Judge Mina Rhodes was once comatose, after having watched a 24-hour marathon of Merchant Ivory films.
What will the outcome be?
Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, Coma follows four patients at The Center for Head Injuries at JFK Medical Center, all of whom have suffered some kind of severe brain trauma that led to a state of coma: Tom Segars, 31, a sales manager who has a pretty young wife (and the most camera time, it feels like), Roxy Guzman, 19, a teenage college student, Al'Khan Edwards, who is doted on by the kindly Dr. Caroline McCagg, and Sean Reilly, 20, a college student who is doted on by his mother. Over the course of a year, Coma follows these four patients, their family and friends, and the doctors who care for them, as they either begin to recover, or lapse into a permanent state of mental quiescence.
In nearly every film where the subject is broached or made a central plot event, comas are always depicted as something resembling a deep, deep sleep, from which the A-list sleeping beauty always recovers from miraculously, in perfect mental and physical condition, such as The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, and Alicia in Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her. Both of those aforementioned films are brilliant, to be sure, and most films are always filled with fatuous cliches, anyway: cops needing several minutes to trace a call, hypnosis being used for mind control, etc, etc, but the fictional depictions of comas are perhaps the most wildly inaccurate, as bluntly depicted in the documentary Coma.
As a documentary, Coma achieves its goal of fairly and perceptively documenting its subject. The four patients are filmed in a non-exploitative way, music is rarely used for dramatic effect (except for some holiday music where appropriate), and the overall presentation has a detached tone that distances itself from the subjects, although it is clearly sympathetic to them. This is also something of a flaw, however; shot on cheap digital video, Coma is visually dull, and the hospital settings come across as flat and lifeless. For a film that is 20 minutes shy of two hours, and lacks much in the way of changes of scenery, this presents something of a problem, as it obstructs how much interest one can invest in the film. The four patients are all interesting themselves, but the screen time for each is divided unevenly, with Al'Khan basically getting the shaft. To be fair, his condition does not change much throughout the course of the film, so his potential for "drama" is limited, but the way his family and Dr. McCagg dote on him and try their hardest to revive him is one of the more touching aspects of the film. The other three patients, Tom, Roxy and Sean, have most of the film's focus. Tom's wife spoon feeds him, while his parents fret about their retirement or their son's hearing loss; Roxy's mother changes her daughter's sheets and tries to assure her daughter that nothing is wrong; Sean's mother, visibly distressed, stays by her son's side with a fixed look of hurt and worry, while the occasional college buddy drops in to say hi. Discussions about chances of recovery are had, rehabilitation exercises are performed, and holidays celebrated. There is much that is intriguing about what Coma puts on display, but one gets the feeling that such material would be better suited to an hour-long special on the Discovery Channel, or one of its associated stations. The film could easily have half of its running time removed with some tactful editing, leaving it far more engaging to the viewer. In its present state, the film tends to ramble endlessly, with listless, uninspired editing, and the fact that all the photography is handheld, coupled with the bland video quality, lends an air of cheapness to the presentation.
As it is, Coma is overlong, occasionally tedious, and very dry, but not an unrewarding viewing experience. Despite the lack of enough proper history to make us particularly care for any of the patients, some of them, through their slow recovery, reveal some sparks of life that are nice to see amidst the endless display of blankly staring patients and crying parents. Roxy in particular is interesting to watch, especially when, even from the depths of her minimally conscious state, she manages to find words, including some rather unsavory ones for a nurse trying to help her. Watching the recovery of the patients who manage to fight their way out of the after-effects of their brain trauma is at times inspiring, and in the cases where they fail, it is sobering.
HBO Home Video's transfer of Coma is fine, reproducing the film's flat, monotonous digital video visuals with few, if any, flaws; it looks about as good as it possibly can, which really isn't saying much. Audio is in English and Spanish stereo, both as equally fine as the video; again, nothing that is what you wouldn't expect from a made for cable documentary. The sole extra is "The Case of Willie Hicks," a short featurette documenting the recovery of the eponymous patient, who also was at the JFK Medical Center. This featurette was previously available on HBO On Demand, as was another that examined another coma patient; however, only the Willie Hicks featurette is on this disc.
If nothing else, Coma leaves the viewer with the fact that someone sustains severe brain trauma every 15 seconds, imbuing the preceding images of vegetative patients with a sad and disturbing quality that lingers in the mind, as well as perhaps a little bit of "you could be next!" spookiness.
Guilty of being overlong and occasionally dull, but an otherwise fascinating and enlightening doc.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Case of Willie Hicks"
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