Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981): Pleading Death

Sane people can have the desire to die, it’s an indisputable fact. In arguing why, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” tries to balance a dispute so personal, that it seems bound to fail. And yet, it does not. Based on Brian Clark’s original television play of 1972 (starring Ian McShane, how random), it was first adapted to a stage play before coming to its 1981 incarnation. The movie was directed by John Badham, better know for Saturday Night Fever (1979) and the Matthew Broderick wannabe Black Mirror episode of a movie, War Games (1983).


We are faced with a story featuring a sculptor who is left paralyzed after a wrecking car accident. His status renders him incapable of being the person he once was and found in the impossibility to reconcile his former self with his current condition, Ken Harrison decides to die.

His quest is, most obviously, a difficult one. The doctors do not support him in his decision and in this debate – doctor::patient – it is where the film conjures the most solid arguments in its plea. Going beyond the usual ethical components of this choice, the film manages to assert a very personal position to the main protagonist, which therefore makes the whole experience one of anguish on a very personal level. And this is where it makes its point: there is no universal justification for death and the world has no right to interfere in the sphere of anyone’s consciousness. Perhaps it is at times overly dramatic and it treats the subject with tantalizing care, but in the end, I felt the film balanced all the facts concerned in a convincing and compelling way, vividly portraying the painful demise of a strong mind in face of the cruelty of destiny. It might seem to take a stance on every man’s right to choose his fate, but in the matter at hand (whether death by will is right or wrong) it emits no absolute messages.

Beyond everything, Richard Dreyfuss (the reason for straying to the obscure 80’s) sustains an authentic feeling of intellectual pain in his convincing performance. And it is only in pain and suffering that we can look into ourselves to understand how much we are willing to bear and what makes us be. Perhaps I don’t agree suicide is the best solution, but then again I am on the other side of the river, where things seem filthy green, rather than nothing at all. Easy for me to talk. We are so alone in death and pain, that nobody can truly claim to understand us.

P.S. It’s also got a high 1:75 on my recently conceived cult status meter. So, in the least, it makes you spew some thoughts out.


Originally published on imdb (14.07.2007)