An escaped murderer is in pursuit of his ex-girlfriend, who has fled to start a new life in a small town.
The first thing your gonna notice when you sit back to watch A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is the camerawork. To call it restless would be one hell of an understatement. Excluding anything directed by Peter Greengrass, (who's constant overuse of shaking camera pisses me off and ruins every single film he directs), I'm actually very tolerant of the technique. In fact, I rather enjoy it if its used accordingly. In AHWTD its used constantly and is occasionally so distracting that it defeats its intent and actually removes you from the film rather than immerses you. Even for me, this pushed the boundaries a little. Sometimes it's beautiful, lending a naturalism to the film that otherwise would be missing, and I'll go out on a limb and say that in the grand scheme of things its benificial to the story being told; yet it can pull you out of the film, and it can frustrate you, when all you wanna do is focus on the performances. If your in any way anti-shaky-cam, your going to have a hard time getting through this one. Adam Wingard has took a real risk with his decision to use this technique. It's going to alienate a sizable number of viewers, yet if you can look past it theres a whole hell of a lot to enjoy.
There are three tales going on here. Two set within the present, (a tentative love story, and a serial killer on the run), and a flashback-driven look into the killers past, (and his previous relationship with the lead). All of these plot strands work very hard at drawing the veiwer into the characters psyche's. AHWTD is, first and foremost, a very strong character piece, and the three central performances are brilliant. Authenticity to the human condition and stark honesty are the order of the day here. Amy Seimetz is pitch perfect as the recovering alcoholic taking her first timid steps back into the world, and Joe Swanberg is endearing and subdued as her potential salvation. AJ Bowen, as the notorious serial killer, is haunted and haunting, and plays his part with a genuine and refreshing sense of remorse and who and what he is. This is a film of performances, and in this regard it doesn't let down. There's real tenderness here, occasionally found in the most fascinating and unexpected places.
Helped along by its sparse and concise script, the interaction between characters is both believable and genuinely touching. And as I mentioned before, there really are three stories going on. Only towards the films slightly rushed climax do the three strands fit together as a whole, and it will take some degree of patience for many viewers to get there. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is a very strange beast. It falls into a number of horror/thriller tropes, yet never feels like either a horror or a thriller. It's pace borders on languid, and there is rarely any sense of real threat until the final moments. Its difficult to surmise the directors intent. Is this an analysis of the Horror/Thriller movie, or is it a flawed attempt at creating a suspenseful thrill ride? That will be left up to the viewer. Some will find the pace too much to handle. Some will find the almost dreamlike nature of the movie too distracting from the tale being told. Like all cinema, its in the eye of the beholder to cast judgement. From where I stand, the sparsity of the script, the subtleties of the performances and the total lack of anything close to a conventional soundtrack indicate that the director is following his own aesthetic, and has no concern with any of the conventions of mainstream Horror.
That goes for the death scenes too. The film is violent, but is far from gory. Most kills are off-screen, and the ones we see, while visceral, are masked by the ever present blurry/shaky camera. Were this a slasher, this would be unthinkable. Hell, were this even a thriller this would be a point of consternation. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE though, seems to be neither of these things. To complain about the lack of gore seems redundant here. This is a study of the effects of alcoholism and a look at regret, masquerading as a genre piece.
I went in expecting a slasher and/or torture thrill-ride, (based on the title alone), and came out slightly perplexed at what I'd just sat through. I have no idea whether the film is a success or a failure, what I do know for sure is that it could have been great, and ultimately falls short. Its still a very worthwhile film, flaws and all. It has powerful performances, a strong story and an excellent, (though rushed), finale that's worth the wait. Its well above average, but even for those who can stomach the intrusive camerawork, it's still so much less than it could have been. Check it out, but don't set your hopes to high.
6.5 Soulful Serial Killers out of 10