Many movies have used that intriguing opener with characters that wake up someplace and can’t remember how they got there. (It’s a weirdly appropriate theme for 2020.)
Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Death of Me,” which opens Friday in select theaters, and on video on demand, does it one better.
In a hotel room on a small island off the coast of Thailand, Christine (Maggie Q) awakens. She’s smeared in mud, the room is wrecked, the TV blares news about an approaching typhoon, and her husband, travel journalist Neil (Luke Hemsworth, older brother of Chris and Liam), is face down on the floor.
He might be dead, but he’s not.
He drags himself up, looks around blearily, and says, “What happened last night?”
It’s a good question.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman – who made the second, third and fourth “Saw” films and “Repo! The Genetic Opera”— spends 94 minutes unfolding a horrific mystery along the lines of Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked with a Zombie” and Wes Craven’s “The Serpent and the Rainbow.” It’s surprisingly satisfying and neatly transcends its humble B movie origins.
The couple attempt to catch their ferry off the island, but find their passports and Christine’s phone are missing. Their luggage is somehow loaded on the ferry and taken away without them.
They head back to the room, where Neil looks at his camera to see if there are clues to the couple’s missing 12 hours. He finds a very long video.
It begins in a bar, where a curvy server brings mysterious local drinks to our drunken couple. Christine is given a strange necklace looping a black trinket. Neither Christine nor Neil can recall the scene.
Later, the camera is dropped on the ground where it continues rolling, capturing Neil having violent sex with Christine, then strangling her, and, finally, digging a hole and burying her!
From there, it’s a “finding out what the heck happened” story, as our heroes follow slender clues.
As the couple tries to get a handle on the insanity they saw, they’re hampered by the language barrier and the understandable distrust and awkwardness that arose between them.
With art direction by Noppadon Pheamboonsak, “Death of Me” makes incredible use of the beautiful island, capturing its flavor and honoring its culture while leaving mystery for Westerners.
A lovely beachside cafe suddenly turns into a nightmare of twisty corridors as Neil races around, searching for a suddenly-missing Christine.
Bousman handles supporting characters beautifully and authentically. They even include a token American (Alex Essoe, from “Doctor Sleep”), the owner of the Airbnb our heroes have rented.
A lesser movie would show locals acting suspicious, rubbing their hands together in evil glee, but here, anyone can be believed, or disbelieved, at any time.
Weird little moments, such as a fisherman clumping a pile of freshly caught fish on Christine’s doorstep, a table full of locals looking up and grinning at the same time, or seriously creepy masks worn by festivalgoers, contribute as well.
When the plot finally comes together, it happily avoids cheap twists and concentrates on strong, lean storytelling. (The screenplay is the brainchild of Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish, all movie veterans with few prior writing credits among them.)
It would be irresponsible to talk about “Death of Me” without looking at the possibility of cultural appropriation. At least one early review mercilessly slammed the movie for it, but the truth is somewhere closer to the middle, similar to Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” from last year.
Western characters, while sympathetic, sometimes are depicted as “ugly American” invaders, speaking only English (or making mangled attempts to speak Thai), frequently obnoxious or demanding, and somewhat entitled.
And though the Thai characters are depicted as strangers, Bousman seems to try to meet them in the middle; their beliefs may seem strange, but there are good reasons for them. It’s difficult to argue that Westerners come out ahead in this scenario.
Truthfully, “Death of Me” is no “Midsommar.” It’s not as artistic, nor as ambitious. It’s a good, solid B movie that will surely entertain viewers looking for a few jolts. In this day and age, that’s no small thing.
Death of Me
Starring: Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth, Alex Essoe, Kelly B. Jones
Written by: Ari Margolis, James Morley III, David Tish
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes