What to Watch Verdict
'Death Of Me' is best when Maggie Q finds herself at the island's mercy, wrapped in its thick betrayals, but it's just not enough given how everything else plays to expectancies.
🏝 Maggie Q doin' what she do.
🏝 Spooky imagery woven into landscapes.
🏝 Didn't love Hemsworth's character.
🏝 Too much fakery.
With the COVID-19 induced delay of Spiral (no, not Shudder's recent queer horror release), Death Of Me is now 2020's only Darren Lynn Bousman release. Torture on foreign soil, rooted in folklore and offshore magic. Tourists find themselves celebrating local festivals and imbibing strange concoctions before their getaway goes all Turistas or The Ruins or Impetigore (the list continues). Writers Ari Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish wrestle with the horrors done unto outsiders in a village where secrets are withheld, as the question becomes how expertly this familiar narrative veers its straightforward course. Judging by my middle-of-the-road stance, that mileage will vary based upon each viewer's history with vacation-paranoid titles.
Christine (Maggie Q) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth) collect themselves after a particularly drunken night that's been, thanks to alcohol, completely blacked-out. Their ferry off a tiny Thai island is departing shortly, which causes the couple to rush their repacking. Christine forgets both passports, and they're denied exit. With time to kill, the partners attempt to piece the mysteries of last night together using photo snapshots, and that's when Neil discovers a disturbing video. One neither remembers recording. Did Neil murder Christine during intercourse, then bury her body in some resurrection ritual? Welp, may this be your warning against accepting unidentifiable drinks from untrustworthy sources.
You see, Neil is a travel reporter. Christine enjoys globetrotting alongside her man, but his mind is on documentation and studious research. They aren't the stereotypical "stupid Americans" who desecrate another land's beliefs or customs. Where other "invasion" horror films provoke rekindled colonialization ideas, where pissed-off locals hunt disrespectful caucasians, Death Of Me complicates Neil and Christine's relationship as an added foil. It's a film that never falls into the trap of portraying natives as monsters, by creating tension that could suggest Neil's knowledge around their trip and honored legends may deserve blame.
In spurts, the script's narrative flow struggles with exposition and plotline explanations. Bousman's directorial command is one of constant unknowns, depicted by the very first scene where Christine cannot recount her previous whereabouts or actions. Death Of Me is about two leading characters plucked from their element, left deciphering cryptic dialogue about a paradise where no one leaves, which promotes tedium over time. Everyone from Christine's in-a-pinch physician, the bartender who poured their shots of doom, to Alex Essoe as their Minnesotan transplant AirBNB host, is playing dumb. Even worse, we know they're playing dumb. Bousman wants us to understand. For some, this may draw suspense into an unwinnable conflict. For me? There's a lacking sensation of dread as inevitably takes hold.
That conflict continues because Bousman's handling of more creepified accents blends incantations with toxins and supernatural inexplicability. As Christine watches Neil strangle her, after aggressive public sex, untrustworthy fears nestle deep. When she pukes grass or reptiles, her damnation overtakes as the primary reason. As hallucination side-effect chatter starts to blur reality, faceless kidnappers inject needles into eyeballs as Bousman ramps his surgically archaic imagery. Luke Hemsworth emphasizes a predictable character who's chasing professional merits while ensuring we, the audience, never fully credit his innocence. Maggie Q does more heavy lifting between these physically retching horrors mentioned above and her character's advancing symptoms as the island's lore intensifies like a countdown clock towards an assumedly sacrificial fate.
Death Of Me goes all-in on gaslighting techniques, and that'll be the divisive factor when it comes to varied audiences. Darren Lynn Bousman finds transplantation in how cameras capture Thai landscapes, from beachside eateries to impoverished alleyways to an exotic relaxation intoxication that suggests no wrongdoings could be afoot. Maggie Q identifies the horror in Christine's circumstance, whether that's endured needle-piercing harm or an inability to translate international normalities (plus her own visions, like seabed corpses covered in barnacles). Where I'm lost is within a narrative that's always playing what's assumed to be coy, but instead, sustains this thin air of deception that never works to incite the disturbing imprisonment of Christine's marked soul.
Death Of Me will be available on VOD October 2, 2020.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
By Lucy Buglass