Adam Wingard’s 2010 film stands as an impressive achievement; intense performances, a restrained and understated script, and a twisted, thrilling tale. But undermining all of this, a few creative decisions threaten to derail the film entirely. Does the remainder withstand this onslaught? Is the powerful substance more noteworthy than the alienating style?
Set in Midwestern America, the film is a taut horror-thriller concerning a recovering alcoholic coming to terms with a past relationship which was not what it seemed. At an alcoholic support group, Sarah (Amy Seimetz) meets fellow troubled soul Kevin (Joe Swanberg), who asks for a date. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend, serial killer Garrick (A J Bowen), has violently absconded from ‘gaol’ and is making a viscera-strewn path back home.
Sarah’s relationship and non-drinking are going well, and it appears she has turned her life around. Then her past collides with her present in a wholly unexpected way. What follows presents us with a unique and daring twist on the serial killer genre. Past and present are melded without confusion as we observe firsthand how Sarah and Garrick once shared a loving relationship.
And all of this would make for a simply-told, solid film were it not for the directorial style. Shot entirely with a constantly swaying hand-held camera, even the most motion-sick resistant will find themselves challenged not to succumb to giddy nausea. The lens never looks like it is more than a few centimetres from the actors faces. The depth of field is so shallow that background detail is lost in a blurred haze. Establishing shots are few, landscapes are non-existent and no opportunity is missed to de-focus or pan away from the action. This is a great shame because such a self-conscious attempt at disorientating the viewer detracts from the naturalistic performances.
If you think you can maintain your concentration through these distancing techniques then A Horrible Way to Die is an un-sensationalist story with a shocking twist. Just don’t expect to walk away without a certain amount of vertigo.