Depicting suicide in a movie is a tricky task, demanding
delicacy and attention to achieve emotional balance. Filmmakers
often approach the subject with too heavy a directorial hand,
making suicide the culmination of depressing event after depressing
event in an attempt to force the viewer to feel sympathy or pity
for the characters. Other times, it is handled all too lightly
— mocking the suicidal character and reducing him or her to a
caricature.

Film Reviews
What act is illegal to attempt but not to commit? (Courtesy of ThinkFilm Inc.)

But “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” the latest film
from Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), retains a
quirky sense of humor that prevents the film from either turning
into a muadlin tearjerker or falling into comedic hyperbole.

This balance between pathos and comedy is perfectly illustrated
in the opening scene. The titular Wilbur (newcomer Jamie Sives,
“One Last Chance”) runs around the house, frantically
searching for all the pills he can get his hands on and turning the
gas of the oven on high. The look in his murky eyes as he waits for
the drugs to kick in is not one of desperation, but of resignation
or weariness, and the audience immediately feels an affinity for
him. However, the attempted suicide scene is brought back down to
earth with the arrival of his brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins,
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), who breaks
into Wilbur’s apartment to save him after receiving a call at
work. Wilbur yells at his brother, telling him that he
shouldn’t have come; he should just let him die in peace. But
Harbour retorts, “You’re the one who called
me.”

Harbour and Wilbur have fairly predictable lives. Harbour works
at a used and rare book store attached to his modest flat, and
Wilbur works taking care of children, or rather insults and teases
them (oddly enough, to the kids’ delight). The brothers are
caught in a bitter loop: the occasional suicide attempt interrupts
life and, after a few weeks of group therapy sessions, things
revert back to normality. Their lives become increasingly
complicated with their psychologist’s insistence that Wilbur
move in with Harbour. When Harbour and Wilbur fall in love with the
same woman (Shirley Henderson, “Intermission”), their
mundane lives are further obscured.

“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” provides an
intriguing character study. Wilbur’s suicidal tendencies have
more to do with habit than with actual depression, which makes the
film’s dour subject matter a bit lighter. He has developed
the suicide attempt into an art — you use the toaster to
electrocute yourself, not the hair dryer, and you drown yourself in
the river instead of the bathtub. Each attempt is a performance,
and Wilbur makes sure he has the phone handy to call his brother
every time, maximizing the drama of the situation.

Scherfig’s direction, however, is decidedly undramatic
with its dreary sets and unobtrusive camera work. She lets the
camera linger on the actors’ faces rather than move it about
erratically during tense scenes. She stays out of the way and
allows each scene to unfold, and the film is more genuine and
organic because of it.

Luckily, the subtly nuanced performances of the film’s
actors allow for Scherfig’s minimalist camera work. Rawlins
and Sives have both mastered droll comedy and deliver their
one-line zingers with perfect nonchalance, and they communicate
with such ease that it’s hard to believe they aren’t
actually brothers. Sives’ grey eyes give him a sexy,
tormented magnetism that calls to mind a pudgier and less
in-your-face James Dean, and his stellar portrayal of the
jaded-but-loveable Wilbur should catapult Sives into stardom
— or at least more mainstream lead roles.

“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” is not so much about
suicide than about the intricacies of relationships. The film
actually reaffirms life, but not in a way that reduces hope and joy
to sappiness. It treats its subject with a rare honesty, creating
an entertaining film that expertly mixes comedy and melodrama.

Rating: Four out of five stars.

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