Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
2002, R, 109 min. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Starring Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson, Lisa McKinlay, Mads Mikkelsen, Julia Davis, Susan Vidler.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 30, 2004
The title minces no words, and neither does Wilbur (Sives), who can’t even wait for the opening credits to unspool before he’s downed several bottles of prescription pills and cranked the oven on high. We quickly learn this isn’t Wilbur’s first stab at suicide, and it won’t be his last. But what takes longer to sink in about this Scottish/Danish co-production is that its darkly humorous hook is just that – a hook – and that the real pull of the piece is in its tender affirmation of life in the face, always, of death. No concrete reasons are ever given for Wilbur’s all-consuming (if comic) death wish, although it’s clear his life has never been a cakewalk. A working-class, twentysomething Glasgwegian, Wilbur lost his mother when he was 5, and his father more recently; his one lifeline is his mild-mannered older brother, Harbour (Rawlins), who is valiantly trying to keep the family bookstore afloat while keeping tabs on every sharp object in Wilbur’s sights. The family dynamic shifts when Harbour meets and quickly marries single mother Alice (Henderson), who introduces herself to Wilbur by foiling another of his suicide attempts. (Lisa McKinlay, as Alice’s young daughter, is the fourth leg in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself’s astonishingly good quartet of leads.) Director/co-writer Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (a frequent Dogme contributor) take their time with the piece, never stooping to sell their sometimes off-putting characters or to over-explain their increasingly complicated relationships. The film moves so subtly, in fact, and so seamlessly between wry humor and the emotional wreckage of life-or-death, that it was with some shock that I found myself weeping halfway through the film. (Chalk that up in part to Joachim Holbek’s lovely, strings-heavy orchestrations that could have been piped in from a Douglas Sirk melodrama.) Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself inches perhaps too close to sentimentality in its final moments – after doggedly resisting the temptation to ingratiate itself with the audience, the film suddenly wants to make everyone happy, characters and audience alike. But by then the four leads have burrowed their way so fully into the heart, we’d really rather they, and we, be happy, too.