Fantasia 2011: A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE Review
[After a very successful run on the festival circuit, this micro-indie gem makes its way to J.A. De Seve Theatre at Fantasia tonite, and I heartily encourage anyone out there who happens to
be in town to give this one a gander, if only to see the sweet manner in which this film transcends its own concept!]
And now for something
different: A very low-key serial killer drama starring Amy
Seimetz, Joe Swanberg and House of the Devil's A.J. Bowen. It is
a noteworthy, if slightly belabored
connection, that Ti Wests eighties inspired satanist slasher had a
significant role for mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig, and one might call A Horrible Way To Die a mumblecore thriller of sorts. But, I promise that from
here onward this is last time I will use the "M"-word for fear of the
seeking out and destroying me. After seeing the creativity of purpose for what is on offer here,
I can imagine they might find a creative and interesting way to do off this poor film writer if unseen comparisons happen to irk them.
A Horrible Way to Die 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. Probably, 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.