Written by: Simon Barrett
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďIf you knew you were going to die and you could pick how, what would you choose?"
After finally seeing A Horrible Way to Die, Iíve been trying to find a way to describe just how unique it is. I like to avoid hyperbolic statements because they come off as silly, and calling something one of the most unique movies Iíve ever seen doesnít really tell you a whole lot. With that said, though, this movie really is undeniably clever and layered, despite its extremely minimalist take on the worn out serial killer genre. Itís one of those films whose description betrays its depth, as its surface level reveals two perpendicular stories set for a collision course; really, I think I would describe A Horrible Way to Die as two balls of yarn--one is unspooling, while the other is tightening--and both are somehow rolling towards each other, destined to be entangled once shit really hits the fan.
One thread in the film finds Sarah (Amy Seimetz) recovering from alcoholism and coming to terms with a troublesome past relationship with her boyfriend, Garrick (A.J. Bowen). Haunted by her memories of the relationship, she tries to forge ahead with a new guy (Joe Swanberg) that she meets at an AA meeting. Meanwhile, the other thread sees Garrick on the run from authorities after escaping from prison; as we soon discover, he is actually an infamous serial killer who was incarcerated after Sarah stumbled upon the corpses heíd piled up. Now, heís hit the road to track her down and leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
The intense momentum propelling A Horrible Way to Die is remarkable, as these two concurrently running stories are realized with a grim determinism. We watch Sarah as she continues to fall apart (despite her best efforts), while Garrick approaches with the swift efficiency of a shark. Both are equally compelling thanks to the fantastic performances from each lead. Seimetz is a natural beauty whose vulnerability is matched only by her resolve. Sheís a fighter who is determined to make it through, even though she still thinks back to her time with Garrick and sometimes gets herself off to the memory. ďBraveĒ is sometimes an overused term to describe a performance, but I see some courage here--this isnít an easy character to portray, as sheís broken (or at least teetering on the edge of being broken) but still intensely affable. I feel like she really is this poor, everyday girl who stumbled into one of the most horrifying situations imaginable, so the film pulls no punches in relaying that. When she first learns that Garrick has fled, she seeks the (mostly physical) comfort from her new companion, which reveals a lot about her state of mind--itís a simple case of just not wanting to be alone.
Thatís a good idea, too, considering how terrifying A.J. Bowen is as Garrick. Youíll likely remember him as the amiable guy who strolled into House of the Devil with that inviting smile before blowing a girlís brains out in cold blood. Imagine that, only stretched out over 87 minutes--heís deceptively scary, once again relying on a sort of boyish charm to disarm people. One of the filmís subplots involves the cult of fans heís amassed, and you can see how heíd be the sort of enigma that would attract such a following. When we first meet him, he almost seems a little bit too nice to the girl heís stuffed into his trunk; he removes her, offers some comforting words--and then strangles the life right out of her. Weíve seen this sort of oscillating psychopaths before, and we see it played out here in full force, as his interactions with Sarah are perfectly normal; the only thing that gives him away is his tendency to go out wandering late at night. Bowen even brings a subtle sense of struggle to the role--this murderous impulses seem like uncontrollable, inexplicable compulsions. If he sees a pretty girl walking down the street, he can only imagine what sheíd look like cut up into pieces.
We actually see that at some point, though the grisly violence is really rather sparse; actual on screen murders are peppered in almost casually, but we mostly see the gruesome aftermath of Garrickís encounters. This is in line with the filmís riveting, fly-on-the-wall visual style whose suffocating and invasive lens feels like itís intruding in on these people. However, Iím wouldnít call it documentary style, as the hovering, ominous score and slow dissolves and fades create a weaving, dreamlike effect at time. Sometimes, you feel like youíre being lulled in and entranced as you circle around this group of characters; however, the narrative is moving with such incredible forcefulness towards the climax, creating a strange, hypnotic vibe. Youíd probably call this a slow burn, but itís a swift one thatís tumbling forward right out of the gate.
And I havenít even spoken of the ending, which I wonít spoil, obviously. I can say that itís intense and wry, relying on both an obvious twist, and a more cerebral, subversive one that whirls the entire thing around. Once the credits begin to roll, you feel like the movie itself has snuck up on you and stabbed you right in the back--even though you should have been it coming the entire time. What I love about A Horrible Way to Die is that thereís nothing cheap about it--its twist isnít one of those ďgotchaĒ bit of narrative gymnastics that screenwriter Simon Barrett tossed in because itíd be neat. Instead, Iím willing to bet that it was his jumping off point--the filmís entire point is really in its conclusion, and itís a deeply satisfying one that cuts right to the heart of Garrickís bizarre psychosis.
I donít think itís hyperbole to say that this is one of the best horror films Iíve seen recently. Just about everything clicks--the characters, the story, the violence, the cold, frigid atmosphere that ensnares you with a deathly grip. It might be the most realistically grim and haunting portrayal of a serial killer since Henry, a film that disturbs me to the core. A Horrible Way to Die digs down to your bones too, albeit in another way. It sneakily crawls in with some compelling characters before plunging right into your gut as they spiral towards each other. Having finally seen this, Iím even more remiss at having missed out on Barrett and Wingardís next effort at, Youíre Next, which screened at Fantastic Fest but has since been tucked away by Lions Gate, who wonít unleash it until next October. In the meantime, however, I think this one will warrant another look at some point; as such, pick up Anchor Bayís DVD or Blu-ray, and obviously go with the latter if you can since it features a remarkable presentation (the lossless soundtrack is especially immersive--and loud), plus a couple of supplements in the form of a behind the scenes feature and a commentary with Barrett and Wingard. Intense, visceral, psychological, and primal in its terrors, A Horrible Way to Die is a landmark modern take on the serial killer sub-genre. Buy it!
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