A Man Called Ove

Movie Review Time!

It’s been awhile. So, I think it’s time to go full circle and return with another movie review. If you, dear reader, recall – that was in fact how this blog was started in the first place, with my review of “Robot and Frank” with Frank Langella. The movie in that case was reviewed because I considered it both a whimsical and touching exploration of the stresses of dementia caregiving. Today I’ll be talking about “A Man Called Ove,” a Swedish-language film, from a 2012 book of the same name by Swedish author Fredrik Backman. In this case, I think it’s an incisive exploration of a somewhat different topic that’s relevant to aging – that of loss and of older adult suicide.

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(Warning – spoilers ahead!)

The movie opens with the 59-year-old Ove (played by the Swedish actor Rolf Lassgård), arguing and being unpleasant and angry with a cashier at a grocery store, over a coupon to pay for flower arrangements for his late wife’s gravesite, who died six months previous to the movie’s opening. The movie, which is billed as a comedy-drama, gets a lot of laughs through Ove’s over-the-top negativistic behavior, where he variously threatens to kick and turn barking dogs into “purses” (if I remember correctly), calls at least two dozen different characters in the movies “idiots!” and at one point gets into a physical altercation with a clown at a children’s hospital.

Ove’s woes and losses are many over his 59 years – he is depicted in the opening scenes of the movie as losing his job, and also has apparently recently lost his best friend to dementia (or, at least, a severely disabling neurodegenerative illness that has rendered him largely unable to communicate). The movie depicts Ove as responding to this by becoming chronically suicidal, and throughout the movie he attempts to kill himself via multiple methods, such as hanging, carbon monoxide poisoning, and via a shotgun – and ultimately failing due to interruptions from nosy neighbors as well as the sheer difficulty of the task itself – apparently suicide is not so easy. (He comments at one point at his dead wife’s gravesite that killing oneself is actually rather difficult)!

A Man Called Ove – A Prototype of the High Suicide Risk Individual?

Some brief facts for you, at least as they regard the United States:

  • A completed suicide happens ever y thirteen minutes.
  • Our suicide rate is the highest it’s been in approximately 28 years.
  • Older adults are disproportionately represented in older adult suicides, with white males being disproportionately represented.

“A Man Called Ove,” in my view, almost-perfectly movie illustrates the prototypical high-risk individual for suicide.

In the movie, Ove becomes suicidal ostensibly so he can join his wife, Sonja, as he has supposedly promised her. However, it becomes clear that what may be driving Ove is he has been suffering the ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ multiple losses over time – his wife, his job, his child, his friend, as well as his treasured position as the leader of his small homeowners association.

This theme – that of multiple losses in an older white male leading to increased suicide risk – it is a distressingly familiar one. Aside from adding in alcohol abuse and medical / functional losses (e.g., such as loss of eyesight, or ability to walk), Ove hits just about every risk factor for older adult suicide I am aware of, at least as far as North Americans are concerned (I suspect that there may be some similarities with our Swedish counterparts).

Redemption

Hiding (sometimes very well!) underneath the curmudgeonly, depressive exterior of Ove there is a man with an almost-boundless capacity for love and attachment, as well as a man of many talents – a man with the ability to repair just about anything (cars, radiators, dishwashers), perform acts of heroism (saves the life of a man from an oncoming train, ironically as he is trying to commit suicide himself), and shows surprising acts of tenderness and caring, such as sheltering a young, newly-outed gay man who has recently been thrown out of his home.

What saves Ove, in the end, is finding connection with others. Some of the nosy neighbors include an Iranian-born pregnant wife and her bumbling husband, whom for some reason fail to be repelled and are instead charmed by Ove’s nonstop cantankerousness. Over time, he becomes part of their family and he finds within himself a reason to live. He finds connection, and he finds life.

Overall, while superficially this may look like another movie milking the “grumpy old man” shtick seen in popular culture that has in my mind bordered at times on outright ageism, I was charmed by this movie; in how it carefully and bitter-sweetly took it’s time with the character development of the protagonist, who over a series of flashbacks is depicted as coming of age and marrying the love of his life while at the same time enduring terrible, traumatic loss and yet soldiers on.

The movie ends fittingly and in a way that made my heart ache and yet practically sing at the same time – Ove died because of (no irony here!) an enlarged heart, and with a funeral service packed with well-wishers, friends, and loved ones. Ove dies – because his heart is too big.