Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Film Review: Tuesday

Death comes for us all ... in bird form?

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, says the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. As my seventh-grade history teacher (a man who, in retrospect, influenced me perhaps the most of any teacher I had) memorably said, you have a one hundred percent chance of dying. We are so afraid of death that we want to anthropomorphize it, in any number of ways so we can feel like we are hating an entity and not a process, not an inevitability. Such is the core anxiety of the film Tuesday, released in 2024 in American cinemas, co-produced by A24, the British Film Institute, and the BBC, and directed and written by Daina O. Pusić.

Tuesday is set in contemporary London, starring an exhausted mother named Zora (Jula Louis-Dreyfus) caring for her teenage daughter Tuesday (Lola Petticrew), the latter of whom is disabled, requires a wheelchair and spends much of her day in bed, dying of an unspecified terminal illness. There has been a widening gulf between the two, as Zora spends more and more time outside of the house working (or so she says), leaving Tuesday to her own devices and to the care of Nurse Billie (Leah Harvey). Tuesday, understandably, has begun to grow resentful, wishing to spend more time with her mother. This is the situation that has come to pass when Tuesday meets a talking macaw (voiced by Arinzé Kene), capable of growing and shrinking at will, that is essentially an avian grim reaper. Perhaps a bigger cause of concern is that he brings bad news: Tuesday’s time has come.

What ensues is a deeply weird but nevertheless enthralling examination of how people cope with death (or, more often than not, try to defy it, all for naught), and also that of family. When I tell you that the grim reaper is literally a bird, I assure you that is not even the most bizarre thing in this film. I am uncertain, while I write this, how much of this weirdness I should reveal, but take my word that it is goddamn bizarre, and I say that in the most complimentary way possible. Wikipedia calls this film a ‘fantasy drama,’ but I think there’s a good argument for horror; many scenes are deeply unsettling, and may be too intense for those who are averse to some things. There is some gore, albeit relatively tame, and something that could be called body horror if you tilt your head to the side, and overall that horror is more existential, more about reminding you that your day, too, will come.

On one level, this is a story about family, and how families can become deeply toxic. Tuesday is a teenage girl who, through no fault of her own, cannot be independent, at least in her current state. Her mother brings in the house’s income, prepares her food, and even helps her bathe. As has happened with many caretakers of children who are disabled (including those such as autism, like myself), Zora has something of a martyr complex, an overweening sense that she possesses her daughter, and has elevated that possession into a core of her identity. This becomes problematic whenever she has to confront the fact that her daughter is a human being with her own wants and needs and view of the world. This is what renders the arrival of Death, in bird form, so stark: Tuesday has accepted her fate, more or less, the sort of acceptance that comes with living with a disability day in and day out. It is Zora, not Tuesday, who has to rage against Death incarnate, with very strange results.

I appreciated how Tuesday, the film’s disabled character, was never reduced to a stereotype. She is not turned into inspiration porn; indeed, she is at her end, as so often comes early with disabilities, and she has the sort of wry exhaustion that comes with living with disability that doesn’t get portrayed in the media much. Yes, we know that our lives are often miserable, but we want to live through them on our terms, not the able-bodied, neurotypical world’s standards. She has a mischievous streak, and a clear resentment towards her mother that I found her to be totally justified in having. She is a victim of circumstance and of parental abuse, but she has found a way to be fully human in spite of all it.

There’s something about making Death a macaw that is so effective and so eerie, in a way I can’t quite place. It is also the source of so much of the film’s awkward, vaguely surreal humor, such as when we discover Death’s musical tastes. There are a number of amusing moments (and some more unsettling moments) involving how Death can change its size, a metaphor perhaps for the myriad ways death can come for us. It can be gradual, or it can be sudden, or it can be bit by bit and then all at once, but it comes all the same.

There’s a truly sterling bit in the middle of the film that I don’t want to spoil, but it comes after Zora has tried to do away with Death. It is a very high-concept sequence that brings out the theme of death and its importance in humanity’s entire set of worldviews. It is a sequence about how everything ends, and how we need to accept that, as the alternative leads to all sorts of pain. It is hands down the most unsettling part of the film, with a particular unmoored sensation to it that reminded me of the best SCP articles, particularly the reality benders. My desire to let the viewer find out for themselves at complete odds with me as a critic here. Perhaps that’s a good sign.

Tuesday is a heavy film, a peculiar film, an odd film, an unsettling film. It’s fittingly so, as death is all those things. It is a film that I found to be absolutely worth the money, but it is one that may be overwhelming for some people. But perhaps that is also fitting, as death is, in some ways, an overwhelming of the bodily systems that keep us alive, by time or by chemicals or physical force or by whatever else befalls us.That’s what made Tuesday such a captivating film. If you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend it.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.