Suicide is difficult to dramatize and I like the spirit of this ensemble movie’s thoughtful approach. Especially deft in his choice of facial expressions, moments and shots to linger and draw upon for emphasis of each character’s dilemma, director Pascal Chaumeil renders a very good film about four troubled lives on the verge of coming to a chosen end.
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down (available on demand and opening in theaters on July 11) stars Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots as strangers who end up on the roof of a London building on New Year’s Eve, each with the intent of committing suicide. As each person’s plans to die in solitude are ruined, they mutually make a contract to temporarily delay suicide plans, forming an unconventional, dysfunctional family. It’s like The Wizard of Oz with each other’s support as the Emerald City.
In a sense, they’re each their own flawed man behind the curtain.
Characterizations and portrayals are well done. Brosnan and Collette give their usual best – this is probably Brosnan’s best screen performance since The Fourth Protocol – and Paul as J.J. the dark American musician and Poots as a foul-mouthed female wanting to be loved are perfectly cast. Each suicidal individual has depth, secrets and a reason to want to die.
Doesn’t everyone? This is the basic truth at the core of A Long Way Down, which dramatizes that, at its worst, living life is like facing the reality that it’s a long way down, whether one regards the bottom as realizing worst fears or facing a fiery pit of hell. The universality of suicide – I saw the film the day it was reported that an overzealous Tea Party activist who faced criminal charges had shot himself in Mississippi and that the Golden Gate Bridge would add a suicide net – is part of what lets the audience grant the dubious premise that four strangers might form such a pact around shared pain and the wish to terminate life.
This black comedy is not a clinical documentary and should not be judged as such – nor is it a serious examination of the right to die like The Sea Inside – and it is also not to be dismissed as a frothy escapade like Four Weddings and a Funeral with more extreme subject matter. There is much to appreciate here. Chaumeil has an ability to frame and move pictures to tell a story.
For instance, two birds in flight accentuate a crucial connection. Other symbolism enhances the film’s somber yet ascendant tone. A last, lighted cigar is brutally extinguished to set the scene that life can be hard and brutal. A lighted Christmas tree juxtaposes a transformative moment of joy for a self-made family. A store’s signage signals the dark and distorted world the suicidal human often inhabits.
The most prevalent image is the sun. It quietly rises in a new dawn and lights the way back to living. It bathes the face with a new vigor and, when the sun goes down, the fear of darkness envelops each character who struggles valiantly to reorder and remake life to their own special needs.
None of this is done with aspersions cast on those who choose to check out. Whatever each person’s form of private agony, the fact that this is a cruel world is not sugarcoated or glossed over. The desire to seek a permanent end to pain is never questioned. The decision to do so very much is.
There’s no point in disclosing what drives each character to want to die – or to stop wanting to die – as this is part of what makes A Long Way Down feel like a strong, satisfying journey that takes the audience a long way up, though its ending is too sentimental. Brosnan is outstanding as a TV personality gone wrong. He acts with his eyes, his face and especially his voice, conveying inner rage and the utter sense of despair that creeps into the soul and spreads too fast to catch it.
One character pleads that he wants for the foursome a world that’s a kinder place “to us and for us”. It’s the same character that names what makes it so hard to pull out of a downward spiral. Don’t mind the pain, comes the line in a breathtaking point in the picture, it’s the hope that gets you down.
A minor but pivotal character – a man of science, a doctor, if such a producer is possible under national health care – is the one to name with wisdom what it takes to get back up. It is poetic that the doctor – a voice of reason who heals and saves life – (and this doctor has a fascinating face) caps the climax of this thought-provoking, humorous and moving 96-minutes of self-recovery times four.