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Blackbird Presents an Ethical Challenge with Family Grace

Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media

Quite quickly into Roger Michell’s Blackbird, Susan Sarandon stamps exactly what kind of terminally ill character this film intends to portray. You may see the Academy Award winner’s aged luminosity but, let me tell you, this is far from a retread of her beloved 1998 film Stepmom. Her Lily is tired of the pretend pleasantries as she summons her extended family to her and husband’s beachfront homestead. She is done with the constant “who are you” questions, “are you OK” observation checks, and her own cordiality to retort with “glad you’re here.”

Her curtness speaks volumes. She is dying of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The debilitation of ALS has increased and she feels it getting worse. All of the wait-and-see “soons” and “whens” have been exhausted. She knows it. Her doctor husband Paul, played by a sage Sam Neill, knows it. It’s time and she wants to share one more rewarding weekend.

Rather than prolong matters and helplessly watch her body become more ravaged and dependent on painful, undignified care, Lily is not willing to prolong such a descent. She has enlisted an understanding and willing Paul to assist her in euthanasia after this final weekend. Legality and morality be damned, this is her unwavering and adamant choice. She owns her own terms.

Jennifer hugs a sad Anna outdoors.
Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media

Needless to say, her two very different adult daughters Jennifer (fellow Oscar winner Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) are not entirely ready for the method or finality of that decision. Jennifer is your typical successful, prudish, and tightly-wound control freak married to the squarish and boorish trivia boob Michael (Rainn Wilson). They share a soulful-yet-distant son named Jonathan (Crawl and 1917 up-and-comer Anson Boon). The younger Anna is the family screw-up opposite, a rudderless and career-less gypsy of sorts with her non-binary partner Chris (TV star Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow.

Those five visitors join Lily and Paul’s oldest friend Elizabeth, a fellow former hippy played by stage great Lindsay Duncan, for this assembly of familial closure. Her thankless role is that of confidante and mediator. The discomfort of the looming decision elevates stresses and sharpens new and old prickles of broken internal relationships that have been fractured for years. Each character present confronts their respective weaknesses and fears.

Lily stands on her porch wrapped in a blanket and looking towards the beach.
Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media

Lily’s curtness and sense of urgency has created a grave clarity within her. She has determined her own fate and chosen when, where, and how to go out. The matriarch implores her family that she is of sound mind and wishes for them to let her do what she wants. Blackbird presents that extremely challenging ethical crisis with straight-forward grace rooted in love.

That strength comes from Susan Sarandon. When given the right role, she reminds us of her unlimited appeal and talent. Little doses of gallows humor bring forth Susan’s perfect smile yet create catalysts for that same smile to wither with the weight of the moment. Without words, Sarandon never overplays her character’s medical condition. Sarandon’s eyes and gestures are always moving and always telling a story. Like Jack Nicholson, she is a master of physical ambience and unspoken ticks.

Paul steps back to take a family picture at dinner with everyone around Lily.
Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media

Michell (Notting Hill, Hyde Park on the Hudson) runs with that in little extended transition beats of background action in this remake of the 2014 Bille August Danish film Silent Heart. The line-delivering and mark-hitting script will turn off for a shared dinner or a game night gathering. Peter Gregson’s musical score plays over most of the kibitzing and you simply watch how the performers respond and carry on from Susan’s energy level and lead. It’s a beautiful effect.

The fragile person dying ends up being the wisest person and performance in the room next to fellow heavyweights like Winslet, Neil, and Duncan. Her shared moments with her fellow veterans are as compelling as one would expect, yet it’s the conversations and wavelengths shared with the younger Boon and Taylor-Kraus that truly resonate. Youths dodge their emotions less than closed-off adults and it shows. Their lenses are far more fascinating for social commentary.

Chris and Jonathan share a laugh at a dinner table.
Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Screen Media

This conclusion echoes an earlier sentiment. When you think about it, how many of us will ever get to plan or have a say with our deaths? This creates a classic “what would you do” consternation of if you could choose your own ending. Some folks wouldn’t dare approach that kind of decision while others would entertain that morbidity with willingness. In Blackbird, it’s about the satisfied descriptors of the final action. Dying is dying, but dying “alive,” dying “happy, or dying “satisfied.” are the greater desires.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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