Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #356
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 19 August 2011
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 87 minutes
Director: Adam Wingard
Producers: Travis Stevens, Simon Barrett, Kim Sherman
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Special Effects: Mike Strain Jr., Michael Madison Strain
Cinematography: Chris Hilleke, Mark Shelhorse
Score: Jasper Justice Leigh
Editing: Adam Wingard
Studios: Snowfort Pictures, Arable Entertainment, Site B
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Stars: AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Brandon Carroll, Lane Hughes, Holly Voges, Kelsey Munger, Michael Anthony Miller, Whitney Moore, Melissa Boatright, Simon Barrett, Michael J. Wilson, Travis Stevens, Cathe Frank
Suggested Audio Candy
Antonio Vivaldi “The Four Seasons (Winter)”
Adam Wingard is a man who should now be vaguely familiar to you. If nothing else, the words You’re Next should jog the memory. Belonging in the upper echelon of home invasion movies, this mean-spirited family soirée turned awry was one of the best horror films to eventually surface in 2013, after an agonizing two-year wait on the side-lines. He is also an exclusive member of a trope of auteurs and film-makers who have built something of a reputation within the industry in recent years. Ti West, AJ Bowen, Simon Barrett, Joe Swanberg and Wingard himself; all regular faces as they each possess a certain set of skills which even a stony-faced Liam Neeson would soften to. Unified they boast an unblemished record for horror but more recently they have begun to broaden their scope a little farther.
A Horrible Way To Die is, in no way whatsoever, what you would call a horror flick. Bad shit happens, atrocities are committed, folk die, but the true terror comes from the fact that there’s not a single thing that transpires which couldn’t actually happen. It doesn’t dress itself to kill and instead Wingard chooses a washed-out palate to adorn the screen. It is meant to be bleak and his choice of coloration compliments that perfectly. It is also unerringly realistic and this in no small part, due to the performances of its key players. Bowen and Swanberg I shall get to in turn but, in Amy Seimetz, he finds a convincing leading lady to hang his hat on.
Her character’s affections are split between two men who, on the surface, appear worlds apart, and in actuality are worlds apart although for different reasons than first thought. Confused yet? Then how do you think Sarah is feeling. She has been through hell and come through the other side with scars which she wears quite beautifully. Her ex Garrick Turrell (Bowen) is, by all accounts, a bad egg and her blossoming relationship with fellow “bleeder” Kevin (an excellent as always Swanberg) offers her incalculable respite from her woes. But Wingard isn’t interested in bowing to convention and instead his players march to the rhythmic beat of his drum, until which point, as he chooses to whip the rug away from beneath our feet and turn the whole tale on its head.
What he achieves is similar to what great minds like Alan Ball did repeatedly with Six Feet Under; he fleshes each character out when necessary, whatever our pre-conception and, as a result, we’re not sure who we should be rooting for and things become conflicted. This may sound like a negative but, in fact, it is the exact opposite. Bowen has proven time and again that he is one of the fieriest phoenixes on the circuit right now and here he manages to evoke our empathy to such a degree that we wish no harm to befall him. All of this despite the fact that he is culpable of some pretty heinous crimes; now that is intelligent writing. Moreover, it shows just how effortlessly Bowen’s turns resonate with his addressee.
As much as Sarah’s relationship with wild card Kevin is sweetly observed and honest, it his her affiliation with nonchalant killer Garrick which enthuses most. Her psychological trauma is immense but there’s an underlying affection which she can’t seem to shake. We’ve all heard the term “women do love a man who poses a challenge” and there is a certain truth to such a claim but there he has evidently worked far beneath her skin and it is his integrity that provides the aphrodisiac, as opposed to any fits of violence or bad boy exploits. Bowen and Seimetz are a formidable pairing, particularly in the closing moments when finally reunited under far less than ideal circumstances.
One criticism which has been leveled at Wingard involves the shaky camera work and framing issues throughout. I’m convinced that this is intentional and, while admittedly it can be a little distracting from time to time, the glorious sight of Christmas lights blurring into abstraction in the foreground shows just how focused he is on every frame spent. I would suggest it is purposely fluid rather than erratic, the camera imitating the naked eye as it roves freely. Occasional flashbacks to times passed when Sarah and Garrick were still in cahoots are handled well and help paint a picture which is ultimately gifted added poignancy come the unforeseen events of the final third.
It’s the epitome of a slow burner and, alas, it is here that A Horrible Way To Die will split audiences. Those more concerned with character nuances and steady plot development will fall into one camp; while those looking for quick kicks and boundless unpleasentries will invariably make up the other. Personally I sit squarely on the fence; there are times when it meanders for sure, but it is getting to its point and, once it does, I guarantee your heads will be reeling should you have weathered the calm.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Think Nicholas Winding Refn’s noir masterpiece Drive and you should have some idea of what to expect when it comes to punctuated violence. When necessitated, and sparingly so, it hits with the impact of a 40lb splitting maul but all the while Wingard is practicing admirable restraint. It never once lingers and Wingard could never be accused of misogyny; but you’re too transfixed by revelation to look away in disgust anyway.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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