A dedicated sculptor, paralyzed as a result of a car accident, fights his hospital for the right to die. [Dir: John Badham/ Richard Dreyfuss, John Cassavetes, Christine Lahti/ 118 min/ Drama/ Right to Die]
Many people think that it’s their prerogative, perhaps even moral duty, to interfere in another’s suicide no matter the circumstances. Of course, the cover for such aggression is to question the suicidal person’s sanity. Is not the mere fact that the suicidal person’s decision differs so markedly from our own evidence of an unbalanced mind? Might not a little (forced) chemical “adjustment” be in order to correct this problem? Those are just the kinds of questions addressed in this unusually intelligent drama.
The sculptor at the center of this story wants to die because he is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a car accident and so can no longer create. The entire meaning of his life—that is, his sculpting work—is gone. Moreover, his entire independence, his ability to assert himself in the world, is also gone. He is completely immobile and unable to attend even to his simplest need. He is miserable and without hope. However, his doctors are determined to keep him alive anyway. As medical professionals, they have dedicated their lives to fighting death and can’t reconcile his desire to die with their own morality. To them, suicide is in itself proof of an individual’s inability to make rational decisions.
The sculptor has just the right answer for that attitude: “I do [know what I want] with a free and working mind and it is your moral obligation to accept my decision … Why are your [morals] better than mine? I’ll tell you why—because you’re more powerful than me. I am in your power.” The doctors resent that sort of talk, so they drug him, hoping that in a calmer mood he will change his mind. He doesn’t. Instead, his resolution grows as he experiences the helplessness, indignity, boredom, and pain of his very limited existence. Finally, he takes the matter to court and the film ends in a climactic trial scene.
Based on a stage play, this film has much of the same character. That is, it’s mostly talk and takes place on a very few sets. That’s fine because it’s intelligent talk, and Richard Dreyfuss is charming in the leading role as the paralyzed sculptor. For a drama addressing such serious life and death questions, it’s also surprisingly lighthearted, partly because it’s in the sculptor’s nature to joke about everything. The film is a bit too cute at times, but it’s ultimately moving and above all does a good job of affirming the right of individuals to decide the quantity-versus-quality-of-life question for themselves.