By Thomas Puhr.
Wicker Man retreads can be a lot of fun…. but Bousman lacks the compositional sophistication of an Ari Aster or the confrontational gender politics of a LaBute.”
A husband and wife vacationing in Thailand wake up bruised, muddied, and lacking any memory of how they got back to their Airbnb room. Video footage from a cell phone reveals a wild night of heavy drinking. The last ferry to the mainland leaves in a few hours, they’ve lost their passports, and, to make matters worse, a hurricane is headed straight toward the unnamed island at which they’re staying.
In this opening scene, Darren Lynn Bousman’s Death of Me (2020) feels more like a humorless riff on The Hangover (2009) than a folk horror tale. But then the video yields a startling revelation: in a moment of inexplicable violence, the husband breaks his wife’s neck and buries her in a shallow grave (never mind how the phone, dropped on the ground, managed to perfectly capture all of this). And yet, here they are, and she is very much alive. It’s an admittedly engrossing setup, one which would feel right at home in The Twilight Zone but quickly devolves into a low-rent knockoff of The Wicker Man (1973).
Don’t get me wrong: Wicker Man retreads can be a lot of fun (Wake Wood, 2009), arguably even great (Midsommar, 2019). Hell, Neil LaBute’s ill-conceived remake of Robin Hardy’s original at least had a reliably unhinged Nicolas Cage going for it. But Bousman lacks the compositional sophistication of an Ari Aster or the confrontational gender politics of a LaBute. His background is mostly in so-called “torture porn” (he cranked out back-to-back-to-back Saw entries between 2005 and 2007). Such films are not about artistry, but efficiency. Indeed, despite some genuinely unsettling imagery, the prolific director mostly settles for the queasy-cam tactics associated with the aforementioned franchise. Extreme cinematic gore has its perverse aesthetic pleasures (Aster has more or less made a career out of it), but you won’t find anything like that here.
It doesn’t help that the central couple, Christine (Maggie Q, who deserves far better roles than this) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth, who seems visibly uncomfortable in his ill-fitting skinny jeans), lack anything resembling chemistry. Neil is a lunkheaded photojournalist; shortly after watching the video of him killing Christine, he ditches her at a café to nab some photos of the islanders. When he disembowels himself with a fishing knife, it comes as something of a relief to have him out of the way.
Writers Ari Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish don’t bother giving Christine much of a backstory, either. There’s some talk of her struggling to have a child (it’s discomfiting that this would be the sole background information relegated to her by an all-male writing team), but such scant “character development” is thrown into the dialogue merely to foreshadow an obvious plot twist. Where the protagonists’ personalities are one-dimensional, the secondary characters’ are nonexistent. Most of the islanders do little more than sneer ominously, and Death of Me walks in the same footsteps as 2015’s No Escape, which similarly exploited Western fears of the “primitive” Eastern Other.
There are a few enjoyable elements to which we may cling; some images and performances point to a far stranger, more atmospheric genre exercise. Consider a scene wherein Christine, frantically searching for her husband, hallucinates seeing his remains fusing with the low-tide muck. Throughout the film, she’s haunted by visions of faceless women, their mouths sewn shut and eyes covered with scar tissue. These unsettling figures call, oddly enough, Macbeth’s three Weird Sisters to mind. Alex Essoe, who made an effective Wendy Torrance in Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep (2019), does what she can with a fairly minor role. Crediting her miraculous recovery from pancreatic cancer to the island’s supposed healing qualities, she’s willing to do anything to ensure that this secluded paradise continues to thrive. You could make a pretty good guess, I’m sure, as to what sacrifice is deemed necessary to spare the island from the approaching storm.
At a forgiving 94 minutes, Death of Me moves at a brisk pace, and I must admit I never quite felt bored with it. I’ll take a messy, ridiculous B-movie over most of 2020’s other VOD horror releases, be it the self-serious, tedious Centigrade or the faux-edgy Spree. But those looking forward to Bousman’s delayed Saw spinoff, the Chris Rock-led Spiral, may want to stay away from this one. It doesn’t inspire much confidence in Bousman’s ability to do more than artlessly station the camera in front of some gross effects. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what fans expect from Spiral, and this director seems more than happy to oblige.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.