As the idiom goes, ‘there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.’ And as human beings, we consistently try to avoid both. It’s a point that’s raised by a doctor in End Game, the new documentary streaming on Netflix from Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175). Discussing our relationship with death, the doctor points out that although we think we want to choose how we die, when the bell tolls, we inevitably realise that what we really want is to not die.
Set in the sobering world of palliative care, End Game follows several people and their families as they become all too aware that they can’t hold back the clock. This realisation of mortality is handled in different ways by them all. One woman, who has incurable cancer in her womb, chooses to fight until the end. Meanwhile, a former nurse knows that if she’s got to go, she’ll spend her last days at home.
Both women are mentally strong and, as such, are able to decide their fates. But then there’s people like Mitra, whose family must make the heartbreaking decision; clashing in a way only the very tired can. Both family members love Mitra and are both strong headed enough to fight for what they think is right. Mitra is clearly very sick, but there’s a sparkle in her eyes which must make the decision of whether to put her into palliative care much harder. In one of the film’s lighter moments, Mitra is asked to recount several facts to see how coherent she is. When asked who the President is, the patient frowns not because she can’t remember, but because she refuses to say Trump.
As well as the patients, End Game touches base with the extraordinary people who are around last breaths on a regular basis. People like Dr B J Miller who lost both his legs from the knees down and most of his left arm in a serious accident when he was 19. This near-death experience has brought out a reflective nature in him about death. Part of the Zen Hospice Project, Miller appears to want us to not so much embrace our end but to be acquainted with it. If one chooses to remove the fear of death, then hopefully one can step out of this world in peace.
For a film that throws the harsh realities of life into your face, there’s an almost dreamlike quality to it. As if it, too, is trying to lighten up the Grim Reaper and make him less terrifying. That’s not to say, End Game isn’t a tough watch. You will be watching people doing the most final and hardest thing that can be asked of them. In doing so, it reminds you that you yourself will be asked of this someday. In short, it’s understandable if this is not your cup of tea. And yet – and yet – despite what you may think, there is still something uplifting about the documentary. After all, if the film reflects the eventuality of us all then it is saying we’re all the same. We’re all just human, so turn to your left and realise that the person next to you has more in common with you then you realise. That’s not a bad way to think.
Admittedly, End Game is incredibly short. Running at just over 40 minutes, there’s very little room to speak to others involved in palliative care. Social workers, nurses, they all stand at the edge of stage and we never get a sense of who they are and how they cope in the day to day. That said, perhaps a 90-minute feature about cutting the mortal coil would be a touch too much for many.
A touching portrait of people’s final days, End Game will likely not be your first choice when you turn on Netflix, but it is well worth pursuing.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
‘End Game’ is currently streaming on Netflix.