Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
“Near Death,” which concerns the final days of patients consigned to an intensive care unit, provides Frederick Wiseman with what might be his ultimate subject. Certainly it’s hard to imagine a topic more rife with the sort of people-fed-through-the-grinder-of-protocol material to which Wiseman has always been drawn. For six grim hours the movie shows us individuals — the patients as well as their families — negotiating the end through circular conversations, impotent gestures, and questions that are so obviously futile they inspire an understanding pitched somewhere between empathy and revulsion. There’s a Sisyphean monotony to the way in which the doctors and nurses go about their work, and as you watch them toggle between caring bedside manners and no-nonsense shop talk you might find that you’re both impressed by their emotional versatility and shocked by their seeming imperviousness. (Both are outgrowths of their professionalism.) Are these men and women primarily serving the patients or their soon-to-be-grieving families? Part of what makes the movie such a hard watch is its effectiveness at showing how the dying slowly turn into props in their loved ones’ rituals of letting go; breathing apparatus are installed or pulled out depending on a wife’s mood, a son’s bright idea. Wiseman treats all of it in the same dispassionate way. Moving between care rooms and the surrounding halls and offices, he captures a gray non-world in which time is measured in nervous strategy huddles and doses of morphine. Repeatedly he returns to an image of a sleeping old man, slumped anonymously against a hallway wall. Was this footage captured during a single moment and then strategically spliced into the film? Or is this guy really there all the time, forever waiting on some answer or update? “Near Death” might be the closest the arts have come to evoking Purgatory.