“Blackbird” (2019)–The Final Flight

In this timely and sensitive film, three generations get together for Christmas dinner–instead of  Thanksgiving, even though it actually is Thanksgiving.  As often happens in real-life family gatherings as well as in Blackbird, there will be dysfunction, a farrago scattered within warm laughter about shared memories and sometimes bitter accusations.  In this drama a dying mother assembles her family to spend a final weekend together before she ends her life.

An alarm goes off and Paul (Sam Neill), a doctor and husband to Lily (Susan Sarandon), reaches up to turn off the clock.   Lily is awake. Her left hand is permanently in a claw.  Nonetheless, she laboriously  lifts  her legs with her good right hand, determined to put her own slippers on, rejecting her husband’s assistance.

Lily has invited her two daughters (Kate Winslet as Jennifer and Mia Wasikowska as Anna) along with their partners and her grandson to one final dinner before she ends her suffering. She has a degenerative disease and with the permission of her family, decides to ingest pentobarbital administered by her husband. This weekend is their terminal goodbye, and Lily wants one more Christmas dinner before she goes.  She is anticipating a celebration, complete with tree and gifts, in a cozy family cocoon.

Jennifer arrives early with her husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson) and their teenage son Jonathan (Anson Boon). She has brought an odd and inappropriate gift.   “I can’t wait to see what the stores recommend for an event like this,” Lily says dryly as she struggles to open it with her good hand. Younger daughter Anna is late, bringing her uninvited partner Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Lily’s best friend, Elisabeth (Lindsay Duncan), also uninvited, somehow seems part of the family too. 

“Blackbird” is a simple tale, occasionally well-told without too much melodrama:  the tale of all tales– of life, death and family secrets and lies.  Unhealed wounds are everywhere and time is running out to heal them.  The stakes are very high.  The grandson is a sullen teenage outlier, the two adult daughters have extreme sibling rivalry, Jen’s husband is ignored, and the parents seem oblivious to how their children remember their family’s past time together.  The family friend is pulled into the conflict. Lily’s wish to die in a peaceful chemical cloud before her disease incapacitates her and takes all control from her grows more untenable as conflicts surface.

The ending of Blackbird could have been genuinely touching and emotionally powerful. Instead, the film devolves into a contrived and highly clichéd death bed scene.  While Blackbird adds sensitivity to a difficult and controversial subject, the film is far from subtle and does not conclude the story soon enough.  One wishes for a more powerful scene towards the end. 

Blackbird is filmed in a spectacular beach house only the fabulously wealthy can afford, with sterile interiors paralleling the sterile lives of the family gathered there. The bigger problem is that the world of the characters is not fully developed, with enough backstory to give each family the essential dimensions for us to understand and care about them. 

The stellar cast–especially the ensemble characters who are not the main focus–rescue this film and provide enough interest to sustain watching a film that does not quite live up to its potential.

Availability:  Netflix DVD

Note:  The reason for the title “Blackbird” is not clear.  Perhaps in homage to the Beatles’ song and the lyrics:  “Take these broken wings and learn to fly”.   The song was not incorporated into the final cut but a shot of blackbirds flying in the sky appears in the middle of the film.