Some filmmakers are so synonymous with my taste that, when I hear of their involvement in a film, I’m hooked before I know anything about the project...
...For example, David Fincher could make a traditional romantic comedy and I would come running. Director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera 2008, Mother’s Day 2010) is without question in that same territory of filmmakers I revere. Luckily for us, Bousman’s latest film, Death of Me, isn’t a romantic comedy.
Shot on and around the exotic beaches of Thailand, Death of Me tells a story of mysticism and superstition. Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) are a seemingly happily married couple visiting various regions of Thailand for Neil’s photography project. On their last day of the trip, the two wake up in odd parts of their rental house. To make matters stranger, both are covered in dirt, grass, and sand. They chalk it up to a night of heavy drinking and make haste to catch the last ferry to the mainland but are denied travel because they oddly cannot produce their passports. Flustered and hung over, the defeated couple make their way back to the house to sort out the situation. Neil attempts to retrace their steps by looking at the video footage on his phone from the night before. What they find both puzzles and frightens them. The footage reveals a horrific act of violence that neither can explain. Neil and Christine descend into a deep, dark rabbit hole of mysticism, phantasms, and the blurring of reality.
One of my biggest fears is losing all control and having the inability to dictate what my near or far future will look like. Death of Me is a film that exploits that very fear in a terrifying way. At nearly every turn, Christine is being told by everyone around her that her experiences are delusions. In turn, she begins to doubt her own sanity and the cycle repeats and only gets worse as the film progresses. Neil also experiences the strange effect and wants answers just as much as Christine, but the bulk of bad luck tends to land for her more often. Maggie Q completely inhabits her character in such a way that you never question her grief. Her emotional state exists somewhere in between high frustration and panic. To keep that up throughout 90 percent of the shoot must have been exhausting, but Q pulls it off with such authenticity and it services the film’s tension greatly. Hemsworth is no slouch either and is able to keep up with Q’s high-strung performance. Neil has a very earnest quality about him, so it’s heartbreaking to watch him try to pick up the pieces and console the inconsolable Christine. These are the kinds of performances that lend more credibility to the horror genre and I hope this standard of professionalism becomes more common.
If I were to look at all the horror films I scored low, I guarantee you that most of them had poorly written characters or contained unconvincing performances. I’m much more likely to forgive bad effects, plot holes, an inconsistent tone, or even a loose narrative structure. Not to say those things don’t matter, because they absolutely do, but when you have fully realized characters who consist of more than a one-dimensional sketch, the outside forces and events surrounding them matter more. Christine and Neil have the kind of chemistry that hints at many years of companionship. They aren’t in a constant state of adoration of each other, but clearly have each other’s respect and both leap to one another when there could be possible danger. It feels real, and on top that they are both likeable in a very normal, non-manipulative way. The film doesn’t try to force you to like them. Rather, you like them because of how they interact with each other and how they interact with situations. When tensions are at their highest, you genuinely care about what might happen to them.
If you know Bousman’s work, you know he is a very visual director. Most of his films are highly stylized with robust color palettes, lavish sets, and eccentric costume design. It’s part of why I love his films so much. In Death of Me, Bousman retains his sense of style, but goes about it in a very different way. Instead of focusing on grand set pieces, he employs the natural beauty and mystery of real-life locations in Thailand. It’s not just one or two locations, either. Aside from following Christine and Neil into the bustling city markets and tourists’ bars, we’re also given beautiful, sweeping shots of Thailand’s many islands and dense greenery. The island they are on becomes a character itself, as much of the mystery ties in directly to the island and its many secrets. While there is sheer natural beauty on display, when given more context, it takes on a more ominous nature. As far as I’ve researched, the entire film was filmed in Thailand. Not only is that a production feat, but it also adds to the film’s visual consistency.
The only notable criticism I have is the ambiguous ending. I can see this going both ways for people. On one hand, the ending plays by the rules of the film’s mysterious, often vague tone and giving too much closure or exposition might ruin the overall effect. My take, however, sides with the idea that the viewer has been anticipating some kind of explanation ever since the mystery was presented, so when I’m left with little to surmise, it’s a little frustrating. I suppose I would have preferred just a smidgen more of information to digest. I certainly don’t want my films to have a nice bow wrapped up at the end, but endings like this make me wonder if the reason for such opacity is because they don’t fully understand their own mythos. None of this prevents the film from being great, it just left me slightly disappointed. The thrilling journey to that unclear destination mostly makes up for it, though.
Bousman is firing on all cylinders here, and this may be his most accomplished film to date. It’s rare to see a film that works in nearly every respect, but Death of Me manages to pull it off. There could have been a more satisfying ending, but I really think that’s going to come down to personal preference. This is a very different kind of film for Bousman in a lot of ways. It’s more mature in a strange kind of way compared to his other films, and while different, I think longtime fans will appreciate the departure just as I did.
Death of Me comes to VOD/Digital from Saban Films on October 2nd.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth