Terminal Illness: 12 Movies That Get It Right

Terminal Illness: 12 Movies That Get It Right

Nov 28, 2012

Eight years ago today I watched my father take his last breath, succumbing to pancreatic cancer nine months after his diagnosis. He was 54. My mother, sister and I were camped on the floor in the room where he sat, and when the moment came, mom said, "Girls - say good-bye to your father." And so we did. A simple, "Bye, dad." Like he was off to the store to get more milk, or leaving for a brief business trip. No swell of strings, no dramatic lighting or perfectly scripted speeches. Just, "Bye, dad." So very uncinematic.

My father loved movies - it's an adoration he shared with me, and it irrevocably shaped my life. Perhaps because he was a man of few words, cinema was a way to share what we felt without having to vocalize it. After all, movies and my dad were intricately tied. So much so that I lobbied hard to incorporate a quote from his favorite movie (Gladiator) onto his headstone. It reads, "He sleeps so well because he is loved."

After dad died, I busied myself with moving to New York City. I found a job, an apartment, I adapted to the frenzied pace. For the most part, I avoided the one reprieve I sought all my life - the movie theater. It was too painful. It wasn't until the second anniversary of his death that a film saved me - that I was reminded of the healing power of cinema, the intense connection one can make with its material, and the visceral reaction it elicits.

Since that moment, I've sought out other movies about terminal illness - stories that don't seek to terrify (I'm looking at you, My Sister's Keeper) or delve into maudlin dramatics (sorry, Beaches) but instead touch upon realistic situations with authenticity. Like rapid-fire therapy sessions, I've gone through stints of watching (and rewatching) certain films back-to-back.

And so -- in tribute to my dad on the eighth anniversary of his passing -- here is a celebration of the 12 films that brought me back to him.


The Fountain (2006) 

This is the one that started it all. Darren Aronofsky's rumination on allowing life (and death) to pass singlehandedly helped me begin coping with my dad's death. I find it fitting that the movie went into production during my father's last month alive -- and it released shortly before the second anniversary of his death. The visuals, performances and haunting score by Clint Mansell are only the tip of the iceberg -- it's romantic, tragic, bold and inspired -- but the idea that "Death is the road to awe" absolutely blew my mind and opened up doors to understanding and acceptance that otherwise would've taken me years to reach.

Ultimately, it reasserts that we are not in control – we will all die, and it’s something to revere, not fear. I revisit this movie once every few months, and it never ceases to wreck me. It's a how-to guide for coping with grief. I am eternally grateful for it.


Amour (2012)

Michael Haneke's narrative about love, aging, illness and attempting to bridge the gap with some semblance of dignity gave me PTSD. It's an impeccably accurate glimpse into the struggle to usher someone you love through a terminal disease -- and it wrenches forth all kinds of dormant memories for those who’ve experienced it. The movie is something of a cautionary tale when it comes to building a world with someone you love and trust. I learned the hard lesson at 23: the people you devote your life to might very well be the ones defending your death, so choose wisely.

I strongly identify with the difficulty Georges has when it comes to caring for his wife Anne as she descends rapidly into sickness - ushering oft-humiliating, undignified situations. All the while knowing the person you love is still in there, somewhere. I remember a hospice nurse telling me that despite my father's elderly appearance, his inability to talk and move during his last days, he still had the thoughts of a 54-year-old man. That is the kind of concept you absorb but cannot begin to understand -- the idea of a person held hostage in their own body. My dad often balled his fists until his knuckles were white, and I'd unclench his fingers, soften his hands on the arms of his chair. I knew there was a struggle raging inside him, but I was helpless to stop it -- that small act was the only thing I could contribute. Haneke imparts that same torn, haunted, desperate frustration. I adore him for refusing to look away -- because, in reality, you have no choice.


The Fly (1986) 

Cronenberg's classic has always grossed me out, but the visceral became emotional upon rewatching it after dad was gone. What I once considered a monster movie transformed itself into a metaphor for terminal illness -- the betrayal of our bodies in the face of disease. Death is pretty disgusting, it's true. I can't unsee many of the things I saw as my father succumbed, but the incredulous frustration and pain of Jeff Goldblum's Seth Brundle comes damn close (that last scene where Brundle, fully transformed, points to his head in a wordless plea for Geena Davis' Veronica to end his suffering? Don't even get me started).

I remember my dad admitting -- before his first rounds of chemotherapy -- that his dismay over losing his hair wasn't so much stemmed from vanity as it was from fear of accepting the inevitable. "Every time I look in the mirror, I'll know I'm sick," he told me. His transformation was slow, but, by the end, he'd lost half his body weight, his face was sallow, his lips perpetually chapped. I didn't even realize it until, in the last week of his life, his coworker handed me an envelope of professional headshots they had on file at the office. I stood in dad's room holding the contact sheet in my hand, alternately glancing down at the handsome, devilishly grinning man I once knew and up at the shell in bed before me, and I sobbed in tune with his belabored breathing. The juxtaposition was overwhelming.


Ikiru (1952) 

There's this thing that happens when someone leaves you too soon: You begin mourning their unlived life, and it kind of gets in the way of living your own. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece is a glimpse at how a terminally ill man takes control of his own destiny, however truncated it may be. It's a gorgeous and poetic reminder that our diagnoses may be final, but our decisions -- and their impact -- are not.

Someone muttered in my ear at my dad's wake (as a means of consolation, presumably) that I am my father's destiny. That struck me as a pretty heavy burden at the time, and I'd rather not liken myself to the playground in Ikiru, but Kurosawa's film stilled a part of me that'd been frazzled by the idea. My father's decisions (and there's no avoiding that I am one of them) were his responsibility. All I can do is embrace, celebrate and explore them.


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) 

It's no surprise that cowriter Lucy Alibar's play turned screenplay is based on the true events of her own father's illness. The magical realism and childlike wonder of the film confront the incredibly harsh realities of losing a parent at a young age. What Alibar understands is that to lose a parent is to lose half of your identity. Upon diagnosis, you revert back to being a helpless, tantrum-plagued kid -- your pillars of security are unearthed. Slowly, you watch as the strongest person in your life becomes a child again, as well.

I remember an awkward moment in the hospital when my father -- three weeks from death -- insisted on walking the length of the cancer-ward corridor. He could barely muster the strength. I accompanied him, wordlessly shadowing behind as he leaned his weight on the wheeled IV bag at his side, until I finally intervened and took his hand. I remember being struck at that moment with the realization that this was the man who taught me how to walk. It's the hardest lesson you'll learn, but it's an ultimate truth: Your parents will teach you to walk, talk, tie your shoes, drive, and, ultimately, how to die.


Beginners (2010) 

I really adore the humanity in Mike Mills' film -- the sense of humor has a remarkably knowing bent of truth to it. This is terminal illness as seen through various perspectives, and it touches upon one universal truth: Life and death are processes we'll never quite perfect. Ewan McGregor's Oliver struggles with all the big questions posed when you prepare to usher one of your parents out of this world, many of which include your upbringing, how their decisions affected you, and -- a big one -- how you can learn from their mistakes.

All that heady stuff is greeted with a big, beating heart (thanks in no small part to Christopher Plummer as Oliver's father Hal), but even small and concerted moments -- like the montage of items that must be tended to after someone passes - -are absolute gut-punches of truth. It's hard to shake the absurdity of having to request -- and mail -- endless copies of your father's death certificate in order to set his affairs in order. Beginners gets it.


Up (2009)

We're not given the precise details of how curmudgeonly homebody Carl Fredricksen's beloved wife Ellie died, but - presuming it was a terminal illness - this film touches upon a very raw truth: When someone you love is gone, you inevitably must forget those scarring last moments with them and embrace who they were when they weren't sick - and then you must steel yourself to the daily reminders.

For me, they came fast and furious after the loss of my dad - seeing a friend's dad lecture her about driving in the snow, watching father/daughter dances at weddings, a man cradling his sleeping baby girl on the subway. It's not hard to understand how Carl turned out the way we see him in the beginning of the movie (after a particularly sob-inducing opening montage) - it's simply not practical to fall apart in public at every indicator. What's most beautiful about this film is that it teaches you how to deal with the inevitable regret you feel regarding what your loved one wasn't able to experience. The mundane things that set you off after their death are also the moments they cherished with you when they were alive - those are the things that truly make a life.


Biutiful (2010)

If a bleaker movie than this one exists, I know not of it -- and there is not enough alcohol in the world to get me through it. That said, Alejandro González Iñárritu's harrowing story of a terminally ill man desperately trying to make amends and set his young children up with a secure future is insanely affecting (thanks, in no small part, to Javier Bardem's incredible performance).

The world portrayed in the movie is (blessedly) not familiar to me, but the sentiments are. Like Bardem's Uxbal, my father maintained his patriarchal steadfastness throughout his treatment, refusing to admit defeat to his sickness right up until he was too weak to talk. (He wanted nothing to do with the DNR forms his hospice nurses coaxed toward him - it was painful to watch, but even at the time I understood that his insistence in maintaining his fatherly standing was what kept him clinging to dignity during the most undignified situation one can face.)

I eventually had a resigned discussion about it with him -- one very much like the moment in Biutiful when Uxbal's daughter Ana confronts him about his illness. I honestly can't tell you now how I arranged the particulars of his passing with him at the time, but watching Iñárritu's scene gave me a welcome sense of peace about it.

50/50 (2011) 

The thing writer Will Reiser, a cancer survivor, and director Jonathan Levine understand about cancer is that it's an event so shocking and earth-shattering for the sufferer -- and, by default, their family and friends -- that nobody quite knows how to act. You attempt normalcy and find yourself overcompensating; you feel inappropriate for cracking jokes, but sometimes that’s the only way to cut the tension. So many of the scenes in this film are juxtapositions in the comedy of errors that is navigating extreme illness – the horrible hilarity of it all.

Consider my father’s first chemotherapy treatment. My dad was a really great-looking guy, so naturally the young nurse chatted nervously with him as she attempted to locate a vein. He braced himself as the fluid began to drain into his body, then suddenly exclaimed, “This burns - is it supposed to feel like that?” The liquid was pooling in an ever-growing mass under his skin; the nurse had missed the vein. As she struggled to amend the problem, apologizing profusely, my father grumbled, “If you hadn’t been so busy flirting with me, maybe you would’ve properly done your job.” After she walked away, he deadpanned, “Why the hell did I have to be so goddamn handsome?” We belly-laughed for five minutes straight. God, I love that moment.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt hits the perfect balance of tragic and comedic in his embodiment of a 27-year-old cancer patient. Even among all the laughs, the moment that hit me hardest was when -- after remaining stoic for the duration of his treatment -- he finally breaks down the night before his surgery, due to his inability to drive. My dad had a similar breakdown: As his organs slowed, it became harder and harder for him to eat. After a surgical procedure, his nurse handed him a sandwich. He stared at it and realized he still couldn't digest it. He lost it for the first time... over a sandwich. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’ll always love 50/50 for reiterating what I learned that day -- it's never about the sandwich. 

Cries & Whispers (1972)

Unflinchingly dramatic in the way only Ingmar Bergman could render, this is a portrayal of some surprisingly familiar scenarios: familial dissent in the face of stress, the jarringly personal (often selfish) emotional impact of watching someone you love fade, the endless waiting punctuated by pure horror.

In the last week of dad's life, our house was surprisingly similar to the Swedish mansion Bergman depicts (minus all that red, and the whole "mansion" part): three women tending a cancer patient confined to bed, nursing our own demons alongside him, biding time until the inevitable. Bergman hits the level of discomfort spot-on: no matter what movies purport, you are rarely struck with the right thing to say or do in this scenario. You're staring death in the face, which makes life all the more elusive. To boot, people flood in and out of your house -- veritable strangers -- long enough to clutch you, sobbing, at the end of your driveway, or to weep and babble incoherently in your living room. And once you've seen and tended to it all, the object of your unnatural unification is gone. People bloom fast and short-lived like daylilies, then shut just as quickly.


Magnolia (1999) 

Paul Thomas Anderson's epic symphony of interrelated characters contains what I consider one of the finest examples of acting ever depicted on-screen: A scene in a pharmacy where Julianne Moore's character Linda confronts a pharmacist who presumes she's collecting prescription drugs for her own use when she is, in fact, nursing her terminally ill husband. It never ceases to unhinge me to the core -- it is the epitome of every bit of confusion, guilt and rage built up within Moore's character throughout the film, and anyone who has had to endure backhanded comments, idiotic presumptions and inane injustices during such a raw time can immediately relate.

It's like survivor's guilt wish fulfillment, one of those horribly sad yet intensely redeeming moments. I admittedly still fantasize about going full Linda Partridge on one of my father's oncologists, a traditionalist who -- knowing full well he was terminal -- denounced dad's decision to enter a clinical trial as a last-ditch effort by saying, "You'll be dead in a month." Julianne Moore, give me strength.


Father and Daughter (2001) 

Dutch director-writer-animator Michael Dudok de Wit's Oscar-winning short film is a true treasure -- a beautifully realized and incredibly eloquent tribute to the memories and rituals we adhere to when someone we love is gone (for me, it's lighting a candle in front of dad's picture and blasting Billy Ocean CDs -- this movie is decidedly more eloquent about it, but you get the idea). Grab some tissues before watching this one. 

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