Death of Me opens with a killer premise that grabs you by the throat. From there, it proceeds to gradually squander all the potential of that premise, until you're left with what is essentially a variation on one of the greatest horror movies of all time. (To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you which classic I'm referring to.) At multiple points, I kept wishing that the picture would rewind itself, get back to the core premise, and stop going down such weird roads. In trying to over-explain the conundrum the lead characters face, the potency of the concept gets lost.
Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) are a married couple vacationing on an island off Thailand. They awaken one morning with no memory of what happened the night before. Christine is inexplicably filthy. A check of the old cell phone produces pictures from the lost night, along with a video of them drinking at a local bar. Also on that video, Neil clearly strangles Christine in front of their bungalow, snaps her neck, and buries her in a shallow grave. (That explains the dirt she's covered in.) If he murdered her, though, how can she still be alive?
Hooky right? Death of Me promises to be one of those “How can this be happening?” horror movies, like Us, The Ring, or It Follows. After the first fifteen minutes, it becomes clear that the story is going to take a somewhat xenophobic trajectory. The people in a foreign land, you see, have bizarre voodoo-like customs, and they're all in cahoots. This sort of thing can be effective when really delved into, as was the case with Ari Aster's Midsommar. Here, the specifics of what the island's inhabitants are up to feels rushed through and designed to play off fears of foreigners.
What we want is for Christine and Neil to deal with the confusion of that video, to find clues that build to a compelling explanation for the mystery of how/why he killed her. Death of Me becomes less about that marital betrayal and more about the people of the island, their history, and what they're trying to do. Put another way, the focus shifts from the personal story of the central couple to the bigger conspiracy they're caught up in. The beauty of a picture like The Ring was that it stayed with the lead character as she looked for a way to avoid the imminent death brought on by watching a cursed videotape. It was a story about her. Death of Me should be a story about them, yet it tosses aside that intimacy.
There are a few good points. Maggie Q gives an effective performance, conveying the terror Christine feels at discovering she's in the middle of something very, very bad. Director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III and IV) stages several shocking sequences, including a disembowelment, with eerie style. He absolutely knows how to get your pulse racing a little bit. Atmospheric cinematography makes the isolation of the island palpable, which is another plus.
It's the screenplay that causes Death of Me to disappoint. As the plot goes on, the contrivances pile up to almost absurd extremes. The engaging part of the film deals with a husband and wife trying to emotionally sort out something they took part in that seems impossible. All the movie's efforts to create a grand justification for that cell phone video take away from the human story. The bigger it gets, the smaller the impact it delivers.
Note: Death of Me will be available In Theatres, On Demand and Digital October 2nd.
out of four
Death of Me is rated R for violence, gore, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.