty-six he has conceded to fate and old age. He allows himself to be doted on despite the fact that he took the most pride in being the rock everyone else could lean on. We debate what is best for him while he crosses the line into the final stage of life where he can no longer feed himself without assistance. We can’t decide if we should sell his apartment while he struggles to remember my brother’s dog’s name and then asks us to move Brooklyn’s (not Manhattan pop) picture in front of his great grandchildren’s so he can see it better. With a sigh we do knowing that he can’t see any of them anyway. It makes him smile. We all accept death our own way.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Rent it. Too much to take in and contemplate.
TWO STARS out of four.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Peter Morgan.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.
Runtime: 2 hours, 9 min