Film Review: The reality of ‘Tuesday’ undermines the magic of its fantasy

Lola Petticrew faces down Death in "Tuesday" (Photo courtesy A24).
Lola Petticrew faces down Death in “Tuesday” (Photo courtesy A24).

A mother and her daughter must confront Death when he arrives in the form of a magical talking bird. 

This is the logline for “Tuesday,” writer and director Daina O. Pusić’s feature debut. It’s a logline that might leave some feeling skeptical – an ambitious undertaking that could so easily feel silly in the wrong hands. But, if there’s one thing “Tuesday” gets right, it’s the bird. 

The bird – Death, if you will – is a grand, shapeshifting parrot (voiced by Arinzé Kene) who answers the call when it’s time for us to go. The film opens with a gorgeous shot of the bird resting in the crevice under a dead man’s eye, an evocative image that jumpstarts a Death-centered montage. Death spends his time flying around the world, head filled with the rumblings of humanity until he hears someone call out clearly through the noise. He finds the person who called him, ignoring their outward pleas for mercy in favor of their inner voice that just wishes for it all to be over, and waves his wing over their face as they go silent. 

It’s quite an arresting opening, and the bird really works. He’s beautifully animated and expressive, his feathers ruffling, eyes peering with contemptuous boredom at his victims. It’s a true feat of writing and design that the bird works so well, that his arc comes together so completely over the course of the film. But when Death leaves the screen, “Tuesday” suffers for it. The reality in which this fairy tale takes place doesn’t feel nearly as fleshed out, neither tonally nor in terms of its human characters. Actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lola Petticrew do their best, but it must be tough when the most fleshed out character in the story is a CGI bird. 

After the death montage, we meet Zora (Louis-Dreyfus) and her daughter, Tuesday (Petticrew), who suffers from an unspecified terminal illness. Zora has not handled Tuesday’s illness well, preferring to spend her time avoiding her dying daughter at all costs. When Death shows up on Tuesday’s doorstep, however, avoidance is no longer an option. But Tuesday, despite having readied herself for this moment, is not an easy mark. Before Death can swipe his wing over her, she breaks into an impromptu, longform joke – something about a policeman and a van full of penguins. For a moment, the joke quiets the voices that constantly play through Death’s head. And when the droning returns, he heads into a tailspin that only Tuesday can pull him out of.

There’s a famous Emily Dickinson poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” that begins with the speaker refusing to stop for Death and him “kindly” stopping for her instead. “Tuesday” almost functions as that poem’s inverse. There is nothing kind about the way Death metes out his judgment, just a sense of cold impartiality as he barely lifts a feather to end a life. But Tuesday, who has been prepared for this day for quite some time, does not plead for her life, or beg for mercy. Instead, she tells a joke – she makes an attempt to relate to the person (or bird) in front of her. Death has been going through the motions for a millennia, not stopping to think about the inner lives of any of the people he sends on their way. In this instance, Tuesday is the one who stops him in his tracks, opening up the carriage door and inviting him to stay a while. 

Death agrees to let Tuesday live until her mother gets home so that she can say goodbye, and the two spend the afternoon together. Through Tuesday, Death begins to experience things he hasn’t before and begins to look at the world in a new light. Before this meeting, he was stuck in the repetitive cycle of forever, but her openness, her willingness to engage him beyond the superficial, has lifted his spirits. His job is his job, and Tuesday will still have to die. But death doesn’t have to be this dark, abrupt thing – it can be something much lighter, and much more intimate. 

But Death is only part of this story, and when the bird leaves the frame, “Tuesday” begins to sag under the weight of its stagnancy. While the arc of Death is filled with ebbs and flows, Zora and Tuesday’s dynamic is fairly static until the film’s end, but by that point there’s been no real tension, no real build-up to their emotional goodbye. All their fights are about the same thing – Tuesday begging her mother to accept the inevitable, to please not spend the rest of their time together ignoring the truth. They get stuck in this dynamic, and by virtue the audience gets stuck watching them argue over the same thing without ever really moving anywhere. All of the film’s other characteristics – its humor, its pathos – get sucked into that stagnant feeling, leaving you feeling cold. 

This dynamic might feel true to life, but in a film that features such a magical element so prominently, it’s hard to buy into that reality when the fantasy handles themes of death and finality with so much more precision. 

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