The premise of A Horrible Way to Die is something that intrigued me the moment I heard about it in late 2010: a woman is living in the wake of a failed relationship with a man she discovered was a serial killer, struggling to put her life back together and learn to trust her own instincts again, when he escapes from jail and comes after her. I like the very personal, intimate way that Wingard focuses on both of his leads, which also serves the constraints of the no-budget film-making.
But Wingard makes a few choices that really stop his film short of delivering on its premise. The first is the often out-of-focus, constantly moving camera, which was more potentially nausea-inducing here than even in something like Cloverfield. I think it’s a technique that is theoretically appropriate here, but Wingard goes so overboard with it, keeping his focus and framing so rough, that it overwhelms everything else about the film. Distracting isn’t even a strong enough criticism, as the extremity of the technique in this particular case make the film borderline inaccessible. The second bad choice Wingard makes is to shoot his two leads so similarly. Roving, out-of-focus camerawork aside, Wingard makes the choice to shoot much of his film in close-up. It’s an extreme technique often underutilized, but one that can really draw the audience in to the world of a character and help us feel close to the person. But using this for both characters becomes too much of one technique, and as an audience we end up often lost and without a point of anchor. It probably would have better served Wingard to take more of an objective, distanced, third-person perspective for the scenes focusing on serial killer Garrick Turrell.
The third thing Wingard does that sabotages the strength of his story is to spend so much time lost in Sarah’s point-of-view without exploring her character more than he does. She was drunk for most of her relationship with Garrick before discovering his crimes and sending him to jail; now her world is a minimum wage existence with most of her free time occupied by AA meetings. She’s had the realization that if she hadn’t been so self-medicated during their time together, she would have been more aware of her surroundings and might not have spent so long in such a pointless and deluded relationship. Yet, even in her sobriety, Sarah is still incredibly lost and out of touch with the world around her. She feels ethereal, barely tethered to the physical, trying to grasp handholds of reality through the veil of an existence resembling a fever dream. She’s not really aware of certain things going around her, and her theory that she might have been more aware without the alcohol in this case seems to be avoidant of a larger personality issue. This is something worth exploring, and both the narrative and the subtext and themes of Horrible even seem to beg for it. But it’s not a place that Wingard seems cognizant of or able to address. And it’s not helped by the way the very intimate filming style overwhelms the entire narrative and causes the audience to be as adrift as Sarah.
AJ Bowen, as Garrick finds a genuine pathos and deep grief in his performance that adds a whole other side to his character and, as a result, the entire film. This is someone who is compelled to murder and kill, but who is as sickened by his actions as everyone else, who is consumed by his empathy for his victims. Garrick feels like a character unable to escape the prison created by previously-made choices, with every consequential choice made simply adding to the mass of the rolling snowball. That growing mass is his own damnation, and Garrick lives under the weight of it. Amy Seimetz as Sarah is a tougher nut to crack; it’s difficult to say whether Sarah’s lost nebulousness is a conscious choice or the result of a limited range as an actress. Either way, the fact that the performance is so one-note and without much color does represent a bit of a problem, and it’s something that could have been alleviated by either opening up the scope of her world or by further plumbing its depths.
Joe Swanberg, himself an independent, no-budget director responsible for such films as LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Nights and Weekends, turns in a very credible, confident, yet understated performance as Kevin, a potential new love interest for Sarah as she struggles to put herself back together. As the film reaches its third act, it takes a bit of a narrative twist that’s not completely unexpected. It’s nevertheless a fairly clever jog for the plot to take, but it’s not well-served by the stylistic choices or the paper-thin narrative. It’s also hammered too hard in counterpoint to the rest of the film, and plays as over-the-top. It’s obviously intended to have a certain kind of effect, but Wingard is still finding his voice with Horrible and doesn’t really strike the balance to be successful with it. Horrible is a curious experiment and an exercise for a talented director to stretch and grow; it makes for an interesting watch, and has some clever intentions, but it just keeps narrowly missing its marks. What really does it in, however, is the minimal, too-lean narrative and that wretched camerawork.