Movies · Reviews

Two New Documentaries Take Very Different Looks at the Human Heart

By  · Published on March 1st, 2015

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Two new documentaries opened this weekend on VOD and in limited theatrical release, but aside from being non-fiction they share absolutely nothing in common. Well, nothing obvious anyway, but through sheer will power and the finessing of a few adjectives I feel confident saying that these two wildly different films are both focused on exploring the human heart.

The Widowmaker is obvious as it’s quite literally a look at a specific type of heart attack that has killed millions of people even though it’s quite possibly a preventable incident. The doc explores a quick and inexpensive test called a Coronary Calcium Scan and its two decade-long fight to be recognized as a crucial tool in the fight against heart disease. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn is a bit looser fit as it eschews the literal heart in favor of the metaphorical one we attribute with controlling our loves and passions. The film, directed by Refn’s wife Liv Corfixen is one part behind-the-scenes peek at the making of Refn’s Only God Forgives and one part look at his occasionally conflicting love for family and film-making.

The weightier of the two is The Widowmaker, and it’s not just because the film could possibly save your life. Heart attacks kill one person in America every sixty seconds, and while the majority of these come as little surprise to overweight smokers with terrible diets a frighteningly high number of attacks strike people who by any measure appear to be perfectly healthy.

Writer/director Patrick Forbes’ film introduces viewers first to the man who in the late ’80s invented the mesh stent – a small, balloon-inflatable piece of metal used to increase arterial blood-flow in and around the heart. The device has saved countless lives, but it’s a reactionary tool surgically inserted and used after or during a heart attack. Around the same time Julio Palmez was crafting his stent other individuals in the Bay Area were taking a different tact all together. More specifically, they were looking for a way to prevent heart attacks from even occurring.

The Coronary Calcium Scan is an x-ray that reveals calcium build-up in the heart, and that material is directly linked to the kind of sudden cardiac arrests afflicting otherwise healthy people. The scan runs under $200, takes mere minutes and serves to identify those in need of more invasive tests and/or treatment well before an actual attack hits. Unfortunately, the film documents how this simple procedure spent twenty years shuffling and struggling its way through a health care system seemingly more interested in the bottom line than in saving lives.

It’s an incredibly frustrating watch as it makes a home alongside the long list of documentaries that point out how corporate greed and government ineptitude again and again take priority over public health. Feuding doctors, inconsistent standards and the almighty dollar put a stranglehold on the procedure that’s only recently gotten the chance to come back up for air. Insurers refused to cover the scan as its preventative nature makes it a long-term cost-saver meaning the company wouldn’t be the one to reap the benefit. They’ll happily foot the $40k bill for the stent though once you’ve actually suffered the heart trauma.

The film, narrated by an authoritative-sounding Gillian Anderson, is a collection of talking heads (usually white men with white hair), a ticking clock-like counter tracking the number of Americans who died of a sudden, unexpected attack while this procedure slowly wound its way through the system and personal accounts of some of those victims. It’s effective and compelling in its presentation, and while the revelation that capitalism trumps care is no real revelation at all the story remains something of an eye-opener.

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Liv Corfixen’s peeling back of her husband’s world is far more of a mixed bag. It’s frequently fascinating to look behind the curtain at a creator’s process – most famously, Eleanor Coppola’s video record of her husband’s descent into hell while making Apocalypse Now, became the highly acclaimed and insightful Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – and My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn sees Corfixen tagging along to Bangkok, Thailand while her husband shoots his follow-up to Drive.

She’s glimpsed throughout, but the focus is Refn and their two daughters as they relocate for six months from their home in Denmark to the 42nd floor of a high-rise in a foreign land. We watch Refn interact and work alongside his cast members – including Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas – as well as spend time back at the condo around his family.

Drive was both a commercial and critical hit for Refn, but while he made a point of telling people that his follow-up, also starring Gosling, was going to be nothing like that film. Even with that disclaimer though Refn knows that expectation remains in the minds of fans and critics alike. The pressure to make a new film is intense, and it only intensifies as he begins to doubt his own drive to make something far less appealing to the masses. Corfixen verbally pokes him as he wanders their home, eats meals or tries to nap, and it’s interesting to watch his moods and opinions shift. His thoughts on Only God Forgives fluctuate with the tides, from loving what he’s done to seeing it as an artistic failure, and his take on reading only the negative reviews reveals another fascinating insight into his process. The incredulous nature of his voice while reading Hollywood Elsewhere’s slam against the film is particularly entertaining.

It’s unclear if Corfixen’s footage was intended from the beginning to be a making-of documentary or if she chose after the fact to cobble something together, but the impression leans towards the latter. At under sixty minutes in length the doc never really sinks its teeth into any facet of Refn’s troubles. We move from their arrival in Bangkok to the shooting of a few scenes to the film’s premiere at Cannes in mere minutes, and the brevity leaves the possibility open that Refn’s darker moments were simply fueled by exhaustion as opposed to deeper, more ingrained doubts. It’s human nature to second guess ourselves, and Refn is no less human than you or I.

The domestic side of things is kept equally slim but reveals Corfixen as a woman with an urge to be more than simply Refn’s biggest supporter. She has her own dreams of course, but as she reminds him sometimes she just wants to be treated like a loving wife by her husband instead of seeing him constantly focused on his current movie’s problem or next film’s promises. As the doc’s title suggests she feels at times like a bit player existing solely at the whim of the director – it’s an idea brought home early on when Refn instructs her how to shoot a particular moment of her own film.

Her concerns hit their target, but the couple’s kids seem far too present here for what they achieve. We see Refn interact with or around them, but far too many of their scenes feel like precious moments the family will enjoy revisiting later as opposed to moments relevant to Refn’s and Corfixen’s struggles.

My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn is an engaging glimpse into one artist’s life, but it remains only a glimpse. More footage and a tighter focus on the man’s process would have worked to create a clearer and more affecting picture.

Grade: C+

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.