Before seeing Slumdog Millionaire last month, Amy and I had begun to despair over whether we would ever be inspired by the silver screen again. Well, now it has happened again, this time in the form of Over My Dead Body, a film so inspiring, redemptive, and beautiful, we couldn’t believe our eyes. In fact, as much as I’d rather not admit it, we actually sat through two consecutive showings of the film at the local Kerasotes theater—something which neither of us had ever done before. But this was somewhat involuntary, as we were virtually unable to move from our seats for a good ten minutes after the closing credits—partly from aesthetic fascination, partly from moral inspiration, and partly from sheer ineffable joy.
The source of Over My Dead Body is every bit as surprising as that which gave us Slumdog. It is independent production company Thejo Films, and the director is rising Japanese filmmaker Keiso Nyou. Otherwise, the film itself is thoroughly American, though its message is anything but American, as it profoundly challenges our culture’s prevailing quality of life ethic. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Summarizing the film is not easy, since there are three interconnecting plot lines, which converge in some ironic ways in the riveting final scene. But the central story concerns one Alan Chambers who has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The film is set in the not too distant future when advances in stem cell research have succeeded in providing a cure to this horrible degenerative illness. However, being a devout Catholic, Chambers is fundamentally opposed to stem cell research and to any medical advances based on such research. So he is faced with a particularly excruciating moral dilemma. Will he compromise his ethical convictions and be cured of ALS or remain true to his principles and face a protracted demise.
For Chambers’ wife, April, the decision is easy. He must pursue the treatment, despite the hypocrisy this might involve. “Put your love for your family first,” she tells him. “Don’t be a fool for your principles.” Things become even more complicated, as we learn through back story how Chambers has firmly impressed upon his two teenage sons the importance of not compromising one’s values. Still, the boys side with their mother, reassuring their father that they would not lose respect for him or his Catholic ethic if he goes ahead with the treatment.
However, as the film’s title suggests, Chambers refuses his family’s pleadings. Instead, he simply prays for a miracle, all the while making practical preparations for his impeding disability and eventual death. It is here that Nyou’s directorial strategy is most gripping, as Chambers’ faith is displayed subtly but convincingly through numerous symbols and figures—images which are apparent enough to most Catholics and Protestants alike but perhaps too subtle for the biblically illiterate. Nyou’s refusal to succumb to cliché and melodrama is steadfast, and consequently the potency of the film’s theological statement turns out to be as powerful as anything in cinema since On the Waterfront.
It is impossible to explain the film’s ingenious climax without presenting a spoiler. But suffice it to say that Chambers’ dilemma turns out to be, well, less straightforward than one might have thought, and his faith is proven true—though, again, not in any way you could possibly expect. Amy and I agreed that the final scene is the most surprising, even mind-blowing we have witnessed. Think Sixth Sense or The Crying Game on steroids.
Yet, for all its fascination and surprise, the film’s greatest quality is its exquisite emotional realism. Superb performances by Carnes Ward (as Alan Chambers) and Rita Maroth (as his wife) should cement Oscar nominations. And young supporting actor Bryan Childress (as Lief, their eldest son) is also worthy of consideration. Add to all of this a stunning soundtrack, featuring music by artists as wide-ranging as Ingrid Michaelson and Wilco while somehow maintaining a consistent melancholic but hopeful mood, and the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Two thumbs up? Uh, yeah. But that would be, as they say, damning with faint praise. Just three days after seeing it (twice) Amy and I can already confidently declare that Over My Dead Body is one of the all-time great films. Sound like hyperbole? Hardly. Check it out yourself, and we’re sure you’ll agree.