The first question you might ask about this riveting documentary is, “What in the hell would possess a guy to pound a nail through his penis?” The second is, “Why would I want to watch a movie about it?” While I can’t even begin to answer the first question, the answer to the second is that “Sick” is one of the funniest, most disturbing and poignant explorations of human nature ever made.
“Sick” chronicles the life, S&M lifestyle, and death of Bob Flanagan who, when he died at 43 in 1996, was the oldest known survivor of the devastating lung disease Cystic Fibrosis. The film consists primarily of Flanagan’s public performances, interviews with his partner Sheree Rose and others, archival footage of his performance art exhibits depicting his obsession with pain and punishment in graphic detail, and videotaped sessions of his loving torments under Sheree’s cruel, yet affectionate hands.
In spite of the potential for exploitation inherent in a film dealing with S&M, those looking for titillation would be better served at their local video store. When the sexiest image is that of an 18 year-old fellow CF sufferer and Flanagan groupie – introduced to him through the Make A Wish Foundation! – taking her shirt off for a nipple piercing, you know you ain’t watching “Baywatch.”
Instead, director Kirby Dick has given us a gritty yet often hilarious study of a man dealing with a disease that he knows is going to kill him. Nowhere is this grittiness more apparent than in the film’s most powerful sequence; Flanagan’s agonizing realization that death is near and his harrowing last gasps for air. These are the images, more so even than the manacles, whippings, absurd comedy, and yes, even the impaled genitals that will stick with me from “Sick.”
This one is not for the squeamish, which is too bad because its compelling study of human courage is precisely what makes “Sick” a film that everyone should see.