True crime has a habit of slithering its way into cinema on an almost continual basis. The horror genre, for one, is a platform that thrives on it; everything from the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein whom influenced Robert Bloch to write the novelisation of Psycho to the infamous ‘bodies in the barrel’ murders of John Bunting that led to the film Snowtown. The cinematic representation of real life atrocities and the minds of those who commit them, however, is an entirely different factor and rarely one that receives the same amount of care and attention to detail as the often times sensationalistic nature of the media coverage that surrounds them. Too regularly we see the likes of films such as Untraceable, 88 Minutes, Nightstalker and countless others infiltrating the marketplace.
On the contrary, some films choose to take a more sophisticated approach to such subjects, namely Badlands, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Monster and more recently the highly underrated UK independent Tony. Written by rising genre star Simon Barrett, A Horrible Way to Die wears the aforementioned influences on its sleeve whilst also providing its own take on the deteriorating mind of the criminally unhinged to rather poignant effect.
The film tells of Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild her life having escaped past trauma. During her arduous recovery process, Sarah meets a seemingly nice fellow by the name of Kevin (Joe Swanberg) at one of her AA meetings and the two quickly begin a romantic relationship. We are also privy to the life of Garrick Turrell (A J Bowen), a convicted serial killer on the run from the authorities. Eventually it becomes clear that Garrick is searching for Sarah and he is the trauma she’s tried so desperately to escape.
A Horrible Way To Die is one of the most dramatically defined serial killer films in years. It deals with several difficult and confronting aspects of human behaviour and refuses to play coy with any of them, never for a moment judging the motivations or actions of its characters for fear of moralistic chastization. Barrett positions each figure in the story as wholly independent and completely accountable for their own actions and director Adam Wingard makes sure to keep a critical distance at all times with regard to the films’ point of view. This measured yet naturalistic approach provides a level of objectivity and chances for further audience engagement that would have been otherwise unattainable had the story been filtered through the guise of a more exploitative temperament.
The unchronological order in which A Horrible Way to Die is told further heeds the films’ chances for mainstream audience digestibility, another reason why it succeeds as well as it does. Through the use of a drifting timeline that uncovers events both prior to and after the main action of the film, Wingard is able to evoke a sense of narrative disorientation that is unnerving but never frustrating. If anything it compliments the dramatic beats of the story by keeping the viewer on their toes and forever party to horrors occurred and those yet to.
Interestingly, the movie pays much homage to the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement with regard to its visuals, this being of largely improvised photographic coverage and sporadic camera movement in favour of a less staged, polished visage. Intentionally heavy changes in focus, minimal depth of field and an almost voyeuristic placement of the lens help create a sense eavesdropping upon the lives of those onscreen. Wingard takes this to the next step by introducing murder into the equation, making the aesthetic even more palpable and disturbing for the audience. Strong, understated performances by all involved (particularly Bowen, who is making quite the name for himself as the genre's current resident creeper) don't hurt either.
By naïvely defining notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as simple opposing forces unrelated in any way, ideas of what drives man to take on violent behaviour and inflict it upon others immediately become easier to assimilate within the context of a ninety-minute narrative. Not only is this a socially narrow-minded perspective, it greatly undermines film as a valid medium with which to explore complex psychological issues of anger, repression and alienation. A Horrible Way to Die refuses to submit to this common convention and is a far more intelligent and accomplished work because of it. Not for the lighthearted but absolutely recommended.
Dir: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Brandon Carroll
Run Time: 88mins