This could have ended so poorly. A Necessary Death could have been an exploitative bit of filmmaking that used the subject of suicide as a form of audience manipulation. Instead, director Daniel Stamm holds off on passing judgment and allows us to exercise our own moral compass. There are no right or wrong answers; merely choices made by a small group of complex characters and the inevitable repercussions that follow.
I was enthusiastic about viewing this film after appreciating what Stamm did with the pseudo-docu-horror genre in The Last Exorcism. That film saw him taking a low-key approach towards the horror elements by largely focusing on the conflicted personalities of the characters. The result was a slow ratcheting of tension that ultimately paid off in a climax that polarized many viewers (for the record, I loved it). A Necessary Death came before that film (in 2008 to be precise) but finds Stamm in familiar territory and in firm command of his domain. If anything, the cumulative effect is even more devastating and will not easily be forgotten.
Stamm uses the faux-documentary style yet again but takes it one step further by presenting this as a documentary about the filming of another documentary. Let me explain. Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) is an aspiring film student who wishes to make a hard-hitting documentary about an individual's decision to end their life and all the thought that goes into executing that plan. After much cajoling, he convinces his regular cinematographer, Michael (Michael Traynor) and sound mixer, Valerie (Valerie Hurt) to aid him in the venture. Once they meet Matt (Matthew Tilley), an unassuming British fellow who is determined to end his life before succumbing to the pain of an incurable tumor, they think they have found the perfect subject. Filming all of this is Gilbert's pal, Daniel (Daniel Stamm) who wants to capture what goes on behind the scenes of such a tough project.
It's not hard to see just how Stamm got his hooks into me with that setup. The idea of a group of people following someone around as he goes about the final days of his life planning his own death, is an incredibly odd and compelling one. It gives rise to a barrage of questions. Shouldn't they try to stop him? Shouldn't they lay out all the reasons he has to live? By staying silent, aren't they indirectly causing his death? Heck, is any part of this even remotely legal? That last question is quickly answered in a darkly comic discussion between Gilbert and an attorney (short answer: it's legal...I think). All those other doubts are harder to assuage, thus providing the impetus for the entire film.
While Stamm displays finesse in almost every aspect of the production, the two primary weapons in his arsenal are a killer cast and a surprisingly off-kilter tone. Before we get into the performances, let me focus on the issue of tone for just a moment. A lesser filmmaker may have succumbed to the desire to let the seriousness of the subject dictate the mood for the entire piece. Stamm takes us in unexpected directions by placing the minutiae of the process front and center. This leads to scenes that revel in gallows humor before punching us in the gut with the realization of what we are actually watching. An early bit shows Gilbert and his crew looking over a stack of potential candidates and making matter-of-fact assessments like 'too boring', 'not actually going to do it'. I smiled even as a pit formed in my stomach; and it wasn't the last time that happened.
Of course, the key element to selling the reality of this piece lies in the central performances. The entire cast uses their real names for the production with the suggestion being that there is a little bit of themselves bleeding into their characters whether they realize it or not. Valerie shows herself as the audience surrogate through her reluctance to be engaged in the project. Michael finds the middle ground by going along with Gilbert's plan but being the voice of reason whenever possible. Gilbert is a much trickier character. He can be brash, energetic and endlessly manipulative. Thanks to a riveting performance by Echternkamp, his character arc is the most satisfying. Of course, not far behind is Tilley playing the subject of the documentary. He lends his character an odd likeability. I rooted for him even though I couldn't quite understand him.
For all its indie film trappings, A Necessary Death eventually betrays its true form. This is a small-scale Greek Tragedy featuring characters who are their own worst enemies. The final scenes, while shocking, are poetic in their own way. After preparing us for the horrors of death, the film demonstrates that there are worse things lurking in the hearts of the living.
Although shot in a full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the film is presented in a 1.78:1 format. If viewed on a widescreen TV, you can expect to see black bars on the left and right of the image. Given the hand held documentary style of the film, it's no surprise that the image looks a bit rough. This is likely intentional and nothing to be concerned about since it is still perfectly watchable at all times. There is the occasional shimmer due to aliasing and jerky motion blur in quick pans but neither is too distracting. This is not a sunny film and so the flat and muted color palette seems fitting. While far from pristine, the ragged look only enhances the film's realism.
The audio was presented in a Dolby Digital Stereo mix but was regrettably lacking any subtitles. Much like the visual presentation, the audio mix is what you would expect for the material at hand. This is a dialogue-heavy film that doesn't demand much dynamic aural flash. The entire cast comes through with clarity with no obvious defects marring the presentation.
For a small independent film, the release is graced with a number of compelling extras. First up, we have an extensive selection of Deleted Scenes (35:56). Besides providing extensions to some scenes that are present in the final cut, these excised bits feature a number of sub-plots that are just as enthralling as what made it through the editing process. Let's just say, Gilbert isn't shone in the most positive light. It's worth noting that the chronological presentation of the scenes (and the sheer volume of them), almost let's them play as an abbreviated companion piece to the central feature. An Alternate Ending (3:40) gives one of the principal characters a few extra moments to shine but overall pales in comparison to the one that was ultimately chosen.
We are also treated to 2 Commentaries. The first is a solo track by director Daniel Stamm while the latter features G.J. Echternkamp, Valerie Hurt and Matthew Tilley from the central cast. As you might expect, the cast commentary is a bit more entertaining as the trio have a breezy, jovial relationship. Echternkamp is clearly the ring leader and has more to say about the film but Hurt and Tilley seem just as engaging. Stamm's solo track covers much of the same information but with a more technical slant. He discusses the casting process and how the film's name came from a suggestion by Echternkamp (original title: Suicide Diaries). Although a bit quieter, Stamm's commentary is anything but boring. Fans of the film would have fun with either track. We close things out with 2 Trailers for the film.
A Necessary Death proves to be quite the confident feature-length debut for writer/director Daniel Stamm. His faux-documentary blurs the line between fiction and reality to take us on a harrowing but thoroughly engrossing ride through the darker side of humanity. If you can stomach the controversial central concept, then this film has much in store for you. Stamm and his dedicated cast and crew have created something very special indeed. Highly Recommended.