By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth and Alex Essoe
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Written by Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish
Midway through his classic 1982 travelogue BLUE HIGHWAYS, William Least Heat-Moon finds himself creeping up a narrow mountain road amidst a lightning-filled snowstorm and warns, “Be careful going in search of adventure, it’s ridiculously easy to find.” Set on a tiny, mostly overlooked island off the coast of Thailand, the occult shocker/relationship drama DEATH OF ME may have a very different climate and more supernatural, viscera-shellacked challenges, but the advice stands. Yes, travel outside one’s comfort zone is almost always an overwhelmingly positive experience, creating myriad opportunities for evolution by breaking the stasis of everyday routines and relationships. But when it goes sideways, that lack of roots and support systems can be totally disorienting and harrowing.
The married couple at the center of DEATH OF ME are certainly having an experience decidedly on the latter end of the spectrum. We join Neil (Luke Hemsworth) and Christine (Maggie Q) on the very last day of their vacation, scrambling to pull it together and make it to the last ferry out of paradise before a once-in-a-century typhoon arrives. The only problem? Their passports and luggage are missing, along with any memory of what occurred the night before.
Oh, but what is this? A two-hour video on Neil’s camera! It seems like a lucky break–a chance to digitally retrace their steps. Alas, the only break caught on camera is…Neil snapping Christine’s neck and burying her in a shallow grave. (Awkward!) The footage is so upsetting, Christine locks herself in the bathroom and begins retching up gobs of the local flora and fauna.
Nevertheless, displaying a degree of maturity and practicality to which most of us can only aspire, the couple choose to set aside the fact that one apparently murdered the other several hours earlier and focus on simply getting home, where they will presumably help a lucky marriage therapist finance a new pool. Alas, the islanders have other ideas, and DEATH OF ME soon takes on a kind of tropical WICKER MAN by way of SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW vibe, filled with surrealist nightmares, esoteric local lore, seriously creepy cult mania and high-stakes cat-and-mouse terror.
The underlying narrative logic is, to be frank, more than a bit convoluted at times. And that’s OK–better than OK, in fact, because the purpose of the film is actually not to provide a realistic portrayal of a frustrating vacation experience. If that’s what you’re looking for, skip DEATH OF ME and go read some Yelp reviews. The intention here is to explore what it takes to survive when one becomes unmoored—from reality, from trust, from safety, from familiarity.
In a recent interview with Hemsworth on this site, https://rue-morgue.com/exclusive-interview-luke-hemsworth-on-exploring-the-uncertain-scary-territory-of-death-of-me/ I credited both him and Q with achieving “one of the most difficult goals in acting: Authenticity, relatability and charisma amidst utterly surreal circumstances.” Q, in particular, is an utterly believable, spirited, dynamic presence, driving the film forward even in its murkiest moments. Add to that list Alex Essoe of STARRY EYES/DOCTOR SLEEP genre fame, who is wonderfully unpredictable and powerful as an American expat with an unclear agenda. (If you haven’t been watching Essoe’s fun, charismatic, informative weekly Instagram live movie nights on Fridays–co-hosted by Brent Eyestone of Dark Operative–get on that, stat. The actress is a treasure.) Kat Ingkarat likewise brings the fire in a mesmerizing turn as Madee, an islander who seems ambivalent at best about the superficial way tourists engage with her culture–a culture more powerful, transcendent and, yes, terrifying than its rotating cast of would-be adventurers can conceive.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (the SAW franchise, ST. AGATHA) from a script by Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish, DEATH OF ME deftly plumbs its lush, vibrant setting for the darkness that can sometimes await us in unexpected corners and along unforeseen edges. Pre-COVID, “global adventure tourism” was a $586-billion-a-year market. No doubt, seven-plus months into quarantine, many of us are dreaming of returning to that way of life. As we should, if the means remain. But for all their poise and good intentions and kindness, Neil and Christine remind us that we can’t tread in someone else’s water without creating ripples. And even in an increasingly interconnected world, those ripples can sometimes alert or awaken previously unfathomable things. Not all adventures, in other words, are the ones we choose—even, or especially, those “ridiculously easy to find.”