Based on the Paulo Coelho novel of the same name — but changing the location to New York because, you know, Americans, Veronika Decides to Die is a film that deals with a tough concept: suicide. The eponymous Veronika (Sarah Michelle Gellar) decides at the film’s outset that she’s going to kill herself, only to fail and be told that she may only have several weeks to live, anyway, because the attempt gave her a heart attack which left her with an ever-growing aneurysm. Is that possible? I don’t know; I’m not a doctor.
So, she winds up in a mental institution ran by Dr. Blake (David Thewlis), and goes through a couple of stages. At first, she just wants to end it now, but soon enough grows to learn that she should treat each day like it’s your last, and eventually rediscovers the will to live. It’s supposed to be inspirational, outside of the seemingly inevitable conclusion, which if the good doctor is correct, will result in Veronika finally getting her earlier wish to die, which at that point in the film will be devastating since she no longer wants that.
I felt like I might have seen a film like this one before, but couldn’t quite put my finger on what it might have been. Perhaps it’s because someone getting a second chance at living their life to the fullest isn’t exactly a unique concept in both films and books. It doesn’t always require a suicide attempt, but it’s something that happens with at least some regularity. Still, this film is effective at relaying that message and making you begin to genuinely care about Veronika.
The film has a secondary goal at making you question reality and sanity, placing Veronika in a situation with a good number of people with their own issues. Mental institutions are perfect for this. Dr. Blake is not a conventional doctor by any stretch, and as a result often goes off on random tangents about sanity. Other patients, particularly Edward (Jonathan Tucker), Mari (Melissa Leo), and Claire (Erika Christensen) also bring forward these sorts of ideas — both with their actions and with their speeches.
So, Veronika Decides to Die will make you think, make you feel, and perhaps make you appreciate what you have in your life. In all of these aspects, this is a film that excels. It doesn’t provide a lot of depth to its characters, unfortunately, especially in its supporting cast. Most of them exist not to be deep characters but to prove a theme or provide exposition. Even Veronika acts more as a vessel for an idea than as a real person. The film works in spite of this, but could have been better with more of a balance.
There are also a couple of plot threads that might make you roll your eyes or scratch your head. Of course Veronika and Edward — a mute — fall in love, because people at mental institutions seemingly always have to. What exactly is Mari still doing there? How did anyone even find Veronika? I was left with questions that in the long run aren’t important, but that I wondered anyway because beyond the central themes, there isn’t much else to think about.
If Veronika Decides to Die does nothing else, it does provide Sarah Michelle Gellar with one of her most challenging roles to-date. It very well might be the most. While her character isn’t written to have a lot of depth, she adds to the character with a surprisingly impressive performance. She shows some strong range as she progresses through the stages the plot sets out for her, and provides more meaning to actions that the film otherwise doesn’t care about. Actors like Melissa Leo and David Thewlis are comforting faces but aren’t able to do the same with their characters.
Veronika Decides to Die is a film that lives and dies with its themes and ideas, not with its plot, characters, or script, all of which are weaker than a drama like this one usually requires. It’s proof that a film can succeed just with what it makes you feel and think about, and not with what actually happens and to whom. Sarah Michelle Gellar is good in the lead, but she isn’t the reason the film works. It’s a success because of what it will make you think about and how it’ll make you feel about both it and your own life.