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Horrible Way to Die, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Three characters in a blur."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: I don't want genre filmmaking to become a paint-by-numbers affair, where we as an audience rejoice at basic competence and filmmakers strive to replicate a winning formula. Crime, horror, and the like can be innovative and done with artistry, not just a bit a flourish. That said, I spent a lot of time during "A Horrible Way to Die" wishing that director Adam Wingard would stop screwing around with the damn camera and trust in a good story and cast.

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is starting to get her life turned around in a new town. She's not outgoing, but gets on well enough with the staff of the diner where she works as a waitress. She's committed but reticent in the AA meetings she attends, where she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg), a nice, good-looking guy who offers a ride home and would like to see her again. As that relationship is starting, serial killer Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) escapes from prison and starts making his way across the country, blazing a trail of blood in Sarah's general direction.

As Wingard and writer Simon Barrett start mixing in flashbacks, the connection between the two threads soon becomes clear, but the film is not entirely about Sarah's past coming back to haunt her. A Horrible Way to Die is also about addiction and compulsion; just as Sarah and Kevin find themselves joking (but also dead serious) about how the Italian restaurant where they meet for their first date is perhaps a bad idea when they see the walls almost completely covered with wine bottles, Garrick can't seem to resist when an opportunity to kill is placed in front of him. He's not outwardly a maniac, but like an alcoholic, he murders without taking any real pleasure in it, no matter how many lives he literally destroys.

That's a tricky sort of thing to pull off, but Bowen does fairly well by it. We're told Garrick is popular, the sort of prisoner who gets lots of fan mail, and we can see that - he's well-spoken, reasonable, and has a friendly smile; though we know what he is from the beginning, he seems like a reasonable man, even when he's holding a knife to a woman's throat so she'll help him get past a roadblock. He's insane, and dangerous, and and Bowen makes sure that we're always acutely aware of that - we never actually like him - but he makes sure that we see Garrick's magnetism, too. If his addiction was alcohol or drugs rather than serial murder, people might make excuses ("when he's not drinking, he's so sweet...").

Seimetz and Swanberg are just as good on the other side, perfect examples of how trying to do things right one day at a time is not nearly so obviously captivating as acting without restraint. Seimetz, especially, is excellent as a woman who has internalized a great deal of fear - of Garrick and of her own weakness - that clearly colors her attempts to live a normal life, though usually they don't overcome it. It's a quiet but sure performance, hinting at both frailty and strength. Swanberg's character is a simpler one, but he handles it well, and when all three finally get in the same room near the end, the results are surprising and fascinating.

Wingard and Barrett also do a nice job getting us to that point, for the most part - the tentative chemistry between Sarah and Kevin is very nice, scenes meant to be suspenseful are taut and thrilling. Flashbacks are, interestingly, not so much to climactic plot-driving events but to smaller moments, and Wingard stages the violence in a way that conveys both Garrick's disconnection and the actual horrificness of the acts.

But, oh, the cinematography. It has the potential to sharply divide audiences, because as much as Wingard and his crew often choose great shots and light them beautifully, they lean on one device far too much: Many scenes start blurry - maybe with some background object clearly visible - and then have the focus adjusted. It's the sort of thing that can impart great significance when used sparingly, but at points it seems like nearly ever scene starts that way, and that ultimately works against it: Some in the audience will think it's pointlessly arty, others will find that having their attention focused on figuring out just why Wingard did this pulls them away from what's happening. It's often maddening, making the director seem less like an artist bringing more sophistication to a genre film than usual, but a show-off who wants the audience to see just what sort of tricks he has up his sleeve.

It's maddening at times, and in the moment can really obscure what an impressive job of filmmaking "A Horrible Way to Die" is otherwise. After all, work as good as the cast turns in here deserves to be seen.

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originally posted: 04/15/11 11:38:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

4/02/12 Kyle Awesome... slow burner with great ending. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Adam Wingard

Written by
  Simon Barrett

  AJ Bowen
  Joe Swanberg
  Amy Seimetz
  Brandon Carroll
  Lane Hughes

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