When the history of post-modern horror is written, one film will definitely be delineating as defining a whole new subset of scares. Call it 'gorno' or 'torture porn' (though neither label legitimately explains the concept), but James Wan and partner Leigh Whannell hit slick suspense paydirt when the introduced Saw to unsuspecting viewers. While the first film was really an exercise in tension, subsequent installments took the blood drenched 'games' idea to new nauseating heights. By the time of the final installment, the plots were all premise and preposterous death traps. Now, like a well-meaning mimic (even down to a similarly styled three-letter name), Die wants to mine some of the same trapped rat dread. While it starts out promisingly enough, by the end, we no longer care for any aspect of this flawed entertainment - not the idea, not the execution, and definitely not the link to previous betters.
Mark Murdock (Elias Koteas) is a disgraced cop with a drinking problem, an ongoing battle with psychological issues, and an internal affairs investigation which may strip him of his badge forever. While his faithful partner Sofia (Caterina Murino) refuses to testify against him, the flawed law enforcement officer sees the end of his career coming on. Then, without warning, he wakes up in a glass holding cell. He is surrounded by six other people - a playboy billionaire (Fabio Fulco) and the teen heroin addict (Katie Boland) he pays for sex. There's also an unethical psychiatrist (Karl Pruner), a distant spouse (Emily Hampshire) with a destructive gambling habit, and a doctor (Patricia McKenzie) whose guilt-ridden over the death of her daughter. All are the guest of a mysterious man (John Pyper-Ferguson) who offers them a chance to be reborn. All they have to do is roll a single die, and decide each others' fate...sometimes, fatally.
Die is like that familiar anecdote told to you by your dithering old uncle. You know where the story is going, find it mildly intriguing along the way, and then you mentally kick yourself for having invested so much time in something so odd, incomplete...and sadly familiar. For all the mood and atmosphere director Dominic James creates, the one thing he can't forge is narrative competence. Half the time we have no idea what is going on in Domenico Salvaggio's screenplay. The purpose of this 'game' and the reason our villain is giving each participant a chance to be 'reborn' makes little logical or pragmatic sense. We are supposed to read some manner of 'cult awakening' in what the baddie is up to, a spiritual epiphany of sorts via fear and dread. But since these people are all linked by their desire to commit suicide - or at least, with a depressed personal state that no longer cares about life - why would they find any of this thought-provoking? Or frightening? They've put razor blades to their wrists and guns in their mouths. Do you really think rolling a die and watching someone drown is going to move them?
Even worse, this meaningless motive comes completely out of nowhere. At least in something like Se7en, John Doe is on a personal crusade to get the world to 'wake up' to its abhorrently sinful ways. We get backstory, and with it, believability. Here, the villain has some manner of beef with at least someone he's captured (the psychiatrist who runs a pill factory out of his office, if memory serves) and a weird pre-credits memory that may mean something. Everyone else is either ancillary or connected in a way that doesn't pay off. Even worse, the confrontations are not presented within a logical pairing. The whore should be dealing with the man who pays her for sex. Likewise, the doctor should stand face to face with those who judged her over the death of her child, and the weakwilled husband with the sick child at home should be matching meaningful wits with the wife who gambles away everything they have. Instead, Elias Koteas becomes the conscience stand-in, chiding those who don't want to go along and admonishing those who give in too quickly. It's a decent performance, but a piss poor part.
The biggest problem with Die, however, is its own sense of self. From the title alone - channeling the three letter nostalgia of Saw as well as the double entendre of the killing implement used - to the holier than thou plotting, we are supposed to succumb to our character's plight and fear for their lives. Instead, we grow weary waiting...waiting for an explanation, waiting for a rationale, waiting for some kind of less than overt symbolism. The traps, the telling, the tired conversations between the villain and his prey are all so much a part of the process that we lose sight of what's supposed to be scary. Is it the possibility of death? These people don't really seem to care. Is it the throw of the die? We rarely get to see the outcome. How about finding out who's behind this? The ancillary female detective character Sofia only seems to care because of something that happened in the past. And all the secret society gobbledygook that gets thrown in at the end? It makes about as much sense as a teenager's explanation of how gravity works. Die is not poorly constructed, it's just disappointingly executed. The results are as forgettable as any wannabe fright flick.
While the film is full of darkness and shadowed lighting, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image does a good job of keeping the details intact. We can see what's going on, even if the characters claim they can't. There are not a lot of colors in this movie. Even the blood looks horribly desaturated. Still, the tones are sharp and consistent and the atmosphere lends itself to something scary. Sadly, the movie as a whole does not.
The bland Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix does very little for the film or its soundtrack. Attempts at using the back speakers for spatial effect fail, and the overall make up of the sonics settle directly in the front. The score does manage to make the multichannel effort seem worthwhile, but overall, the audio element here is generic and uninteresting.
Had it stayed strictly within the nauseating excesses of Saw (especially the latter, gore laced sequels) and abandoned all hope of establishing some kind of misery loves manipulation company, Die might have been decent. Not a winner by any leap of the imagination, but a noted member of a known subgenre nonetheless. As it stands, it promises more than it delivers and dawdles when it should sizzle. As a result, a rating of Rent It will be awarded. For those who don't mind a lesser suspense yarn, this might make a comfortable late night diversion. All others should be aware of where hype ends and reality begins. Die is not completely terrible. It's not terribly good, either.