Families gathering to weather tough events together could be a genre by itself, with films like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking studying the close-knit, often chaotic bonds that unite and divide the family unit in equal doses. Blackbird is much of the same, following a family that gathers for one final weekend of their matriarch’s life, which will conclude Sunday evening by assisted suicide.

Lily (Susan Sarandon) can barely use her body anymore, essentially limited to the use of her right hand and the ability to walk (which often leaves her winded). But those symptoms are rapidly accelerating, says Lily’s doctor husband, Paul (Sam Neill), and in a matter of weeks Lily may not be able to move her body or even swallow. Thus, the family gets together, with touching moments, honest insights and heated arguments occupying the weekend as the group crosses swords of ethics and personal pathos related to Lily’s choice.

The highlight performances lie in the portrayals of Lily’s two daughters, Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska). The older sister, Jennifer, is a bit high-strung and loves to micromanage, constantly attempting to jump up and help her mother in any given moment. “She’d rather do it herself,” Paul continues to remind her. Anna is clearly the rebel of the family, showcasing a mood that is a bit surly and restrained, which we later learn is just a front for deeper demons.

Also along for the ride are Jennifer’s husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), and son, Jonathan (Anson Boon), as well as Anna’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). There’s also Lily’s lifetime friend, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), who feels like a bit of an out-of-place presence at first, yet we soon learn that she is as deeply ingrained in the family as Lily’s own flesh and blood.

Susan Sarandon is also sublime, leading an ensemble that meshes together just like family would. Her performance is filled with stares into the distance and soft smiles as her family exists in front of her for this one last time, as well as quiet moments of subtle sadness that penetrate any given moment. And why wouldn’t it when the thought hits, “I’m going to be dead soon.”

Blackbird studies death fairly delicately and with great insight, along with the study of choice in relation to the subject. Viewers’ personal thoughts on the idea of assisted suicide will vary based on principle, but this film makes a very strong case for why people should be able to have control over their lives when the time comes to make a decision. To live in a body that cannot move, or hug, or exist beyond a standstill reality, is a scary reality, and compared to death, maybe the final act of ending it on your own terms isn’t so frightening after all.

While the direction by Roger Michell is nothing too special, the script by Christian Torpe (based off the Danish film, Silent Heart, which he also wrote) is something worth your time. It’s sweet, sensitive to its subject, and rich with character nuances that help make Blackbird an authentic portrayal of a family in a chosen crisis. But when that idea of calamity turns into that of collective calm, this is where the film finds its strength. In the end, it’s just that. The end. Life goes on for the rest of us, while the dead are the ones left to know the mystery of what comes next. Blackbird balances the plights of Lily and her entire family quite well, and what we’re left with is a genuine portrayal of what it means to love.

Surrounded by death, Blackbird lives.
68 %
Calm in Calamity
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