Three Deaths (Sundance)

By Jay Dockendorf | Drama
3 strangers confront death in a modern interpretation of a Tolstoy story.

In the middle of a cold winter in New York state, a well-off but sickly woman is on her way to the airport. She’s going abroad for her cancer treatment but discovers her health is too poor for her to travel.

A pair of strangers drive past the rich woman. They are on the way into a house in the woods, where a poor man is dying. The younger man, who is perhaps a family member, asks for his boots for work since the poor man won’t need them anymore. But the man exacts a promise from him to be buried in his backyard with a headstone. The next day, the poor man dies.

The rich woman eventually dies as well. Though surrounded by the comfort that her wealth can buy, her passing is painful and lonely, and she accuses her nurse of neglect and incompetence. Meanwhile, with the poor man buried as requested, the young man who inherited his boots is reminded of his promise. He goes out into the woods and chops down a tree to make a simple cross for a headstone. The tree dies peacefully in the forest, its wood used to mark the burial site of the poor man.

Directed by Jay Dockendorf from a script he adapted from a Leo Tolstoy short story, this elegantly crafted short drama is a poetic and philosophical meditation on mortalities of all kinds. Shot on 35mm, it has a luminosity to its cinematography, and its elegiac pace and attention to absorbing detail evoke the intensity of a spiritual epiphany, where ordinary life takes on new transcendence of meaning.

The film’s craftsmanship takes its inspiration from European auteurs like Robert Bresson, eschewing the pacing and dynamism of classical storytelling in favor of patient observation. Shots are elongated in duration and capture time and existence in a way that both heightens and flattens ordinary life. This studied, distant approach emphasizes both the universality of death and the specificity of the responses to it.

A selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, “Three Deaths” stays true to the Leo Tolstoy story that inspired it. Though the characters are transposed into our more modern era, the narrative of the film also creates a collective portrait of humanity’s response to death. One death is marked by pain and hypocrisy, with intense resistance to a life’s final passage all the way through. The other human death is faced with great practicality and simplicity, though the aftermath of it is handled like just another daily chore to get through.

The final and perhaps most resonant death simply is, though it comes at the hands of the thoughtlessness of human beings and perhaps adds an environmental slant that nicely complements Tolstoy’s original extolling of nature in his story. Simple, profound and rich in spiritual insight, it provokes questions of how we might ourselves face the one thing that no human can escape, no matter how much we live in denial of it.

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