Death of Me. 2020.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
Screenplay by Ari Margolis, James Morley III, & David Tish.
Starring Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth, Alex Essoe, Kelly B. Jones, & Kat Ingkarat.
Benetone Films/13 Films/Dobre Films
Rated R / 94 minutes
★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains
BIG OLE SPOILERS!
I felt like Darren Lynn Bousman was on a roll after really enjoying Abattoir and St. Agatha. I’m a fan of the Saw series, up until the last couple, and I’m not particularly jazzed about Spiral, if I’m frank. Nevertheless, I liked Bousman’s contributions to the franchise— haters be damned! He’s a director I do like, in spite of being disappointed by a few of his films. Unfortunately I can’t say I’m a Death of Me fan. It has so much potential, though. There are too many cooks with a screenplay that feels of three different writers on a page, rather than three writers writing as one unit, and the story’s plot ends up suffering, feeling aimless at the end.
Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) are a married couple vacationing off the coast of Thailand on a gorgeous island. They wake from a night of hard drinking at a local bar. Except things seem a little strange for a drunken evening, like dirt and blood under Neil’s fingernails, and marks on Christine’s body. When they discover a video on Neil’s phone of him strangling Christine to death before burying her in a makeshift grave, their vacation becomes a true nightmare. Not long later the married couple get stuck on the island when a historic storm hits.
Bousman’s direction is great, he does what he can with the material. He gets a great performance from the always intriguing Maggie Q, too. Though I may not like the film there are things in it which work, few though they may be, and it’s all about a reading of the story as depicting the process of losing oneself as an individual in marriage. One majorly distracting element, in spite of Maggie Q’s presence, is that the screenplay inadvertently plays into worn out Orientalist tropes depicting Americans under siege by threatening Others in a foreign land. The story feels like it belongs in a horror movie 15-20 years ago, not something worthy of today.
American fear of foreigners is a convention in horror that’s been around for a century of film history. It really took off in the mainstream with Eli Roth’s Hostel. And while people can hate the film all they want, part of the plot involves local kids helping the American protagonist escape a villainous organisation, many of whom aren’t local to the foreign setting. Anyway, I digress. Hostel spawned more of these films in the early to mid-2000s with stuff like Turistas always stressing: Americans better watch out, or the scary people overseas will get ’em!
Death of Me oddly takes a step backwards in time by evoking a sense of Orientalism in the depiction of an American couple being terrorised at the hands of ‘scary foreigners.’ Even the local doctor uses the couple’s nationality against them. He dismisses the couple’s video of what happened during their drunken night by saying it’s a fake Hollywood production, and Neil insists it’s a “real video … not Hollywood.”
What gets to me most about the Orientalist strain throughout is how the plot veers off into fear of the American woman being impregnated by a foreign Other. In one scene that Christine first believes is a dream, but is actually horrifying reality, she’s held down on a table and dead, foreign faces with sewn up mouths/eyes spread her legs then put some awful thing inside her. A truly, unnecessarily graphic moment that makes the already existing Orientalism at work feel uglier. Also plays metaphorically as the idea of the nation being infiltrated, national security penetrated as America’s invaded by foreign influence overseas. It’s a troubling strain in the screenplay. I don’t think any of these writers were TRYING to say this, that doesn’t negate an obvious and problematic political reading.
“Why leave paradise?”
What little works in Death of Me is a major allegory. Christine’s experience is that of a person losing a sense of their individual self after becoming a spiritual pair with their partner in marriage. Specifically in the film it’s a woman losing her individual self, a greater allegory of the patriarchal societal role placed upon women within the bounds of traditional marriage. Christine literally has to die and be buried, then resurrected as a new person— the woman must watch a part of herself die in order to be seen as the proper wife that the patriarchy, or here, the cult desires.
Death of Me as a title alone reflects the idea of the individual’s death. In the film this is doubly so for women, who get sacrificed for the greater good of the island community. The island cult sacrificing pregnant women is an allegory for patriarchal society’s use of a woman’s body as incubator and a source of pleasure; the real world’s powered by women’s biological exploitation, same as the society on this small island. And in the end, Christine becomes the maker of her own fate by giving herself over willingly to the self’s death in marriage. She could have taken the last boat off the island before the storm and chose not to, ultimately what leaves her to a destiny of the cult’s making. Following the allegory, Christine has entirely lost her individuality in marriage, to the point she forsakes her own survival if she can’t survive as a couple. She becomes the patriarchy’s vision of a perfect wife, albeit at the price of her own life.Death of Me is, above all else, disappointing. Bousman is a good director in my mind. He did what was possible with the material, it’s the story and plot that destroy the film, not his directing. Maggie Q drags the film’s corpse across the finish line. She’s the one consistent and great piece of the puzzle here. Neither she nor Bousman can elevate this story beyond the screenplay’s issues. No actor-director combination could do that because there are simply too many problems.
I try not to judge a film by where it doesn’t go. No film exists to be what I expect— I can’t fault a piece of art for not adhering to my vision. The problem is, Death of Me could be such a compelling, unique allegory about losing the individual self in the pairing of marriage. The way the screenplay squanders that by falling into Orientalism, which only further muddles the concept, is too unfortunate to ignore. There’s a diamond in the rough. It’s really just too rough to bother digging through for that diamond.