How to Die in Oregon


How to Die in Oregon is a painful movie to watch. It opens with a celebration of sorts: A sick man is about to die with dignity. He, like many in the state of Oregon, is willfully choosing to take his life quietly and painlessly, rather than the long and excruciating death his terminal disease promises. We see him say his goodbyes—including a heartfelt thank you to the citizens of Oregon who helped pass the law that gave him this option—and we’re there as he takes his lethal cocktail and drifts off into a sleep that he’ll never wake up from.

This is how the movie proceeds. We meet many other terminally ill men and women, and hear their thoughts on the possibility afforded to them by the state. Some are in favor, others oppose it vehemently. And one of the many great things about the film is the intelligent way it presents both points of view. There isn’t a right or wrong answer in this debate, and one can certainly see why both perspectives would be considered “courageous” (a term that gets thrown about a lot throughout the film).

There’s one thread that runs throughout the film and gets at least half of the film’s running time. It follows a 54-year-old woman, Cody Collins, who is stricken with terminal liver cancer. When she received the shocking news, there was still a chance. She had surgery to remove the tumor, but it came back, and for a long while, Cody needed help eating, walking, bathing, going to the bathroom, etc. Not wanting to go through such a horrible experience again, she contacted the group Compassion and Choices about the Death with Dignity option, just in case she should get that bad again. Though she was given just six more months to live when the film starts, she outlives that prognosis, but just as things are beginning to look up, her pain returns, and she begins contemplating her alternative once again.

Cody is startlingly honest about her condition and how she feels about everything, both physically and emotionally. She doesn’t want to be a burden on her family, and though she’d much rather just drift off quietly and naturally than opt for Death with Dignity, she has no desire whatsoever to suffer any more than she already has. It’s so sad to watch, almost impossibly so, when in the middle of an interview, she winces in unspeakable pain or chokes up at the thought of saying goodbye to her husband and two kids. She’s such a compelling individual and provides what could have been a very political film with an extremely emotional hook.

There is another plot that is political. It follows a Washington widow who promises her dying husband that she’ll fight to see Death with Dignity passed in her state. Her fight is also quite moving, and it’s in these scenes that we understand a little more about the resistance against the law. Much of it comes on the grounds of religion, but there are plenty of others—including doctors—who worry about the slippery slope passage of such a law could create. Director Peter Richardson deserves a great deal of credit for making a film that doesn’t skirt around its position, but also doesn’t make its opponents seem like fools.

But ultimately, the strength of the film is your emotional connection with the individuals shown—especially Collins. Anyone who has lost someone to a disease like cancer will probably be overcome by some of what How to Die in Oregon has to offer. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent. The film won a Jury prize at Sundance last year, and was subsequently picked up by HBO Films. If you have the opportunity to see it, do so. It was #4 on my list of the best films of 2011, and though it’s very hard to sit through, it deserves and audience.

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