I feel better more than I feel bad.
Two-time Oscar winner Rob Epstein and directing partner Jeffrey Friedman‘s short End Game bills itself as an intimate document of medical practitioners on the cutting edge of palliative care. Despite my believing the doctors onscreen are exactly that via trust, the film as presented doesn’t do this thesis justice. Rather than focus upon these men and women (the head of the Zen Hospice Project is allowed a brief interview to share his own brush with death) or the new wave treatments they’re pushing, Epstein and Friedman decide to turn the camera onto the patients who must ask themselves what route towards death they’re comfortable taking. While that’s not any less important—I’d argue it’s more so—anyone hoping to learn about that so-called “cutting edge” will be disappointed.
A hospital-based doctor speaks with a dying woman’s family about harvesting her cancerous organs for research in order to perhaps prevent another from suffering the same way. The Zen Hospice caregiver talks about the spirituality of positive thinking and putting a beautiful façade atop grief as a means of coping with it. And another explains to her patient the cycle of chemotherapy. So in my mind that’s a post-death decision, faith-based distraction, and commonplace diagnosis. Cutting edge? Maybe I missed where this specific descriptor comes into play because I’m not sure anyone says or does anything here I haven’t seen before. Where the “future” comes in is the choice of environment. These patients don’t want traditional hospice care and thus are given the alternatives necessary to avoid it.
So we watch a couple of the conversations that take place with both in-patient and outpatient subjects. They are often informative yet light-hearted, serious yet kind. Those coping with the facts of their ailments generally receive just a single scene with a couple exceptions. Mitra—an Iranian wife and mother with weeks to live—is the sole character devoted real breadth beyond an overview session. She’s also the only patient who isn’t asked to make the decision herself. The doctors instead look to her mother and husband to weigh the pros and cons of what’s happening while holding onto hopes the doctors are quick to dismiss as the product of miracle rather than science. It’s Mitra’s trajectory that holds our attention to earn a majority of the runtime.
As such, End Game probably would have been better as a documentary strictly about her battle. One could say it already is despite the constant interludes of alternate settings and the similarly infirm. We simply don’t learn enough about the establishments and what differentiates them from each other to call this a film about the myriad ways in which we understand life and death. Besides one other patient and the Zen Hospice doctor attempting to find relevancy through marginally increased screen-time, everything else is noise granting a reprieve from Mitra’s ordeal and ultimately rendered less important by comparison. So while the whole is still valuable insofar as showing the love and care doctors should have for their wards, it lacks the narrative conviction to find its true purpose.