“A Horrible Way To Die” tells two parallel stories. One of them is rooted in the fear of the mundane, following Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a recovering alcoholic trying to put her life back together. Her alcoholic past can directly be attributed to an abusive relationship, one that had borderline stripped her of her identity. She may have a job, a car, and a house, but Sarah is a ghost, invisible to those around her, floating through life without vice, but also without virtue. And why would there be either? Director Adam Wingard takes a vampiric attention to detail, featuring a world of almost constant nighttime or downshifted cloudiness. The walls of her home are drenched in shadow, her AA meetings are in barren basements. The outdoor world seems to exist only to provide empty parking lots. You’d be forgiven for expecting a twist that reveals she’s been dead this whole time.
The other strand of this narrative concerns Garrick (A.J. Bowen), who we slowly realize is the abusive ex in question. It does seem like Sarah has made the right decision, as we meet Garrick during a particularly violent prison escape. Garrick seems to be struggling similarly to Sarah, in that he no longer understands his purpose. He doesn’t kill out of joy, but rather out of systematic compulsion. Not killing people seems like a completely irrational idea, and so he kills, his unremarkable features, (a patchy black beard and wandering eyes) in a doughy perma-scowl.
Garrick isn’t just any serial killer, of course. As the news informs us, he’s generated a large following on social networking sites. The significance of this is lost on him, as his behavior has ceased to be an emotional response and is simply an instinctual one. When he kidnaps a hostage, his gentle, even uncertain words suggest she won’t be in danger, but they offer a stark contrast to what we later see is her horribly mutilated body. So graphic are these murder scenes that it feels as if Garrick isn’t acting out physically, but spiritually. It’s positively Cronenbergian — the physical manifestation of this anger and frustration is more frightening than any on-screen effect or prosthetic.
These two plot strands are destined to clash, but the film keeps you guessing as to how this might occur. Sarah finds a kindred spirit in Kevin (Joe Swanberg), a cherubic fellow AA member who provides, at least, a sexual partner, and at most, someone to help her cope with the loneliness that is recovery. “A Horrible Way To Die,” as lurid as its title may be, is remarkably compassionate towards those who walk the line of sobriety completely alone.
Garrick, meanwhile, follows a carrot on a stick. He’s coming for Sarah, though for what we are uncertain. For her, the recovery seems genuine. For him, the escape is a relapse, the detox of prison purifying his desires. The old adage is true for Garrick: hell is other people, and he’s drawn to the flame. While he leaves behind a trail of blood, flashbacks suggest there was some tenderness between the two, and the hope that he’s coming to make amends flickers like a candle inside a dark attic.
“A Horrible Way To Die” is a familiar type of independent picture, one that works almost entirely on atmosphere, in lieu of details. Character motivations are purposely sketchy and minimal to better allow the audience entrance into a fractured headspace. As per genre demands, however, this leads to an ending that’s less mood piece and more plot dump, as the answers spill out like a lazily-written “Lost” Wikipedia entry. It’s a misstep in that it feels the need to clarify exactly what type of film this is, and carries none of the confidence of the earlier moments. What’s more, it’s clearly a horror movie ending, but it’s nowhere near as scary as the ennui of these two characters during the film’s first and second acts, their desire to belong to something, to be deemed people of value. “A Horrible Way To Die” at least lives up to its title in those final moments, but otherwise, it’s a horrible way to end a movie. [C+]