Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (Review)

At its heart, this film is a wonderfully done piece about healing and reconciliation.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself - Lone Scherfig

Nearly half of the films I caught this year were black comedies or labeled as such: Cheeky, Jeux D’Enfants, Grimm, Save the Green Planet, and this one. I didn’t really plan it that way, but that’s just the way the schedule seemed to come together. But few of those films were as dark as this one. Of course, any time you’re dealing with the subject of suicide (as the title implies, the film is largely about a man named Wilbur who, you guessed it, wants to kill himself), you’re going to be delving into some darker stuff just by nature of the subject matter.

As you can probably guess from the title, Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is a pretty depressed young man. And who can blame him? Both of his parents are dead (his dad dies shortly before the film’s events take place, and Wilbur was accidentally responsible for his mum’s dead) and he lives in Glasgow, a town not normally associated with bright and cheery weather. Wilbur’s only goal in life is to end his, but until he’s successful, he insists on making life miserable for everyone around him, even the other patients in his support group.

The only one who seems to truly care for Wilbur is his older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins). The other patients in the support group hate him and even vote to kick him out, his nurse seems only interested in Wilbur’s body, and his stone-faced doctor doesn’t seem to have any expression whatsoever. The two brothers live in the back of their parents’ old bookstore, which seems like it’s in constant danger of collapsing under the weight of its own bookshelves. Harbour suicide-proofs the apartment as best he can, but it’s obvious that it’s only a matter of time before Wilbur is successful.

That is, until Alice (Shirley Henderson, perhaps best known for her role as Spud’s girlfriend in Trainspotting) appears. Alice is a young single mother who constantly frequents the bookstore, selling books she finds while cleaning hospital rooms to supplement her meager income. Although Wilbur treats her with the same disdain he does everyone else, Harbour is moved by her plight and marries her. Suddenly, Wilbur finds himself surrounded by a new family, and it begins to open him up in unexpected ways. While he’s still a morbid bastard, we begin to see the ice melt around his heart, especially whenever he’s in the presence of Alice’s daughter, Mary, who takes quite a shine to Wilbur. And Wilbur, despite his best intentions, finds himself becoming a great, albeit maladjusted uncle.

But even this happiness has its dark side, and slowly revelations about Harbour, Wilbur, and Alice begin to surface. Harbour has his own secrets, which he’s afraid to tell for fear of burdening his family. And yet his silence might be the worst possible thing he could do. Worst of all, Wilbur and Alice find themselves falling for each other, their relationship becoming something much more than merely in-laws.

There is certainly much to Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself that is disturbing. First and foremost, there’s the whole aspect of Wilbur’s depression and suicide attempts. And then there’s the whole issue of Wilbur and Alice’s deepening feelings for each other, which leads both of them astray in the worst possible ways. And finally, Harbour’s plight leads him down a lonely path; whereas once he was the rock of the family, he finds himself growing more and more distant from his loved ones, and it’s entirely his fault.

Wilbur’s attempts to kill himself are often pretty inept, and even though it sounds sick and wrong to say this, they often provide much of the film’s humor. But that humor helps to humanize Wilbur and make him a very sympathetic character. We begin to realize that, deep down inside, he really might want to live, even though he can’t quite admit it yet. But when Wilbur comes dangerously close to being successful, the movie makes it painfully clear that it’s no laughing matter. We see its effects on those around Wilbur, especially Harbour.

Eventually, it becomes clear that much of Wilbur’s morbid outlook is merely a defense mechanism, a wall he’s built around himself to protect him from further hurt. His growing affection Alice (and Mary) starts chipping away at that wall, but the revelation of Harbour’s secret tears it down. Now, Wilbur can no longer hide from his pain. Rather, he must deal with it head-on because both Alice and Mary are depending on him for strength and support. Whereas before he’d always been the one who needed saving, the roles are suddenly reversed, and Wilbur becomes the only one who can save his new family from falling apart.

I’ll admit that one aspect of the film that really troubled me was the relationship between Wilbur and Alice. To the film’s credit, it never glamorizes their infidelity, nor does it make it more titillating and tawdry than necessary. Both are ashamed of what they’re doing. They know it’s wrong, and the last thing they want to do is hurt Harbour, who isn’t entirely unaware of their tryst. Their behavior is condemnable, and yet they’re not reprehensible people. They’re both wounded and in need of comfort, and as a result, it’s not so easy to demonize them.

Much of the film’s tone comes from its Scottish setting. If you thought Trainspotting depicted Glasgow as a glum place, you haven’t seen anything yet. Everything is faded and washed out, as if covered with a fine layer of soot. The sun never seems to shine, and the sky is grey as stone from all of the smoke belched out by factories. And yet, even the gloominess has a beautiful quality to it when captured by Lone Scherfig’s (Italian For Beginners) camera. The sky might be grey and overcast, but not so grey that a silver lining isn’t visible at times.

Jamie Sives delivers a great performance as Wilbur, playing him with the right mixture of vitriol and vulnerability. The scenes in the support group are hilarious, as are the interactions with the group’s amorous nurse, who can’t resist Wilbur’s brooding charms. Adrian Rawlins and Shirley Henderson are also excellent, but Lisa McKinlay, who plays Mary, steals the show as the young girl who is wiser than she appears. Her interactions with Wilbur are priceless. One other performance of note is that of Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Dr. Horst. His deadpan delivery and reactions are about as dry as humor can get, and yet his scene with the drunken Harbour, as they talk about jazz and dogs, is one of the best scenes in the movie.

I still find myself wrestling with my impressions of Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (which I take to be a good sign — too many movies are easily dismissible once you walk out of the theatre). It depicts serious subject matter in a way that most people would probably find far too lighthearted and insensitive. Indeed, that often troubled me while watching — every time I laughed I felt a twinge of conscience — and it still does. And yet, at its heart, the film is a wonderfully done piece about healing and reconciliation. This is definitely a film I want to see again, and then follow it with a nice, lengthy discussion.

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