The title may sound like a certain sort of horror flick: one that features a slasher or a monster that sloppily devours human flesh with much enthusiasm, for example. But this film is not that:: the rather excellent indie thriller A Horrible Way to Die is actually several scary tales in one -- but none of them feature an insane slasher or a malicious monster. At least not the kind you’ll be expecting.
Seemingly inspired by old-school film noir, the early films of Terrence Malick, and modern-day psycho-thrillers in which horrible things happen in casual fashion, Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die is a two-tiered character study / road movie that doesn’t offer much in the way of glitz or cheap thrills, but does work exceedingly well as a cinematic noose that just keeps on tightening.
It’s the story of a wounded young woman named Sarah (Amy Seimetz) who recently got out of a truly abusive relationship, and now she’s intent on attending her AA meetings and getting her life back on track, albeit slowly. She strikes up a tentative romance with another former alcoholic called Kevin (Joe Swanberg) and the film soon begins to feel like a basic but heartfelt little dramatic piece.
...and then we switch over to the flip-side story.
Sarah’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t cheating on her, and it doesn’t seem like he was ever mean to her in any obvious way. He was (and still is, unfortunately) a stunningly prolific psychopath who has somehow managed to keep his activities hidden from Sarah. His name is Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen), and he’s one of the most fascinating psychos to hit the screen in quite a while. (Note: I’m friends with Mr. Bowen, full disclosure, but I sincerely believe he’s a great actor. See this film or The Signal or House of the Devil and see if you don’t agree with me. Plus he just won an award here at Fantastic Fest for his work in “Horrible.”)
In the “A” story we watch Sarah work her way through some harrowing memories of Garrick, even as she slowly gets more comfortable with Kevin. In the “B” story we see Garrick escape from a prison transfer -- in harrowing fashion -- and slowly trek his way across the endless back roads. One assumes he’s on his way to track Sarah down, but (like I said) the screenplay has a handful of unexpected twists and turns to deliver. (Simon Barrett’s script also won a Fantastic Fest award.) Bowen gets the juiciest role, clearly, but Ms. Semitz (last seen in the rather solid Bitter Feast) and Mr. Swanberg (one of the most prolific and talented indie-style actors working today) hold up their own end of the equation in very fine form.
Generally sedate and low-key, but peppered with frequent moments of gallows humor, shocking horror, and unexpectedly sincere “character moments,” A Horrible Way to Die is a crafty and calmly mysterious little road thriller that earns big points for simplicity, intensity, and plain old good acting.