The shower and the Polaroid: seven minutes of a car ride holding back the past, a long, dark three minutes to anticipate. “Autopsy: The Last Hours of Dennis Hopper” brings these two horrific moments to the dramatic screen in film noir fashion, switching from interview to the past in rapid succession to the present with a graphic portrait of the actor’s death – though his recent daughter has said the story is a fabrication.
“I don’t really have anything positive to say about my father,” says his daughter Danya Hopper in the new documentary. “Some days he was a mess. Some days, he was funny and playful and you could hear him speak … then there were other days it felt like he was dead.”
She was 13 when Hopper died of prostate cancer in Los Angeles and has had multiple brushes with the law. Hopper may well have been watching TV when his health deteriorated, remembers the unassuming narrator Lawrence R. Lyons, and the documentary follows the early onset of pain for his star and retells the epic car ride from West Hollywood to Hopper’s house on a hilltop in the Santa Monica mountains.
They went to pick up the Hopper family dog, Duke, before driving, with minimal time between stops, for Los Angeles.
As the film goes forward we see that the life Hopper had pulled off remained largely intact, even as his deterioration on the road began. The awareness of time is everywhere: the musty memorabilia on his kitchen counter, as well as his dying rooms at home. As the months proceed we watch Hopper lean on a waiter in Las Vegas and appear to weep at the table. When his son Jesse gets into a car accident he blames the pain on injuries suffered in childhood and life, citing the death of a loved one and vague demons he’s encountering. Hopper later takes an herbal medicine that causes him to slowly fall asleep.
The final scene cuts to the hospital, where Hopper lays supine in the bed, a black shirt draped over his face. We read his last words: “I thank my family and friends, from the bottom of my heart.”
“I didn’t want to do a movie about this guy,” Hopper himself says in the beginning of the movie. “I couldn’t kill him.”
With most of the footage shot in the final month of his life, Hopper “pulled the lever on the car, put it in park, and died,” says the director Albert Maysles in a statement. “If Dennis Hopper survived that car ride, he would probably have told you. The fact that he didn’t, speaks volumes to his state of mind.”
The film consists of almost entirely testimonials of his friends and professional colleagues. Hopper’s manager, Jim Miller, rips his film as the work of an “arrogant and bitter” former friend, and his son says of Hopper that he “just didn’t want to be touched by family and friends.”
Hopper was 62 years old when he was killed on June 5, 2013.
“Dennis Hopper: Autopsy” premieres Sunday, August 18 at 9 p.m. EDT on REELZChannel.