Set in New York in 2001 (with the events of 9/11 acting as an eerily unacknowledged just-off-screen presence) it centers on a young cellist (Don McKellar) whose sudden passing under circumstances similar to that of several other HIV-positive gay men has drawn the attention of the District Attorney's Office. As a young assistant DA (Parker Posey) interviews the deceased's friends and family, she learns that his death came as the climax of a well-planned celebration: It was an assisted suicide. Moreover, she learns that such suicide parties -- called "events" -- have become increasingly common.
This phenomenon isn't new to the movies; Randal Kleiser's 1996 film It's My Party dealt with just such an affair. The difference is that Kleiser happened upon this phenomenon in its infancy. Now it's fully grown and, as Fitzgerald shows, almost accepted.
Kleiser's film, while dealing with a group of friends, centered on the final coming together of an estranged couple as one of them faces death head-on. Its warm atmosphere is in sharp contrast to what Fitzgerald delivers here, as The Event uses the "police procedural" format of a detective story, with every flashback offering more details about what just happened and why in a deliberately dry style. Rather than the coming together that Kleiser dramatized, Fitzgerald shows a coming apart, as the suicide impacts each character differently. The cellist's mother (Olympia Dukakis) starts in a recognizable mode of maternal understanding, then goes beyond it -- she becomes as protective of her son's right to take his life as she had been to let him live it. There's also considerable contrast between the deceased's uptight older sister (Joanna P. Adler, deftly sketching a character who wishes she were a lot nicer than she is) and his free-spirited younger sister (Sarah Polley, who's particularly uproarious in a scene where she performs in a vaginal spray commercial). Rejean J. Cournoyer plays a drag queen who's far more insightful than his devil-may-care demeanor would suggest; most important, there's Brent Carver as the deceased's chief caregiver.
Rare is the film about gay life that steps outside the box of youthful sexual passion and standard-issue romance. There are all kinds of gay relationships, and here we see one that's far less common than many imagine: between two men who, while never becoming lovers, form a bond that's as deep as ordinarily understood love. A classic burnout case, exhausted by years of caring for the sick and dying, Carver's Brian moves through the cityscape like a ghost. Like all the "event" participants, he's part of a network of close friends. Yet death leaves him as emotionally isolated as Posey's sympathetic assistant DA -- who may, through the investigation, have come to understand the deceased more than most of those who knew him.
The grace and simplicity of Posey's performance (matching those of Carver and Dukakis) embody the exhaustion so many have felt in the face of this plague that has decimated several generations and left behind another of shellshocked survivors. Dealing with the disease often seems impossible. But films like The Event go a long way toward offering what's necessary to get out of bed every day, put one foot in front of the other, and just live.