'Exit Music' is as Real, Heartwrenching, and Hopeful as Documentaries Get

This movie will wreck you as it plays Ethan Rice tenderly off screen.

Exit Music

Ethan Rice is 28. He is a musician, a stop-motion artist, a pleasant cynic, an ardent enthusiast of the modern independent arts (as told through enamel Radiohead pins, film posters, and a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion show outing), a lay philosopher, a son, a brother, and a man diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth.

As Ethan’s father, Ed, triumphantly tells it, every new day of Ethan’s life was a victory. Doctors incessantly updated the expected death date, as anyone who has had a terminally ailing loved one might recognize. Something like, “We regret to inform you that there is a [ridiculously high percentage] chance that [loved one] won’t make it past [early age].” Then maybe 5 or 6. Then 8, 11, and so on. Doctors in this situation are just the expertly trained messengers. They deserve no blame.

But how refreshing it is when their grim predictions are off. At some point, it seems that the Rice family realized that Ethan would defy the odds for decades. And he did. But the inevitable was still so. Cystic fibrosis has no cure. Cameron Mullenneaux’s Exit Music is a grand recognition of that. It is Ethan’s own graceful exit music.

We meet Ethan and his family in the last year of Ethan’s life, when this truth finally becomes a reality. For Ethan, it has always been this way. Through conversations with Mullenneaux on the other side of the camera, we gather that Ethan has thought incalculably about his own death, how to approach it within himself, how to reconcile it with his family’s pain and desire, and what it all might mean.

Many of these raw reflections circle back to his father, a veteran who channels the complications wrought by PTSD into painting and a general passion for art. The camera hones in on him almost as much as it does Ethan throughout the film. It quickly becomes evident that Ethan inherited and drew much of his character from the luminous personality of his father, whose patience, imagination, and artistic sensibility is contagious in a mere 75 minutes of film — much more 28 years, I imagine.

Ed might as well be credited as co-director alongside the investigative Mullenneaux due to all of the home video footage he supplied. He was infatuated with documenting his son’s life in all of their adventures together, whether relatively mundane or exotic. We get the idea that Ed woke up every morning, immediately realized the brilliance and beauty of Ethan’s invaluable life, wept tears of joy, sheathed his trusty camcorder on his hip, smothered Ethan with adoration, and proceeded to document whatever activity unfolded.

I’m sure the real story is more lifelike, but it’s hard to imagine anything less. Whatever the case, Ethan’s love for his father and his yearning to leave him peacefully is the chief barrier for Ethan once his condition worsens, the pain becomes constant, and he starts to lose the will to continue.

Among other topics surrounding end-of-life scenarios for the terminally ill, Exit Music flings open the door to bioethical questions regarding the way we understand palliative care and the right to live via Ethan’s unbelievably honest insights. The decision that faces him, along with the care required on an hourly basis, is so complex.

At times, the complexity is overwhelming. You’ll find yourself crying and you won’t even be sure why. Are you sad about Ethan dying? Are you breaking down at the thought of how Ed could go on after the fact? Are you upset with the hand fate has dealt the Rice family? Is it tears of loving appreciation for Ethan’s selfless, supremely considerate approach to his illness? It’s probably a little bit of everything.

The cherries on top of this breathtaking film are Ethan’s artistic contributions. His delightfully delirious and sonically dissonant score sets the tone of his personality perfectly. (I hope someone makes that score available as soon as possible—on its own, it is a wonderful instrumental album.) And his stop-motion segments are that of a pro, impressive in every clay-formed piece, and executed with grave attention to detail.

His heavy artistic participation gives the film a meta-narrative vibe, as if Ethan occasionally gets quiet or leaves a question sparsely answered in hopes that the music or the stop-motion sequences may provide the insight we’re looking for. But quite frankly, he deserves recognition for his contributions because they are just plain good. If this were a different film about a different person, no one would question its quality. He is an incredibly talented artist, and his art is only one of many things he had to offer the world.

Exit Music is a film you cannot prepare for. No matter how intentionally you prep your soul, death will invade. How severely you respond to it is probably dependent on your experiences with it thus far, but the bare minimum will be a sharp sting of righteous anger for a candidly beautiful life partly unlived, and a bottomless feeling of genuine loss.

However, there are few films that will remind you of how precious life is in the process. Not just Ethan Rice’s life, but his family’s lives, your family’s lives, your friends’ lives, your own life. And in that sense, there is a pending feeling of sheer splendor and love that will simultaneously overtake you in your sorrow.