Directed by Justin Steele
There’s a perfectly fine film somewhere in Death and Cremation that got ruined by a textbook case of what I like to call “indie movie syndrome”. There’s a reason I’ve never been a fan of Sundance-type movies, and this is a prime example why. Only 80 minutes long; yet, one could never call it a brisk 80 minutes. There is a major difference between slow burning and simply being slow. The direction is so low-key that tension is mostly nonexistent and the pacing nothing short of lethargic. There are scenes where you can skip ahead 10-20 seconds at a time and have missed nothing. I can appreciate a thriller that doesn’t resort to cheap thrills, but subtlety needn’t be so damn ponderous.
I had a bad feeling about this one very early on when a completely unnecessary shot of a teenage girl drinking from a water fountain was filmed in slow motion close-up, hanging on it for so long I could only figure that either the writer-director intended this as being a metaphor for something that made sense only to him or this was a just a prime example of a rookie filmmaker needlessly attempting to be stylish. Either or, “indie movie syndrome” all the way.
Stanley is the crossword puzzle-loving proprietor of the town’s crematorium. From the amount of lesions on his face, you’d think he had the plague. His missing teeth only add to the creepy hermit vibe. Hard to believe this man is a serial killer. A serial killer with a cause: he hates bullies. If he sees you cut someone off just to nab a parking space, he might be inclined to run you over with his car. Call him something vulgar to his face and don’t be surprised if he greets you in the alley behind your place of work with a blunt object. Running a crematorium makes it all the easier for him to dispose of their bodies. A special shelf in the basement is lined with the initialized urns of his victims. The rest of the world might deem him a maniac; he clearly sees himself as crusader against the jackasses of the world. Mean people suck. They also burn.
It should come as no surprise why Stanley comes to feel a kinship with his new apprentice, Jared, first in cremating, later in getting away with murder. Jared is your quintessential sullen emo teen. He’s in a constant state of moping. He doesn’t like his lonely war widow mom’s new Burt Reynolds-ish boyfriend. He has no friends. There is a cute redhead that takes a liking to him for some reason, not that it matters since the script forgets about her so quickly the two never have a scene together.
Like most societal outcasts he’s bullied to a criminal degree by a generic group of teenage punks straight out an afterschool special. So you just know sooner or later Stanley is going to assist him with a violent reprisal.
I understood why Stanley took a liking to Jared given his loneliness and some revelations about his own abusive upbringing. However, I never understood why Jared felt drawn to Stanley in the first place, why he practically forced himself onto this man for a job when he wasn’t even hiring. If a Goth kid shows up at your crematorium when you’re not even hiring insisting you let him work for you for free, would you not suspect his interest in a job that involves cremating corpses is for purely morbid reasons? Is it like a serial killer version of gaydar that brought them together?
It doesn’t take long for Jared to figure out Stanley is responsible for a string of recent disappearances in town, and he turns out to be surprisingly cool with Stanley being a psychopath because he’s well on his way to being a sociopath himself.
But what could have been a creepy character study, an Apt Pupil-ish thriller, or even a macabre Karate Kid serial killer coming-of-age tale flounders about almost aimlessly until finally reaching what is admittedly a fairly intense climax that is more of a how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this-jam scenario than what you would typically expect from the ending of a movie about serial killers.
Even the goodwill of the ending is somewhat undercut by an abrupt wrap-up that leaves the story feeling unfinished. Not to mention failing to explain why a character that witnesses their most heinous crime seems to be okay with it.
The one thing that kept Death and Cremation from becoming a total bore even when it appeared to be going nowhere fast was Brad Dourif’s unnervingly understated performance as Stanley, proving once again why he is one of our most underappreciated actors. Dourif may appear in some pretty bad movies from time to time, but you’ll rarely see a bad performance from him. This is one of his better performances of late, which is why it’s disappointing that the movie itself wasn’t more deserving.
2 out of 5