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SXSW Film Review: ‘This Is Your Death’

Variety logo Variety 3/11/2017 Peter Debruge
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Would you watch a reality show in which contestants killed themselves live on air? The screenwriters of “This Is Your Death” think you would, and they’re deeply disappointed in you. And so, out of deep concern for both your entertainment and enlightenment, they have written a dark social satire — serviceably directed by “Breaking Bad” baddie Giancarlo Esposito — in which they can have their cake, while you eat it, too. That means theatrical audiences (of whom there will be few) will have the chance to tsk-tsk as “real people” drown, shoot, electrocute, and otherwise off themselves, only to have the movie turn around and tsk-tsk them back for watching.

Those old enough to have lived through the first Golden Age of Television will recognize the pun in the film’s title — a riff on 1950s spirit-lifter “This Is Your Life” — while also remembering a time when even standard small-screen programming boasted more authenticity and respect for the common man than today’s so-called “reality TV” shows. “This Is Your Death” begins with a sinister spin on the state of such programming today, as the moment of truth on “The Bachelor”-esque elimination series “Married to a Millionaire” ends with the jilted runner-up grabbing a gun and shooting the man who rejected her, before turning the weapon on herself.

For Adam Rogers (a hair-gelled Josh Duhamel, looking his Ryan Seacrestiest), the moment is a wake-up call, and the next day, still shaken, he delivers a truth-to-power rant to porcelain-smiled James Franco on “Morning Show USA.” It’s a promising beginning, albeit one that skips over the niceties of narrative to lead with an “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” monologue clearly cribbed from Paddy Chayefsky’s infinitely superior “Network” script (it’s saying something that the film needn’t bother to establish its disillusion with the state of modern media, but instead feels comfortable assuming everyone in the audience is already on the same page).

Called in by boss Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen, ruthless) to face the network suits, Adam is surprised to discover that, instead of being fired, he’s being paired with a goody-goody producer (Caitlin FitzGerald) to host a new show, in which poor folks with suicidal intentions are encouraged to do the deed on live TV. According to the lawyer, the network can’t be held responsible, so long as they can prove they did nothing to aid and abet the suicide victims — except, that’s pretty much exactly what they would be doing by providing loaded weapons, carbon monoxide-spewing cars, and bathtubs (plus the promise of cash prizes) to their despondent participants.

Though Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel’s brazen, on-the-nose script implores audiences to be more empathetic to their fellow human beings, “This Is Your Death” deeply misunderstands depression, treating suicide as a convenient device for its pea-brained premise. “I don’t want to do a show that affirms death,” Adam tells Ilana in another pique of self-righteousness. “I want people to die for a higher purpose.” That’s all well and good when said deaths are abstract, as they are in Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel’s script, but how are moviegoers supposed to interpret the “reality” of this reality TV critique?

Certainly not by reading the cues of Duhamel, a Ken doll-like actor with all the gravitas of a daytime TV star. While he looks the part of a reality-show host, the part demands a series of implausible ethical about-faces Duhamel simply can’t sell: Would this guy really jump in front of a gun in the opening scene? Could he so easily be swayed into hosting a snuff-themed game show? And once he tastes the sweet feel of ratings, would he be so quick to compromise his values?

Though all the network characters read like two-dimensional phonies, and the sea-of-faces studio audiences come across even flatter (shouldn’t someone among them object to this crass sensationalism?), the movie supplies two supporting roles intended to disrupt the show’s bloodthirsty spell. First is Adam’s sister (Sarah Wayne Callies, acting her heart out), who works as a nurse, but battles depression. The movie has a plan for her, though it’s almost criminal that even this predictable twist can’t shatter the movie’s illusions about suicide. The other is a man named Mason (played by Esposito himself), who can’t provide for his family, despite working two jobs, but gets to have it both ways: a spectacular death and the film’s most self-important speech.

The best that can be said about “This Is Your Death” is that it makes you think, though it seems to harbor the illusion that its petty provocations are something new, when so many sci-fi movies (from “Series 7” to “The Running Man”) have tackled similar themes as relatively edgy, pulse-quickening thrillers. Esposito’s movie, by comparison, has a curiously behind-the-times feel to it: It’s cast mostly with small-screen actors, looks like early-aughts TV, and raises indefensible moral dilemmas that movies like “The Hunger Games” have long since rendered moot. But strangest of all, it doesn’t think you should be watching people take their lives for your entertainment. So don’t.

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