When Me Before You came out earlier this year, the internet shook with disabled rage. We were not here for a two-hour stereotype parade that cast able-bodied actors in disabled roles and romanticized early death as an escape from the tragedy of being or becoming us. But hear me out: I think we might have read this one all wrong.
Me Before You isn’t half-baked schlock that crumbles under the weight of its own unconscionable ignorance. No — instead, director Thea Sharrock and writer Jojo Moyes gave us a bio-horror masterpiece about a deadly outbreak of Ableism in small-town Wales. With Halloween upon us, it’s time their efforts got the recognition they deserve.
The scariest part of Me Before You is its realism. Unlike most “outbreak” movies, it doesn’t rely on a fictionalized disease (a la the Rage Virus in 28 Days Later or Contagion’s MEV-1). Ableism, as we know, is real: an ideological contaminant that leads the infected person to fear, devalue, or ignore disabled bodies and experiences. It’s spread virally, often through contaminated media, well-meaning friends and relatives, and doctor’s offices. Lack of information and resources can cause symptoms to lie dormant for years — meaning that most cases are already full-blown by the time they’re discovered. The severely infected actually see disabilities themselves as diseases. And that’s what Sharrock and Moyes force us to confront: an alarmingly common contagion allowed to reach its final, fatal stage.
As is tradition in bio-horror, we open with the initial infection that sets up the nightmare to come. Wealthy White Guy Will Traynor ignores a whole bunch of foreshadowing (his girlfriend asking him not to ride his motorcycle in the rain! Nearly colliding with a bike messenger on the sidewalk!) and steps out into the street to hail a taxi — where he’s hit head-on by, you guessed it, a motorcyclist. Without early intervention, Ableism can enter a person’s system the moment they become disabled. You know that’s what’s happened to our good friend Will as the title card fades in.
Then it’s time to meet our plucky heroine and the only person who has any chance of surviving this movie, Louisa Clark. She’s charming and relatable because she wears mustard yellow tights, works at a bakery, and goes by Lou. She’s also played by Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones, but clearly lacks Khaleesi’s powers of discernment and ability to sense danger. Because once the bakery closes and she needs to find another job, she overlooks some pretty obvious warnings about the one position available. “Care and companionship for a disabled man: six-month fixed-term contract. This is the fifth time they’ve tried to recruit. They’re desperate.”
Fixed-term contract? Four predecessors vanished and are never heard from again? Working for the mysterious family in the castle on the hill? Doesn’t sound like your best idea, Lou. But being the protagonist, she agrees to take the job with no misgivings whatsoever — a sign that Ableism hasn’t yet made its way into her thought patterns. See where this is going?
Surprise! Will is the “disabled man” from the ad! And once we see him again, our worst fears are confirmed: he’s in the grips of late-stage Internalized Ableism (a nearly undetectable strain that eats disabled people’s psyches from the inside). “I don’t do anything,” he says. “I just about exist.”
In her uninfected state, Lou refuses to see Will as less than a whole person and starts figuring out his hobbies, tea preferences, anything that could stop Ableism from spreading and help reverse his symptoms (which include being a total asshole and staring longingly at the falling rain). But we sense that she’s fighting a losing battle — especially as every other character begins to show signs of infection. Will’s mom only talks about his disability in terms of what he’s “lost;” his other attendant, Nathan, laments how his body “doesn’t work” below the neck; and Lou’s boyfriend Pat suggests that “a really good fitness regime” could make him able-bodied again. We’re not just dealing with Patient Zero anymore; the virus has a hold of this entire town.
Lou puts up an admirable fight, refusing to listen to Pat’s bullshit and shutting down Will’s ongoing pity party. She seems to be the only one who has any idea how this virus works and how far it’s spread. But as is too often the case in real life, she wavers once the tough realities of Will’s disability set in. A bout of pneumonia lands him in the hospital, she realizes he’s not going to magically start walking again one day, and boom — contamination. Ableism, after all, feeds on pity and fear. Before you know it, she’s asking him “what… happened?” and displaying the well-intentioned entitlement typical of early infection.
From here, Sharrock and Moyes get absolutely ruthless, teasing some scenes of what could have been for Will and Lou had they managed to fight the virus — which makes it that much more brutal when we realize the extent of Will’s infection. Turns out the reason for that fixed-term contract is that he’s decided to go to Switzerland to have himself euthanized. “I can’t be the kind of man who just accepts this,” he says while living in a literal castle that his parents had adapted for him. And this is where the film’s most chilling message becomes clear: disability is not fatal, but Ableism can be.
To her credit, Lou shows some signs of recovery when she recognizes Ableism at work in his decision. But this thing is tenacious. Sensing her growing resistance, the disease mutates to its most insidious form, Ableism as Romance, to finish Will off and feed on Lou after he’s gone. (The power goes out immediately after they kiss for the first time; if that’s not a horror movie warning, I don’t know what is.)
Ableism as Romance makes disabled partners look like burdens and erasure look like love. It’s among the most widespread strains of the disease, perpetuated by “see past it” ideology that detaches disability from who we really are. That is, of course, a lie designed to keep Ableism alive and thriving while disabled people end up alone or ashamed. But once Will says “I don’t want you to miss all the things that someone else could give you,” we know that knowledge will come too late for both of them. In the film’s final, utterly dystopian scene, Lou sits outside a cafe in Paris reading Will’s last letter to her. “Live boldly, Clark,” he mansplains from beyond the grave. “Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want you getting sad. Just live well. Just live.” As she smiles fondly and walks off into the distance, it’s clear that the virus has survived with Lou as carrier.
Look, I know it’s unsettling. I’ve been questioning my able-bodied girlfriend’s motives constantly since finishing this movie. Sharrock and Moyes have created an all-too-real illustration of what Ableism looks like, how it grows, and its devastating consequences for upper-class white people. But the good news is there is a cure: knowledge. The kind you can find right here on Autostraddle. So protect yourself, friends. Acknowledge Me Before You as a cautionary tale and read up. We’re gonna be okay.