The rare film that dares to detail the physical, emotional and philosophical challenges attendant to human mortality, Peter D. Richardson’s beautifully intimate documentary “How to Die in Oregon” uses the titular state’s Death With Dignity Act to portray terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives painlessly and legally. Aptly harrowing, but inspiring as well, the film finds an unforgettable subject in Cody Curtis, a 54-year-old woman whose liver cancer forces her to weigh life and death on ever-tipping scales. HBO’s exquisite docu, winner of Sundance’s grand jury prize, wisely favors the personal over the political, meriting impassioned responses wherever it plays.
Pic opens with aged Oregonian cancer patient Roger Sagner dying on camera after ingesting a lethal prescription dose of Seconal, then proceeds to focus on a handful of interviewed subjects, including euthanasia researcher and journalist Derek Humphry, who provides a modicum of historical context on the right-to-die movement. Silver-haired Curtis, articulate and immensely charming, earns the vast majority of screen time as well as the viewer’s total sympathy, her struggle evolving along with her disease. Richardson’s camera placement remains evocative all the way to the wrenching finale.