Directed by Roger Michell.
Starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Rainn Wilson, Sam Neill, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Lindsay Duncan, and Anson Boon.
A terminally ill mother arranges to bring her family together one last time before she dies. A remake of the 2014 Danish film ‘Silent Heart‘.
Blackbird is equal parts riveting and infuriating. Its high point is immediately followed by a downward plummet involving overblown situations manufacturing forced drama when there’s already enough sincere and compelling moral conundrums to go around. I’ve never seen the original 2014 Danish version Silent Heart, and honestly, it doesn’t matter, because it’s more about the execution from director Roger Michell (and scriptwriter Christian Torpe) that have no understanding of nuance or the capabilities to express things with subtlety. They are actively trying to make things as loud as possible which, in turn, just makes all of these family members gathered around their dying matriarch come across as a bunch of selfish assholes that can’t help themselves from arguing with one another or boisterously bringing up the past (in some cases, revelations that they don’t have the full facts to), rather than focus on helping the soon to be departed be at ease and most importantly happy for her final days and during her assisted suicide passing.
Susan Sarandon’s Lily is suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness, but the gist is that in a few short weeks she is going to lose her physical mobility all the way to not being able to swallow. She wants to die with dignity and grace before things get to the point of being fed through a tube and drooling everywhere while existing. It’s a difficult decision, and one that’s illegal in most places, but her family is getting together one last time at the family lakeside summer home to spend the little time that remains which will be concluded by her doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) giving her a medical concoction that will kill her.
This includes Lily’s longtime best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan), her daughters Jennifer and Anna (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska), and their significant others Michael and Chris (Rainn Wilson and Bex Taylor-Klaus). In the case of Jennifer and Michael, their son Jonathan (Anson Boon) is also present. When it comes to the grandmother/grandson dynamic, Blackbird does feel genuine, namely in a touching scene where the ill Lily privately encourages Jonathan to spill some secrets he might have that she could literally take to the grave. It’s about the most naturally sweet you can spin a scenario so morbid. Then there are cloying sequences that feel too sanitized, such as where the family decides to hold a fake Christmas complete with gifts that are sentimental hand-me-downs from Lily.
Although there is a clear imbalance in what feels earnest, Blackbird has more up its sleeve to entertain, which is both an accurate description of what happens and the wrong tone a filmmaker should be going for in a film about assisted suicide. Just about every member of the ensemble is given some explosive moment that can theoretically be used as an Oscars highlight clip (the keyword is theoretical as this film is not going to get nominated for anything) and the kind of in-your-face performances actors live for. In the defense of everyone involved, it might have worked had the story not imploded during the last 30 minutes.
Without giving too much away, one character plans on calling 911 during the assisted suicide, with the planned action coming from a place of empathy given that this character has their own mental health issues. The problem is that Blackbird treats the mentally ill character with little respect labeling them as an attention seeker. Even though it’s only one character that does this, it’s a plot point that practically disappears once another twist is thrown into the proceedings, only this time it’s something incredibly silly that could have been approached 500 other ways than how these characters deal with the newfound knowledge. Things fly off the rails to such a degree that the bittersweet ending simply rings hollow. It’s easy to hate all of Lily’s family aside from her grandson, whom you will hope finds another family.
The actors do their best to elevate the material, and while they do make Blackbird immensely entertaining to watch play out, that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing that no one bothered to touch up the final stretches of the script. Most frustratingly, a script that is otherwise strong and properly conveys that these characters are dealing with their own baggage and aren’t actively looking to make things about themselves, at least until a certain point where it just stops being well-written. The photography is also fine, giving audiences wide views as if they are flies on the wall consuming all of this domestic dysfunction. It’s a shame the rest of the filmmaking is just as dysfunctional.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com