Gabby and I watched the movie A Man Called Otto last night. I found it interesting and problematic.
Spoilers and opinions ahead.
The basic premise of the movie is that an old codger named Otto, played by Tom Hanks wants to commit suicide and isn’t very successful at it despite his multiple attempts.
Thanks to flashbacks and strategic exposition, we learn that Otto’s wife was around six months pregnant a few decades earlier when they were involved in a bus crash. The accident resulted in the baby boy dying in utero and left his wife wheelchair-bound for the remainder of her life. Fast forward several decades to six months before the movie takes place, she dies from cancer, leaving Otto grief-stricken, angry, sad, and, well, irritatedly suicidal. Additionally, his work compelled him to retire, which also piled onto his hopelessness and reasoning for suicide.
Most of the flashbacks and exposition take place during and between suicide attempts. While attempting to hang himself from the ceiling in the living room, a young family begins to move in across the street and Otto finds himself begrudgingly helping them. Over time, amid additional suicide attempts the new neighbors aren’t aware of, the family of four (soon to be five) and Otto start to become close, much to Otto’s chagrin. The wife of the young family learns, as does the viewer, more details of Otto’s life before his wife died and before he was such a grumpy and aimless old man.
Eventually, Otto elects not to kill himself, becomes happier, finds a new purpose by helping multiple neighbors, and even begins to heal from the death of his wife.
Also, Otto dies a natural death at the end of the movie. It was a real tear-jerker.
The movie was well made and, as always, Tom Hanks had an excellent performance.
Here’s the problem, though: It was never conveyed that suicide is bad.
Multiple times throughout the movie, we learn that Otto’s wife “was his life.” She was his whole reason for living and without her, there’s no purpose to live because “she was everything.”
We learned that his wife was a loving spouse, a wonderful trans-affirming teacher, a “force of nature,” and an overall good person who only saw the best in the world. We also learned that only in a cold, meaningless, random world could such a good person get cancer and die, especially after enduring the hardship of losing a baby and becoming wheelchair-bound at such a vibrant age so early in their American Dream-style marriage.
As Otto finally starts to become connected to those around him, we slowly get the idea that it’s probably better for Otto to be alive than for him to be dead, but the reasoning behind it is never communicated. It’s still a cold, meaningless, random world. If we follow Otto’s thought process and the worldview the movie asserts to their logical conclusions, then there isn’t any reason for him to not commit suicide, or for any of us not to for that matter. After all, there is no real purpose to life outside of one’s happiness.
This movie reminded me of an interview I watched between Jordan Peterson and Dennis Prager several years ago. Peterson was talking about the impact death and traumatic life events have on people and how religious people tend to recover and cope with those events much better when compared to their non-religious counterparts. One of the examples Peterson gave was how the rates of PTSD, suicide, depression, etc., in soldiers involved in war and combat after doing terrible (and necessary) things were substantially lower in those who were religious than those who didn’t have any religious affiliation.
Peterson’s explanation was basically that religious people have a moral framework on which to hang the reality of evil and the broken state of the world, and generally speaking, the non-religious don’t. According to the data Peterson referenced, bad things happen to one’s mental and spiritual well-being when tragic events can’t be reasonably reckoned with.
For example, Christianity has a solid explanation for the existence of evil and can account for the broken state of the world and why bad things sometimes happen to good people, like how a loving, wheelchair-bound wife can get cancer and eventually die from it.
It doesn’t make the bad stuff any less tragic, nor does it paint the unfortunate reality as something better than it is, but it does provide a reasonable answer and gives purpose to the vicissitudes of life.
When someone lacks a moral framework that can extend beyond themselves, Otto’s suicidal remedy to his plight often begins to sound reasonable.
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Opinions? Comment below or shoot an email to Adam@LetsDigress.com!
If I remember correctly, I believe this is the interview I was thinking of.