Familiar faces find themselves stranded and confused in an unfamiliar land. A new film and new style from director Darren Lynn Bousman, which is effective but somewhat problematic.
When I had the opportunity to review the new film directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, I jumped at it: I’m a fan of the Saw films (well, except for Jigsaw), and he carried forward the style of the first film with ease. Death of Me is a new direction for him, which can be refreshing.
Neil (Luke Hemsworth, Westworld) and Christine (Maggie Q, Designated Survivor, Fantasy Island) have reached the end of a holiday on an island off the coast of Thailand, where Neil has been taking photographs to show the travel publisher he works for. Apparently hungover, they wake up late for their journey home to the USA, and unable to remember the night before. Not only that, but they no longer have their passports, there’s a typhoon on their way, and there’s a long video on Neil’s phone showing him strangle his beloved Christine to death. Death of Me is suitably paranoid and freaky: clearly, Christine isn’t dead, but she has unexplained bruises, neither of them knows what to believe, and both are stuck many miles from home.
That’s just the opening fifteen minutes. From there, Death of Me takes the viewer on a mystery tour of a seedy Thai town with its undeveloped tourist industry and hidden traditions; and at the same time watching the couple try to understand the video they saw, and figure out how to get home, while hopefully maintaining their (now strained) relationship.
Maggie Q is most believable during her spells as panicky and confused Christine. Until then, she is somewhat stiff and polished; which worked in Stalker but can’t be expected to work for every role. Hemsworth presents Neil as reasonably intelligent though without much depth or breadth and plays him well in that way. Their chemistry comes and goes (well it would in the circumstances), but for the most part their characters’ reactions and decisions make sense: they do what they can to remain pragmatic as the only reliable route to navigate the topsy-turvy scene their vacation has turned into.
The whole film, virtually every minute, is creepy and chaotic; either in its content, its visual style, or its pace. There is barely a moment to figure out what’s going on, and I can completely sympathize with Christine’s spinning head. In terms of the bodily anxiety that a horror film can produce, Bousman has still got it. From the moment the couple sees the bizarre video, distrust is sown – especially for Christine – and it’s difficult for both viewer and protagonists to tell what is authentic in their experiences and what is a hallucination or a ploy.
Death of Me was written by committee Ari Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish, and although for the most part, it is a dizzying and tense ride, there are several scenes that I thought back on straight after wondering if something had been cut that would have joined the dots a bit better. A few minor elements are either red herrings or unexplained, and the ending is not terribly satisfying, but that’s OK: I’m used to horror films with more excitement than sense, and besides, a real couple in that situation would surely go down many blind alleys searching for answers and whatever else they need to get their flight home; not everything would make sense to them either.
What was a problem to me though was the way the plot in general, especially through Neil and Christine’s eyes, treated the people of this part of Thailand. It took me right back to Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, in which Haitian people were presented as so alien to the white incomers (and filmmakers) as to be primitive, heathen, and subservient. The indigenous Thai people (extras and speaking parts alike) in Death of Me have customs and rituals that the visiting couple are quite patronizing about, talking about local “superstition” instead of “belief” or “faith”; and as distrust and prejudice blend, they become less inclined to understand the people they talk to, as though they are either alien or repulsive. I can forgive this attitude in a film from nearly ninety years ago, but Death of Me is a contemporary film, with a contemporary setting. I do not appreciate genre films telling me to be scared of people from other cultures.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.