Starring G.J. Echternkamp, Matthew Tilley, Valerie Hurt
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Distributed by FilmBuff
Having greatly enjoyed Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, I was incredibly interested in getting a look at his debut feature, A Necessary Death. Filmed in 2008, it unfortunately sat on shelves for far too long – a surprising fate for something that generated a strong amount of festival circuit buzz a few years back – before securing DVD distribution.
The morbid premise finds a young documentary filmmaker fashioning a feature around a suicidal individual. His goal is to film the person’s story and culminating suicide as a means of justifying the self-inflicted fatality as a valid option – to potentially remove the negative stigma around it. He finds an appropriate subject in Matt, a young British immigrant doomed to die of a fatal brain tumor. The documentary crew find themselves surprisingly attached to Matt before long, and as they chronicle his story, they come to second guess their involvement in something so morally ambiguous. But that’s nothing compared to how unstable their subject actually turns out to be.
A Necessary Death – like Stamm’s Last Exorcism – is another slice of cinéma vérité that refuses to be completely confined by its naturalistic limitations. The characters in these films have strong arcs while the events feel a bit twistier than the majority of their found footage brethren. This isn’t something that merely pads along until its final moments, preferring to tell an enveloping story that forces its audience to ponder many uncomfortable issues.
And that’s the film’s greatest strength: tackling a discomforting topic with a gusto that never feels insensitive or exploitative. Instead it forces viewers to explore their own feelings on suicide while reminding us that there’s no easy answer.
Stamm’s film is accented by incredibly strong performances. This is a relatively unknown cast, but each performance is compelling and memorable. As our resident filmmaker, G.J. Echternkamp is appropriately sympathetic, oily and unlikable – sometimes all at once. Matthew Tilley, our “subject”, is tasked with an incredibly challenging role requiring him to be creepy – even while exuding endless charm. Once the script begins to get a bit dicey in Act Three, these actors carry A Necessary Death over some unfortunate hurdles of the contrived kind.
That’s my biggest gripe with the film: Once it begins taking shape and the central conflict is identified, it begins to play out exactly as one might suspect (or fear). It’s not an entirely believable conclusion – feeling far more manufactured than anything that came before it – and it actually undermines an otherwise serious discussion on the troubling subject. It’s also a bit overlong at 99 minutes, with some pretty large lulls in the story bogging down a somewhat sluggish Act Two.
A Necessary Death doesn’t entirely work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. Resonating genre films are too few and far between these days, and this is certainly one of them. Warts and all, it’s still well made and performed, the starting point for what I believe will be a long and flourishing career for Stamm.
It might’ve taken some time to get this sucker on DVD, but FlmBuff really packed this one to the gills with worthwhile features. The deleted scenes reel is a bit bland, but it’s pretty interesting to watch the 35 minutes of excised footage if only to see what was cut (most of it for good reason). Also included is an alternate ending that I think worked a bit better than what we got in the finished film. The set is rounded out by two audio commentaries: one with Stamm and the other with cast members Tilley, Echternkamp and Valerie Hurt. Both of them are quite good, and they’re exactly as you’d expect: Stamm is more straightforward and serious while the cast tell some great stories, offer their own insights into the production and are a genuinely enjoyable bunch.
A Necessary Death is interesting – there’s no getting around it. It also tends to overstay its welcome before, unfortunately, concluding in the least interesting way imaginable. But it’s a solid debut feature that’s confidently made and constructed. It also forces some uncomfortable questions upon the viewer while reiterating that there are almost no easy answers to be gleamed. For that I’d absolutely recommend watching this, perhaps with some tempered expectations.
3 out of 5
4 out of 5