Notes on “Near Death”

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.


  • You can purchase a DVD of “Near Death” here.
  • An interview with Wiseman about his latest, “At Berkeley,” about which I’ve heard positive things.
  • Errol Morris picks the best Wiseman scenes.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Food and health, Movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Notes on “Near Death”

  1. Glynn Marshes says:

    Six HOURS?


  2. Nice evocation of what these places are like. One huge reason (in addition to the obvious ones) I often feel sorry for the dying is what you talk about here: the way they become minor players in their own deaths. As if dying isn’t bad enough, you have to experience yourself being ground-up and forgotten even as you’re still around.

    As for Wiseman: I love some of his movies and am semi-horrified by others. Since they’re all basically the same, for the life of me I can’t figure out why I like some of them and dislike others.


  3. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    My wife is a hospice volunteer, which she came to do from being a stage 4 cancer survivor. I’ve heard many very sad stories from her about this subject. Very often the well-meaning family causes a great deal of suffering for their loved ones. One case she told about was a dying woman who could barely swallow but the family would force her to take pills. Very distressing stuff.


    • On my father’s way out he went thru many visits to emergency rooms and an 8 month stay in a nursing home. Saw lots of this stuff: institutions and doctors more devoted to procedure and ass-covering than to life; families so consumed by their own greed, impatience and grief that they were essentially torturing their dying relatives … Here’s hoping my own efforts with my dad were somewhat more loving. Many of our practices where end-of-life issues go are really horrible. It’s incredible how much additional suffering we pile on already-difficult experiences.


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