How to Die in Oregon Review

How to Die in Oregon

Genre: Medical Documentary/Docudrama

Year Released: 2011
Distributor: Docurama Films/New Video/HBO

Origin: USA

Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: N/A

For Fans Of: Extremis, Heroin(e), The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, A Reason to Live, Right to Die?, Boy Interrupted
-This documentary deals with suicide, so the subject matter is not for the faint of heart.
Fun Facts:

-How to Die in Oregon is directed by a native Oregonian Peter Richardson (hailing from Philomath which is a suburb of Corvallis) and this is the second documentary in a row involving his home state as he also directed Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon.

-This documentary won the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for the best US Documentary.

-The composer for this film is German musician Max Richter. He’s scored movies such as Waltz With Bashir, Escobar: Paradise Lost, and he’s done music work for a movie I previously reviewed on Iridium Eye which is the 2013 Guillaume Nicloux remake of The Nun.

Death is an inevitable thing in life. It can strike anyone at any moment. There are some people who want that option to be assisted in their passage to find a residence in the afterlife. Many of them suffer from the terminal and malignant illnesses and they just want to end it all. In America, this has become an issue and a controversial topic in the medical community if someone wants to die.

In Oregon, one can legally get assisted suicide due to the state Death with Dignity Act.

How to Die in Oregon deals with the lives of multiple people in the Pacific Northwest as they personally have illnesses or know other people with them. Oregon is the first state in the country to legalize assisted suicide since 1994 and some patients have opted for this way to have their own finality. One can go to the pharmacy to get a prescription for various medicines to ensure a peaceful death if they so choose. This becomes a concoction that puts the person into a coma minutes before dying. Many of the patients here had severe illnesses and want the pain to go away. Is the Death with Dignity Act the right thing to do or is there another way to deal with these issues? The film raises that question throughout its running time.

Well, call me a magnet for controversial films because this documentary got my attention with the premise, so I just had to watch it at some point. You know something is going to be a sordid watch when it kicks off with VHS footage of someone drinking the concoction before being rendered comatose after thanking the Oregon taxpayers on camera. Seeing these stories is certainly a sobering watch and there was the right amount of production to match that. Most of the film has a realistic filming style without looking too polished or too underground. It certainly worked in the presentation here. There were times when my opinions on the matter were questioned such as the situation with the widowed Nancy Niedzielski. She’s a Washingtonian woman whose husband died from spinal cord and brain cancer which caused him immense suffering and she vowed to lobby to get her home state to pass their own law to follow Oregon’s suit. They even moved to Oregon to do the procedure since it was illegal in Washington and it was heartbreaking hearing about Nancy’s late husband’s illness and seeing the pictures of his final days. Even though he was fifty years old, he looked eighty and seeing the older pictures of him before the cancer was an example of stark contrast. You could see where she was coming from and brought up legitimate points as to why someone should have that option if they have a terminal illness and it forced me to think about different things.

How to Die in Oregon is a controversial watch, but I didn’t like all of the elements presented here. Some individuals got more screen time than others. One example was Randy Stroup who complained about the health care system and suffered from prostate cancer, but his story was done in a matter of minutes only to be handwaved away by some title cards about his demise. There was too much emphasis on Cody Curtis who one could argue would be the “main character” in this documentary. I’m not going to discount her story because no one should ever have to go through what she did, but I would’ve preferred it if it were either just about her or giving Cody equal screen time to the other case studies involved. There was also a slant going on that people should be able to die which I thought was muddled. There wasn’t much opposition with the exception of some religious right-types confronting Nancy briefly. They do bring up Dr. Kavorkian AKA Dr. Death as some kind of contradiction to the Death with Dignity Act, but I felt that some of the interviewees’ loopholes as to how this medical mixture isn’t like other forms of suicide. Also, what if someone wants to back out? Does this also apply to people much younger than the patients involved (keep in mind, some of them weren’t even in their sixties yet)? This raised some questions that were never answered that well.

This documentary was certainly a challenging one to watch. There are some admirable things such as the production, music, and some of the talking points that really will challenge people. Many of the stories are just heartbreaking, and I strongly advise viewers to NOT watch this film if they’re feeling depressed. I did take umbrage with the unequal screen time with some of the patients and families over others. There should’ve been a focus on one or two instead of randomly throwing short perspectives on others. Some of the talking points did get problematic and flawed where even some people who agree with the Death with Dignity Act will notice when watching this film. How to Die in Oregon will certainly sober you up while watching these depressing stories, but I’ve seen and reviewed documentaries with just as harsh and harsher subjects done much better.

Adjustable Point System:

Add 1-2 points if you like controversial documentaries.
Add 1 point if you like docudramas.
Subtract 2-4 points if suicide makes you extremely uncomfortable.


-Good camera work and production
-Challenging and convicting stories from some of the individuals
-Nice score

-Gets too slanted on the Death With Dignity Act
-Unequal screen time with the patients
-Logic loopholes are never addressed seriously

Final Score: 6/10 points

Content Warning: How to Die in Oregon may not be some graphic or brutal movie, but I would advise this to be for older audiences only. Suicide is a major topic throughout the documentary and some of them are shown on camera by the patients taking the medical concoction. There are disturbing implications with some of the illnesses involved such as Nancy’s dead husband’s eyes popping out and how he became an invalid. Cody’s illness involves a mass in her liver which caused pus to enter her stomach which caused her body to resemble a nine-month pregnant woman. The surgery is shown to remove the pus and blood which fills multiple jars. There’s also language, but that’s one of the more tame things shown.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos used under US “Fair Use” laws. How to Die in Oregon is property of Peter Richardson, Docurama, New Video, and HBO. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Docurama, New Video, and HBO.

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