[After a very successful debut in Toronto, micro-indie serial killer drama A Horrible Way to Die is making its European bow at Sitges tomorrow, and I can heartily encourage anyone out there who happens to be in town to give this one a solid gander, if only to see how darn well this film transcends its own concept!]
And now for something completely different: A mumblecore tinged serial killer drama with no parody or comedy in there. This film takes itself seriously in all the right ways. Starring Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg (two regular faces in the micro-cinema movement) and House of the Devil's A.J. Bowen, it is a noteworthy, if slightly belaboured connection, that Ti West's eighties inspired satanist slasher had a significant role for mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig, but I promise that from here onward this is last time I will use the "M"-word for fear of the filmmakers seeking out and destroying me. And after seeing what is on offer in A Horrible Way To Die, I can imagine they would find a creative and interesting way to do it. The film is an intimate, if awkward, relationship story that parallels alcohol addiction to the sick state of mind of a repeat murderer in Missouri. For a genre that usually gets its rocks off on gore and high thrills, writer Simon Barrett (Dead Birds) and director Adam Wingard (Twitch favourite, Popskull) dial it back to characters and situation and put a hell of a lot of trust in the audience by telling the story out of chronological order with too few cues that they are doing so. A word of warning on this one, you have to go along with things for some time before the pieces slot into place. Either that or pay attention to Bowen's facial hair or Amy Seimetz wardrobe. This is not difficult given the narrow focus and close-up cinematography. Despite the films obviously limited resources, it is a smart visual strategy and an excellently tense "There Will Be Blood"-eque soundtrack makes the most of things on the production value side.
Garrick Turrell (Bowen) may look quiet and unassuming, but he has a facebook page with thousands of followers for his exploits as a prolific serial killer. He is shown in the opening moments of the film escaping from a routine prison transfer using little more than a three-inch metal screw. Amongst getting his bearings on the lamb, he still stops and indulges himself, falling off the wagon if you will, by killing a few innocent travelers along the road. Bowen is so casual in his demeanor that it is as (or perhaps even more) chilling as campier icons John Doe (Seven) or Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), it feels a little less cinematic and a little more real. Proabably, this is the combination of very naturalistic acting and low-fi hand-held camera work. Either way it is good. Meanwhile Sarah cites the Serenity Prayer with her fellow AA meeting attendees. Her eyes are downcast, her body language is awkward, but there is a vulnerable attractiveness to this body language that catches the eye of Kevin. A fellow recovering alcoholic, he courts Sarah in a fashion that is part kindred-spirit sponsor, and part awkward stalker. There is something about Joe Swanberg that is inviting and creepy and 'quiet boy next door.' It makes for an interesting counterpoint with AJ Bowen's killer who seems far more adjusted to society and casual conversation, even if he wreaks a big 'plagued with guilt' musk or something. There is a lot more to all of their stories as the plot unfolds. The film gradually reveals relationships and character details, keeping violence and blood to a minimum as A Horrible Way To Die awkwardly - but deliberately - courts its way to a climax.
A difficult film to talk about without the dreaded spoilers, but suffice it to say that Barrett and Wingard take the film to a place that I initially thought was a pretty lame place to go, but they transcend the move so exquisitely with some commentary on this celebrity moment in time that the film becomes about something far more than the obvious addiction or relationship observations. As Sarah and Kevin continue to date, and Garrick continues his journey to the place he wants (in subtle, quiet desperation) to be, the film finds some very unexpected grace notes. The film, despite its promise of a title, is a surprisingly adult motion picture. If this is how Wingard manages to bring a fresh eye to the genre, he should be well on the road to bigger things in a rather short amount of time.