As Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) snuggles up close to his girlfriend Sarah (Amy Seimetz) in bed, he asks a hypothetical question: “If you knew you were going to die, and you could choose how… what would you choose?”. She innocently replies she’d overdose on morphine to which Garrick mocking comments that’s a bit pussy as he’d want to die fighting as a kamikaze pilot. The intensity of exploring death seems to shadow Garrick’s mind as we discover he mutilates and tortures his victims for no real reason except to satisfy his urge.
The story is told over two parallel arcs. The first follows Garrick’s journey after he manages to escape from prison and hitchhikes he’s way across the American midwest with naive, young women who meet their ultimate deaths. His reasons why are only explained at the very end. The second arc explores Sarah’s new life, in a new town after giving Garrick up to the Police upon the discovery of his kill room in a rental garage. She signs up to Alcoholics Anonymous after drowning her tormented memories with Jack Daniels and is congratulated by her group for being sober for three months – especially by Kevin (Joe Swanberg) who’s been interested in Sarah for a while. By day Sarah keeps herself busy as a dental hygienist and her solitary nights are cured by Kevin’s warmth and relationship – until of course the final act which twists everything you’ve been made to believe. Most of the film’s horrible executions and violence were kept from view of the audience however the uncomfortable torture sequence in the end holds nothing back and you’re left with a powerfully haunting impression of what people are capable of.
Adam Wingard’s third outing as a director is an impressive one. After carrying out some research on serial killers, Wingard asked his writer friend Simon Barrett if he could take his findings and churn out a screenplay to present a different kind of killer from what we’ve seen so far. Have they achieved this? In truth – not quite. Serial killer stories are very limited by any account and the only thing to differentiate them is their method of execution. By definition, they have little or no moral and would be devoid of empathy. In fact in one scene Garrick is in the car with a young girl who has just helped him cross a police check point. The girl is terribly frightened and all she asks from him is to see her family again however Garrick barely contemplates her request before he slits her throat. He then chops her body in a hotel bathroom, fills a black bag with her organs and then casually throws the bag over into a rubbish cart. Barely a moment passes by before he eyes his next victim and her attractive car – proving he cares little about his victims and uses their resources as a means to an end. Is that really any different from another serial killer? Even the ‘twist’ element at the end really doesn’t compel the audience enough to believe he’s any different.
What should be commended however are the performances from all three principle characters. Seimetz portrays Sarah convincingly as a torn, psychologically disturbed woman who clearly has trouble dealing with her past but succumbs to the convincing arms of Kevin played by Swanberg, who gives, what is considered, a neutral performance until a smile in the last act strips his cool exterior for a more sinister one. The star of the three has to be Bowen for his restrained yet frightening portrayal of Garrick; Bowen delivered very little dialogue but executes his performance with great menace that it instantly induces the audience to fear him. Garrick is devilishly cold and thus sends shiver down you spine – you do not want to look him in the eye.
Take no notice of the comments that it’s a different take on a typical serial killer story. Because it’s not. What it is however, is a compelling journey of what a man would do for love and carrying out what he’s good to find her. The performances from an indie cast are exceptional and while the budget clearly restrained certain set pieces – the cinematography, camera work and direction are achieved with amazing results. Above all, this is storytelling at it’s best. Barrett’s fragmented chronological screenplay, often reminiscent of Chris Nolan’s The Pestige, keeps the suspense high and rewards the viewers with an ending they never saw coming.
A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is released on DVD & Blu-ray on Mar 19, 2012 in the UK.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha