“What’s up in Canada?”
“Is that some kind of online thing I don’t know about?”
Unexpected female friendships set against the backdrop of a high-stakes road trip is a tried-and-true formula. There are the OGs Thelma and Louise, of course. This year, Unpregnant got in on the action. Even episodes of Netflix’s Dead to Me had lovable opposites Jen and Judy do a version. Killing Eleanor takes that beloved formula, subverts it, and then breaks the mold completely, making for a riveting dramedy.
Killing Eleanor centers on two flawed, fascinating women. There’s Natalie (Annika Marks), an addict who’s constantly sporting last night’s makeup and the stench of last night’s whiskey, and Eleanor (Jenny O’Hara), a fiery and stubborn elderly woman determined to escape her retirement home and die on her own terms.
The film smartly gives the two history—Natalie used to work for Eleanor years ago and promised her an IOU after stealing money. That, mixed with the fact that Natalie needs another favor (clean urine, to get her family off her back), prompts Eleanor to blackmail Natalie into helping her carry out her dying wish—literally.
Thus, the two are spurred into a dysfunctional yet heartwarming road trip to carry out the deed, traversing the Midwest and growing closer, for better and for worse.
It’s honest, even when its characters are not. Subjects that could easily be melodramatic—addiction, assisted suicide—feel authentic, and situations that seem slapstick on paper are played with nuance.
This is certainly in large part due to the anchoring performances of Marks and O’Hara. Individually, the two are magnificent, each digging deep to pull out raw emotion. Together, however, the pair is even more impressive. Their chemistry is palpable—their relationship the undeniable foundation of the film. In addition to the flawlessly executed dramatic scenes, watching them play off each other comedically is a true delight and gives the story an important layer of charm and charisma.
The supporting cast is just as strong. Betsy Brandt as Eleanor’s deliciously obnoxious sister Anya is a highlight (anyone with a sibling is sure to see themselves reflected to a degree in their hilariously petty exchanges), and Camryn Manheim’s role, while brief, acts as a touching catalyst that’s sure to resonate.
As powerful as Marks is onscreen, her work off-screen is just as impressive. Beyond starring in the film, Marks also penned the screenplay. The combination of biting wit, surprising turns, and genuine feeling is a difficult balancing act, yet this script juggles all of them while giving each character countless dimensions.
Rich Newey’s masterful direction seeks to highlight those complexities—putting them on full display. He’s not afraid to show these characters exactly as they are, allowing the audience to embrace them in their boldly rugged states. The film is polished, but there’s a sense of grit there, too. The women are messy and impossible to fully pin down, and that’s what makes the story so beautiful and unique. Newey capitalizes on this very notion.
The film’s cohesion doesn’t just stop with the writing and direction, either. Jessica Young’s cinematography excellently captures the trapped, aimless feeling of the characters. It’s all dingy hotels and grungy bathrooms, artificial suburban homes and bleak bars—except, of course, for the pure, peaceful beauty of the lavender field. Kevin Besignano’s music seamlessly weaves these various locations together, heightening the rich collage of settings.
Killing Eleanor feels original yet familiar, telling a new story with characters we feel like we know. Despite their weaknesses and shortcomings, it’s impossible not to care about and root for them. Fresh, moving, and surprisingly optimistic, it’s a film that asks you to open your heart and remember: how you die is just as important as how you live.
— Taylor Gates