Your average student film is pretty much the most boring thing ever; somehow even more boring than your typical Emerson Lake & Palmer concert. They usually revolve around a subject that might signify “importance” to a film professor (think footage of homeless people), and are shot in such a way as to show off what the student has learned ins school (ooooh, a dolly shot!). Maybe they’ll throw in a shot of a kid holding a flower because, you know, innocence or whatever.
However, Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) is a student filmmaker who wants to go against the grain and do something EXCITING and WHAM BANG. Specifically, a documentary that chronicles the life of someone trying to kill themselves. Yeah, maybe “exciting” is the wrong word, but it certainly sounds interesting and maybe not-coma-inducing. You know, that plot description reminds me of the plot description for Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside. According to IMDB, the film chronicles the “life story of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro, who fought a 30-year campaign to win the right to end his life with dignity”. Now, I know this will make me sound like a cold hearted bastard, and keep in mind that I haven’t seen the film and I’m sure it’s wonderful, and I’m sure that the true story, of which I know nothing about, is inspiring, but that plot description made me laugh out loud. I mean, that’s a lot of living for somebody trying to kill themselves. I doubt I could fight for a cause for more than a couple days before I gave up, and I’m not even suicidal.
Needless to say, the Los Angeles film school that Gilbert is attending has a problem funding a movie where the lead actor is hired because he’s willing to kill himself on camera. Gilbert is shocked and incensed that the “man” is holding him down as an “artist”. You know, if someone dropped a couple of F-bombs into their final thesis, they’re not going to graduate, and you think you can kill a guy on camera and have it sneak under the radar? Really dude?
Of course, he decides to drop out of school to finish his masterwork. Stick to your guns brah. It should be noted that A Necessary Death is a faux-documentary about the making of Gilbert’s faux-documentary. If you get confused into thinking this stuff is real while reading this review, just keep repeating to yourself: it’s only a movie-within-a-movie, only a movie-within-a-movie, only…
So, how to go about finding a fresh suicide victim that also looks good on camera? Well, you take an ad out, of course! A wave of people jump at the chance to “star” in the film, so Gilbert has to conduct interviews in order to weed out people to find the one true subject worthy of being weeded out. Unfortunately, most of the candidates that Gilbert interviews are not remotely believable (considering this shit is supposed to be real). There is one woman that mentions that she’s been getting into arguments with her husband lately. You know, maybe I’m warm hearted, but I refuse to believe that a woman would be reading the newspaper and see an ad looking for someone to star in a prolonged snuff film and think to themselves “Hey! An opportunity! You know, my marriage sucks anyway, so why not? Besides, I’ll try anything once!” Bullshit.
If this sounds morally dubious, I completely agree (I mean, within the reality of the film). If you already know somebody who is completely locked into killing themselves, you can film a documentary about them and see what happens. Maybe they kill themselves, maybe they don’t, but you try to remain at arm’s length. However, if you invite someone to star in a documentary about them killing themselves, made with the exclusive understanding that the ending is pre-determined, you have now become part of the process of their decision to kill themselves.
Gilbert defends himself with a tossed off line, saying that he is not for suicide, but rather the option to commit suicide. However, people usually commit suicide because their life sucks, and once they are being filmed, knowing that people will see this “star vehicle” after they’re gone, their life completely changes. The movie and the life of that person (and subsequent death) become inextricably linked. Besides the potential legal problems that might arise, I don’t believe a sensitive young film student would drop out of film school to pursue such a morally repugnant (not to mention ghastly) project, no matter how anxious he is to make it in showbusiness. Gilbert only seems to show guilt when people find out he is trying to sell the ongoing documentary to a T.V. station before it is finished. Where is the line between art and, like, making money and stuff? Isn’t the purpose of art, like, to provoke or whatever? Oh shut up.
Backtracking a bit, the eventual leading man in Gilbert’s progressive documentary is a dude with a terminal brain tumor named Matt (Matt Tilley). He only has a few short weeks before he’ll be bed ridden in horrible pain, so he wants to off himself anyway before things get too hairy. He doesn’t want to break the news to his mom, as his father died the same way, so he decides he wants to be part of a documentary that helps explain to his mother why he will eventually kill himself. You can see why a conversation like that would ruin a family brunch at IHOP. Oh, he’s also well spoken, British, and lives in the greater Los Angeles area. You know what, he’s a little TOO perfect, but hey, there’s no movie without the guy, so I’ll let it slide. As they say, the show must go on.
The movie works during the scenes where we get to see Matt go through the ritual of preparing for death, whether picking out his casket, or deciding what to do with his CD collection, or trying to find a good building to jump off of. That last bit is sort of important; you don’t want to screw up your own suicide so badly that you end up paralyzed and unable to attempt suicide again. You’ll have the rest of your life to just sit around and think about what a fuck up you are. Once you get past the convenience factor, Matthew Tilley’s performance as Matt makes you really believe this guy is suffering from a brain tumor and resigned to dying. There’s even one great scene where he visits his mother, and she spends time with her son thinking she is part of a “day in the life” documentary, completely unaware that her son plans to kill himself in a couple weeks. However, even this central character is ruined when he is forced into a subplot that plays like a clip from The Real World (seriously).
What surrounds this emotional core is a film that is not only poorly thought out, but completely disengenous. I can handle ineptitude, but don’t pretend that your movie is about life and death and then, on the other hand, hit us with a poorly made faux-documentary exploitation movie. Of course, there’s the requisite forced twist ending that might be the most cynical moment of all (and I don’t mean “cynical” in a cool Taxi Driver kind of way; I mean it shows contempt for the audience). There are even the requisite montages and faux-important dialogue scenes you find in real student films, but this time as part of a fake documentary about a fake documentary. It just goes to show that, just because you make a movie with a clever found footage gimmick, that doesn’t mean you are exempt from having to make a decent movie. Truth and reality are not merely postures; they have to be earned.