SXSW 2008 - A NECESSARY DEATH review
More than a few audiences members were so drawn into A Necessary Death’s (faux) documentary trappings that they up and walked out during its premier at the Alamo Drafthouse during this year’s South by Southwest. While the film maintains a perfect aesthetic veil throughout, an overly melodramatic third act reveals its fictitious underpinnings before things slip too far into the realm of the uncomfortable. That said, informed audiences should still find Death an engrossing experience, anchored by a quintet of strong improvisational performances.
The film manages to raise a number of questions worthy of discussion and debate related to the roles of filmmaker and audience member by presenting an initially bizarre scenario which ends up just this side of reasonable when filtered through the nonstop crush of reality and self-help media foisted on modern viewers.
Beginning with an ad placed on Craigslist, the film plays out as an informal documentary tracking the progress of a thesis project from ambitious film student Gilbert (Gilbert Echternkamp) wherein an individual planning to commit suicide will be followed in the days and weeks leading up to their self-imposed termination. Gilbert’s crew, including his ex Val (Valerie Hunt), settle on terminal brain cancer patient Matt (Matthew Tilley) as their subject. Inserting themselves too far into their subject’s explicitly finite life, the group splinters and finds themselves increasingly, dangerously at odds with one another leading up to Matt’s final day.
Death plays its notes so perfectly early on, when it teeters into soap opera territory later the effect is especially damning. Knowing full well what was happening on-screen was a fictional construct, it was still difficult not to empathize with the film’s characters based on the performances of all involved. Hunt in particular stands out as Val, initially reluctant but ultimately swayed to participate and central to the catastrophic meltdown which powers the film’s late moments. As our “cameraman,” real life writer / director Daniel Stamm believably strains to anchor the fractious players maneuvering around Michael.
Designed to look and feel like it was shot and (to a large degree) cut by an amateur, the film breaks with its aesthetic only occasionally by inserting manipulative swells of music. It’s ultimately the story’s structure that undermines Death’s façade – too twisty for its own good, the piece collapses under the weight of outsized machinations which break too far from believability.
There’s no denying A Necessary Death works as an effective suspense / drama, somewhat ironically classed up by its low-rent trappings. Worthy of note too is the film’s clear intention to call into question the nebulous contract between filmmaker and audience, as the public is drawn uncomfortably close to what is arguably the most personal of occurrences – the end of one’s life. Death doesn’t mix its impressively varied ingredients quite right, but still delivers a compelling 100 minutes which calls, with a degree of success, for a deeper examination of the growing draw to “reality”.