Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 April 2008
Source DVD Screener
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
A Necessary Death is sustained by a provocative premise: a filmed suicide. This is done with the pretense of a documentary (it is fiction), and the film makes some attempt to justify both the death (the subject will die painfully from a terminal brain tumor anyway) and the filming of it (to juxtapose self-inflicted death with painful physical deterioration), but the question of ethics remains. Despite much posturing towards journalistic integrity, A Necessary Death remains a mechanism built to climax with someone dying.
This is conceptualized for a student thesis by a young filmmaker named Gilbert. The nature of the concept disqualifies him from receiving funding from his school, and his resultant financial hardship is clearly established early in the film. This hardship is to ballast his justification for making a film such as this: his intentions are to seem more noble than they are exploitative because of his personal and financial investment. Once the finances are secured, Gilbert opts to find a subject via a craigslist ad seeking an individual who is planning to commit suicide in the next few months. The subject he chooses is Matt, a Brit who seems young and personable, but is dying from a brain tumor.
The question of ethics notwithstanding, it is possible, even meritable, for the film to function solely as exploitation. But it doesn’t – it’s standoffish exploitation at best – and the problem is in the characterization of Matt. He describes his brain tumor unfatalistically; he’s describing a condition, not his condition. For most of the film, he ruminates on his life and his interest in death, and the whole time he speaks with the same detachment, imparting his speech with clarity and not personality. You never get the sense that he’s actually going to die.
Matt is the fulcrum for the film’s intentions, capable of careening it toward either exploitation or persuasive journalism. The film is neither; it remains balanced, which is apt given that Matt is neither committed nor afraid of his fate. The film inherits his dispassion. I imagine this is the intent, as Matt is scripted blandly to make the premise less incendiary. I’m also inclined to note that I’m not condoning outright exploitation in this case, but exploitation does have its merits. Cannibal Holocaust, for one, is so aggressive in its exploitation that it’s not dismissible; it demands consideration. A Necessary Death, despite its provocations, remains timid and dramatized, ultimately favoring plot machinations to considering the issue of suicide more deeply.
Matt’s ultimatum is the sole provider for both suspense and conflict, and for the most part it’s sufficient in doing so. At the point a love interest comes in to play, and Gilbert’s directorial integrity is brought under scrutiny (he has become friends with his subject, but without a death he has no film and no opportunity to recoup his expenses), the film falters rather egregiously, and it reduces to a formula. This is fine enough, but this latent preference for plot subverts the thesis – which remains the most notable feature of this film – with goofy contrivances.
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